This is the second half of my interview with Todd Herman, a performance advisor to top athletes and business executives and New York Times Best-Selling Author® of The Alter Ego Effect.
Given Permission to Win
In high school, I was a state-ranked tennis player in the state of Florida. However, there was one kid I trained with I could not beat.
Matched against him one day, the coach took me aside and said, “I want you to be the biggest jerk after every single shot.”
For that match, I baited him, boasted, and said something obnoxious after every shot. After years of losing to this kid, I beat him in straight sets.
My coach knew what would get to my opponent, but he also saw that my strength as a relationship builder was hurting me on the court, I was avoiding conflict that ultimately cost me the match sometimes.
It was a potent moment for me because I’d just been given permission to drop all the baggage of my previous 17 years to be someone else on the court, and it worked dramatically to my advantage. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I’d learned to step into an alter ego. And don’t worry, I realized I didn’t have to be a jerk to win, I just had to stop feeling bad for the other player when something didn’t go their way.
Is Creating An Alter Ego Healthy?
An alter ego is about defining how you want to show up and borrowing someone else’s characteristics to activate the heroic self in certain aspects of your life. You can ask, “Who would be my biggest hero in this setting?”
As Todd’s practice was growing and people were taking notice, he was diving deeper into psychology books. Most of what he read seemed removed from reality. It was more theoretical, and not practical.
Then he came across the work of Harvey Dorfman. Renowned in the field of sports psychology, Harvey Dorfman’s work was super practical. He was out there working with athletes all the time, and it showed.
Todd began to see theories in the world of psychology that could hold up under the weight of practical life and some that could not.
One that broke under the weight of real-life experience was the single-self theory. The world of psychology, and some religious traditions, put forth the idea that to be healthy mentally meant having one single identity in all areas of their life.
Have you ever met a celebrity, public figure, athlete, or local newscaster in real life?
The most common response is, “Oh, they are a lot different in real life than I thought they would be.”
Yet, it makes sense.
In working with high-performing athletes, Todd could see his clients were very different off the field than they were on it. He wanted to help them cultivate both of those things so they can leave the wins and losses and not take it into their personal lives.
Around 2008, the psychology world shifted. Now research is accumulating that people who see themselves as having many selves and many roles are the healthiest mentally. Individuals trying to address every part of life with one single identity struggle the most.
Amazing Tool for Ambitious People
Alter ego is just one of these phenomenal tools that you can use. The thing that holds most people back in the early stages of anything is their identity. It is how you see yourself, your self-concept.
Alter ego is especially useful for ambitious people who keep bumping against their comfort zones. It helps you accelerate through the process of adopting a new role much more rapidly.
You get to build a new model of how you see yourself in this role. The traits, characteristics, or abilities of someone or something else — or many people inspire it. You attach yourself to it to race toward that new horizon of who you are going to be.
Celebrities usually put on some sort of character in the public eye.
There is a Netflix documentary on Brian Bosworth, the exceptional linebacker who played in college for Oklahoma and pro for the Seattle Seahawks.
As a well-known and heavily marketed player, people in the community recognized him. Being ‘The Boz’ became exhausting. He would be sitting in an ordinary diner in Oklahoma eating his breakfast, and someone would come up, shout “The BOOOOZZ,” and expect him to step into that game identity instantly.
A 21-year-old kid isn’t going to know how to handle this, but Todd would have given him this response to use:
“You are looking for ‘The Boz.’ I’m just Brian here today. The Boz shows up at the game, 1 p.m. on Saturday, so if you want to see him, buy your tickets!”
An alter ego allows you to talk differently and understand how these two worlds separate. When we realize that we play different roles, it enables us to talk in a different way.
The Four Layers of the Core Self
In The Alter Ego Effect, Todd outlines four layers of the core self.
Core drivers are parts of your identity you imported from groups or affiliations bigger than you. For example, gender, religion, or race. How and what you think those things mean about you can trap or release you.
Teachers, police officers, and military families will tend to look and act the same. Those are examples of core drivers in action.
Core drivers can be the insidious ways we get trapped, but they can drive us as well.
Beliefs, Attitude, and Perceptions of the World Around Us:
Beliefs are real — to the believer. Your belief is real to you but not real to me. Some of our beliefs naturally evolve as we gain experience, knowledge, and perspective.
Knowledge, Competencies, Skills, Behaviors:
How do we know we can do it if we’ve never tried? Past successes can drive us on or lock us out of trying new things.
The environment includes where you are, the people you’re with, and the tools you’re using.
All four layers of the core self will affect how someone is performing in an area.
When Todd is speaking, he sometimes asks, “How many people do not think they can speak publicly?”
Since public speaking is a top fear, quite a few people raise their hands.
Then he asks, “Do you ever speak to your kids?” Because that’s you speaking publicly to someone. In your mind, you’re making public speaking into a separate context when it’s already part of your life in other places. That insertion of a belief or perception into a context is not who we actually are.
Show Up With Intention
When we do something to impress or be liked, we give up all our providence and power to someone or something else.
This model is Todd’s useful way of showing people to operate from the core out. You decide how you want to show up. You act with intention about how you’re going to behave and not pretend to impress people.
An alter ego helps you show up in a more powerful way with intention.
The Three Hidden Forces of the Enemy
You have to define the enemy because if you don’t, it’s the scariest thing ever.
Tony Robbins talks about how we worry about what “they” are going to think or say. “I cannot do that. What would they think?” He then poignantly asks his client, “Who are ‘They’?”
When that client faced this enemy, she realized her terrifying “they” was basically a couple of people in her life and not an all-powerful army of influential peers.
Peak performance is advancing and enjoying the process along the way. Todd helps people advance toward a goal and milestone, but is not a therapist. While working with clients, he has noticed three prominent “soft spots” or stumbling blocks.
The three enemies are:
Past traumas and unresolved abuse.
Tribal Narratives and Core Drivers:
We don’t even realize that we are acting through the story of what we think it means to be an immigrant, a police officer, a farm kid, a tall woman, or however it is that we define ourselves.
Impostor syndrome is a buzzword lately but breaks down into one of two things.
- Excusing away any successes to dumb luck, accident, or fate.
- Being genuinely concerned that, even though you are competent, the world will one day knock on your door and tell you that you are not as good as you think you are.
A qualified professional or proven tools can help you clear those concepts from your mind.
A powerful tool you can use immediately is to look at the negative conversation you have or the thought that haunts you and give it a name. Link it to someone in your past and give it a name.
The moment we give form and substance to something, we can handle it. Once it has a name and a shape, we can deal with it, talk back to it, call it a name in our head, and tell it to go to the sidelines because it’s not helping right now.
A Natural Part of the Human Experience
An alter ego is an extremely natural part of the human experience. Every single person has already used this as a kid, especially during ages one to seven. These are the years we develop the fastest, learn the most, and develop skills.
As people grow into teenagers and adults, we think we’re supposed to act a certain way and put aside childish things, but history teaches us that our heroes and leaders used these tools.
Martin Luther King Jr. and Winston Churchill are two examples of leaders who engaged their creative imaginations. It allowed them to show up in the world in very powerful ways, something a lot of us hope to do.
If I wasn’t a believer about the usefulness of an alter ego (or several) before, I am now! And I hope you’ve found some value in the possibility of creating some for yourself too. We all deserve to understand how to be the best version of ourselves in a particular scenario without being in that mindset 24/7. I know my family appreciates when I switch from work mode to dad mode.
And, if you’d like to hear Todd explain all of this himself, which I highly recommend, check out the full podcast episode on any of your favorite podcast streaming platforms or watch the video on YouTube.