Home All Not good enough? Not smart enough? Not pretty enough?

Not good enough? Not smart enough? Not pretty enough?

written by Louis Alloro 29 April 2009

Louis Alloro, M.Ed., MAPP '08, is a cofounder of a 6-month Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology Program, Fellow at the Center for Advancement of Wellbeing at George Mason University, and founder of SOMO Leadership Labs, a community intervention. Web site. Full Bio.

Articles by Louis are here.



Round & Round & Round It Goes

The voices in our heads can be real buzz-kills. “I’m not whatever enough.” I should be (doing) X, I should be (doing) Y, I should be (doing) Z.

Some call this voice “the gremlin” or saboteur. Others look at it is as a radio station that plays recurring tunes of self-limiting beliefs embedded into our subconscious minds.  Whatever you call it, these voices have harmful effects.  Positive psychologists sometimes suggest that it is our own, self-deprecating mind chatter which holds us in the bonds of ordinance. Our thoughts and belief systems can become our realities.

Summer Limiting beliefs lead to procrastination and laziness, dampen and destroy dreams, and bring down morale. Successful people who exhibit high levels of grit have learned to combat these limiting beliefs by changing the hardwired thinking patterns – replacing them with more constructive and positive ones. This takes attention, intention, and will.

How Do People Stop The Voices in Their Heads?

Journal1) Journaling.  Students in seventh grade were asked to write about an important value—like being smart (or an unimportant value in the control group) for just 15-minutes several times throughout the year. The intervention improved the end-of-semester grades for the African American students and reduced the racial achievement gap by 40% in the experimental group, presumably by lowering the self-threat associated with confirming the negative “not good/smart enough” belief systems associated with stereotype vulnerability (see work by Claude Steele). Just this week, researchers noted that improvements continue through eighth grade. The students who benefited had nearly a half-point higher grade point average than struggling peers in the control group.

This middle-school intervention study was run by researchers Geoffrey Cohen (University of Colorado), Julio Garcia (Colorado), Valerie Purdie-Vaughns (Columbia University) and Nancy Apfel and Patricia Brzustoski (Yale) and focused on journaling.

2) Focusing on Mindset and Learned Optimism.  Anther answer to stopping the voices is to actively focus on your growth mindset, as Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck would suggest (see Got Grit? Start with Mindset by Emiliya Zhivotovskaya and “Brainset” – Neuroscience Examines Carol Dweck’s Theory by Nicholas Hall).  At an even more basic level, people can counter the voices by self-training themselves in learned optimism self-talk as founder of positive psychology and University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman would suggest (see Learning Optimism by Doug Turner and Is feeling better as easy as ABC? by Nicholas Hall).

Microphone3) Focusing on Positive Self Thoughts. Psychologists Shelley Taylor and David Sherman suggest in a paper last year that the processes surrounding self-enhancement and self-affirmation are the key to how psychological health is maintained, or restored, after a threat. It is also key in fueling the ability to set and maintain energy around goals.

4) Activating Hope. Believing that you have positive strengths and talents allows you to feel good about yourself, even through stressful times, because you can pull from a bank of resources that make you uniquely you. A heightened mindfulness of your general attributes may facilitate performance by boosting your sense of self-worth—what Diane McDermott and C.R. Snyder (1999) call mental willpower. This can start simply by making a list of accomplishments you have had in your life.

Specific Techniques

While you are probably way past middle school, some of your internal gremlins may have lingered in one form or another since then. Ready for them to be gone?

I work with clients all the time to change their belief systems. Just the other day I was speaking with a woman who says she wants to meet the man of her dreams. When I asked her if she thought it what possible, the silence was deafening. It all starts with the belief.

Saying “Could.” Another client of mine is going through career transition. He has all of these belief systems that tell him what he should be doing. One way to easy some of that “should” anxiety is, according to mainstream author Louise Hay, to make a list of them.  For example, “I should be making over 6 figures, I should be working in finance, I should be wearing a suit and tie to work everyday.” Then, reread the list, but this time replace “should” with “could” and then ask yourself, “So why don’t I?” Usually, the responses are “because I don’t want to” and then viola! Some of the self-inflected stress is removed and space is cleared to proceed in creating the life you most want to live.

Reframing in the Moment.  There’s also the work of Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte (The Resilience Factor) on reframing using real-time resilience. Whenever you’re in a situation where you want to feel better, you can work through some mental calisthenics, like these (see The A.P.E. Method to Get Out of a Bad Mood by Senia Maymin):

“A more accurate way of seeing this is …” (Look for alternatives.)

“That’s not true because…” (Look at the evidence.)

“A more likely outcome is … and I can do … to deal with it.” (Consider the implications and perspective.)

Be bold and be daring as you experiment with your life—be open and willing to see what works best for you. And perhaps even ask your friends and coworkers for some help and accountability.



Carson, R. (2003). Taming Your Gremlin (Revised Edition): A Surprisingly Simple Method for Getting Out of Your Own Way. Collins Living; Rev Sub edition.

Cohen GL, Garcia, J., Purdie-Vaughns, N., Apfel, N., & Brzustoski, P. (2009). Recursive processes in self-affirmation: Intervening to close the minority achievement gap. Science, 324, 400-403.

Hay, Louise, L. (1999). You Can Heal Your Life (Gift Edition). Carlsbad, CA: Hay House.

McDermott, D. & Snyder, C.R. (1999). Making Hope Happen: A Workbook for Turning Possibilities into Reality. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.

Reivich, K, & Shatt?, A. (2002). The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. New York: Broadway Books.

Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape the intellectual identities and performance of women and African-Americans. American Psychologist, 52, 613-629.

Taylor, S. & Sherman, D. (2008). Self enhancement and self-affirmation: The consequences of positive self thoughts for motivation and health. In Shah, J. & Gardner W. (Eds.) Handbook of Motivation Science (pp. 58-70). New York: Guilford.

Images: clipart and Gremlins courtesy of Inti and moleskin courtesy of to01

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Scott Asalone 29 April 2009 - 11:12 am

Love this article. Great reminder of the power of explanatory styles and belief systems. So, how do you help individuals realize their belief system is focusing them on the wrong things? I recently offered a workshop on explanatory styles in a financial service organization. The most powerful moment was one advisor admitting the she use to “say” all of the right phrases, but one day admitted to herself she didn’t belief them. It turned her life around. What do you suggest to help people see their negative explanatory styles so they can begin to change them?
Thanks again for the article. Nicely done.

Job Seekin' Jack 29 April 2009 - 11:24 am

I’ve achieved so much in my life but at the same I feel like an abject failure. I live the title every day. Marty was right on about learned optimism and though I have sporadically practiced it for years starting with Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck, it hasn’t fully become a real habit. Having just lost my job and being kept around to train my replacement, I don’t feel smart enough or strong enough or together enough or even handsome enough to succeed. I see doom around the bend when the money runs dry. I’ve lived in a homeless shelter in the wintertime and I can tell you, it is no picnic. You have to fend off people that want to steal from you or violate you.
Thank you for a really insightful article.

Leanrainmakingmachine 29 April 2009 - 11:32 am

These are very challenging issues. I believe most people struggle with these all their lives, no matter where they sit on the socioeconomic scale. Thus, the guy in the $25 million apartment in NYC laments that they guy across the way has it made, cause he’s in a $40 million apartment, and he starts doing the “I can’t; I should have, I’m not smart enough, lucky enough, determined enough, I shoulda,coulda, woulda, etc., ad nauseam…” The noise starts all over again.
I’ve found one tactic that helps me substantially and is very PP PC.
I’ve created a written list of “accomplishments” –what I’ve overcome, done, tec. The list takes nothing for granted: e.g., “I graduated from high school despite obstacles, I’ve exercised often, I’ve been generous with others, I’ve given blood, helped the poor, lost weight, got into a college, attended and been active at church, married a wonderful woman, etc..”
And, it is also in the form of a gratitude list– I call it “A Gratitude and Victory Journal”–it affirms I’m grateful for both the talents/gifts that permitted these accomplishments and for the accomplishments themselves and all those who helped in any way. Then, I say explicitly in writing: “Given all this, I am well positioned for anything I choose to pursue with passion…”
I try to read this every day when I arrive at the office….It is pos pysch for happiness and for banishing the demons to spend the day in someone else’s head…..:)

WJ 29 April 2009 - 12:40 pm

Louis, You missed the biggie – MINDFULNESS. You might like the new definition I’m playing around with

“a mental state of calm awareness of the present moment marked by acceptance, openness and curiosity towards your thoughts and feelings rather than judgements of them”

My coaching experience suggests that all the good ideas you talk about can be augmented by mindfulness. eg See Kirsten Cronlunds article https://positivepsychologynews.com/news/kirsten-cronlund/200903151652

You can check out some more research on mindfulness at http://www.i-i.com.au/acceptional/researchers.html

Sherri Fisher 29 April 2009 - 12:40 pm

Hi, Louis-
Great connections of research from a broad range of topics!

I think this is the heart of what most people need to address: (paraphrasing you to start…) If someone replaces “should” with “could” and then asks, “So why don’t I?” and gets a huge list of reasons why, all the real-time resilience in the world may not help, at least not right away, and not without a coach or even a therapist.

I have clients who are quite expert at “So why don’t I?” The answer usually is some sort of secondary or short-term gain. Learning what that is for yourself is an important first step before APE. Otherwise the confirmation bias can make it very easy to be stuck in the same place but just saying different words.

Regarding the journaling study, what do you think mediated the outcomes? That the kids were writing? Or might it have been something else? Do you suppose the content of the questions is as or even more important than the communication modality?

You really got me thinking 🙂

Thanks, Sherri

Chuck C. 29 April 2009 - 1:15 pm

Thanks, Louis Alloro, for the great article.

Margaret 29 April 2009 - 5:32 pm

Louis – In working with coaching clients I ask them early on to identify their top 5 Gremlin Conversations and then work on ways to not necessarily banish them forever, but to tame them (e.g. – not listen to them so loud or so often). I love your suggestions from PP!

Another PP exercise that is nice antidote to the Gremlin is Best Possible Future Self. Before I have the client do this writing assignment I lead him through a guided imagery exercise where he imagines it is 20 years from now.

Sometimes when a client starts going down the Gremlin rat hole I’ll simply ask: I didn’t know your Gremlin was paying for your coaching session today. That generally elicits a laugh and a snapping out of it.

Steve 29 April 2009 - 7:29 pm

This is just one great article. I have used this post as an inspiration for a post at my blog. This article is going to be helpful to many of my readers and customers, not to mention that I will also be drawing much value for myself 🙂

Louis Alloro 29 April 2009 - 9:03 pm

Scott, great question! How do people see that their belief systems aren’t really working for them much anymore? I think one of the keys in getting clear on the mind chatter is thinking about where you (or the client) wants breakthroughs – and then if you (or they) believe those breakthroughs are possible. The process has to be kept real personal, even in the workplace, because belief systems are just that – real personal.

Thanks for the positive feedback!

Louis Alloro 29 April 2009 - 9:10 pm


Wow. Thank you for your transparency and honesty. I’m sorry to hear of your recent job loss. After spending time grieving, you’ve got to pick yourself up and start planning for what’s next. What do you want? What does it look like?

As for being smart enough and strong enough and together enough: YOU ARE. Believe it. And yes, it’s okay to fake it till you make it. Sometimes, the most successful people do, too!


Louis 29 April 2009 - 11:37 pm


Thanks for the suggestion on the Gratitude & Victory Journal. I love it. And I’m happy to hear that you’ve worked it into your daily routine as a reminder that yes, given all this, you can conquer whatever you’d like (that’s the key right, you gottawanna).

I agree that the voices in the head affect everyone – regardless of socioeconomic status. We do have the tendency to compare ourselves “up” (noticing what we don’t have) as opposed to down (being grateful for what we do have, over others). How do you suspect we become better at this?


Louis Alloro 30 April 2009 - 9:37 am

Dear Wayne (aka Mr. Mindfulness),

I’m not sure I missed the ‘biggie’ – but instead, see how all that I write point back to mindfulness. Recognizing, journaling, reframing all involve a bit of consciousness and mindfulness as inherent parts of the practices.

Love your definition. And thanks for sharing the resources.


Louis Alloro 30 April 2009 - 9:46 am

Sherri – Glad I got you thinking. Good question regarding the outcome. Personally, I feel it is a result of the topics the kids were writing on – values associated with their positive self worth. What do you think?

Take a look at the NYT article regarding the research: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/17/science/17esteem.html?_r=2


Louis Alloro 30 April 2009 - 9:47 am

Chuck C – Glad you enjoyed the article. Thanks for stopping by!


Louis Alloro 30 April 2009 - 9:49 am

Margaret – Great suggestion with the Best Possible Future Self exercise. What a perfect and natural fit to help tame the gremlin.

And love the question about who’s paying for the coaching session–real poignant!

Thanks for sharing,

Louis Alloro 30 April 2009 - 9:54 am


Glad you found inspiration. Can you share the URL to your blog with us? Would love to see!


WJ 30 April 2009 - 11:35 am

Louis, a big aspect of mindfulness is acceptance – you don’t have to reframe. That’s hard work. The irony is that research shows that by accepting is easier to reappraise (see Kirstens article)

Leanrainmakingmachine 30 April 2009 - 11:50 am

My experience is that a regular practice of gratitude journaling (I don’t stop at 3 blessings, but its the same idea) is very useful in determining which direction your mind chooses in doing comparisons. I try to do it several times a week. I also pray prayers of gratitude in the shower every morning—so, I have a daily morning practice of gratitude which hopefully sets the tone for the day (often, but not always, successful)
Also very useful is work with others who are less fortunate in the material life that American society measures and strives for. If you are middle class or higher, it’s tough not to see the truth if you’re at a shelter serving folks suffering from alcoholism, severe depression and bi polar disorder..
Moreover, I seek to banish entirely the whole notion of comparison–I have found true the aphorism: “Compare and despair…”
We are all on different journeys which we started at differerent places. We each have different demons from whom we run and different beacons to which we sail. Who am I to say whose journey is “better”. After all, life is full of materially less affluent folks whose lives are full of joy, happiness, love and meaning. By contrast, I’ve known folks on the Forbes 400 list who were angry, loveless, lonely, little people imprisoned by their wealth and addicted to even more wealth.

Ultimately, though, I think its important, first, to be aware that you have gremlins and understand what they’re saying, second, to be aware/believe that there are ways to banish those gremlins to gremlinland; third, to decide that you want to so banish them; fourth, to seek assistance/knowledge in doing so and, fifth, to take the actions regularly necessary.
Your article helps us all with all of those steps. Thanks again..

Louis Alloro 30 April 2009 - 7:30 pm

Wayne, I agree that acceptance is huge. James Pawelski calls it the “yielded life”. Accepting what is as it is and then pushing forward as it could be. Thanks for the reminder. I should have included it! Next time…


LLnL 1 May 2009 - 8:00 pm

I really like this article. No one teaches what to do with the inner voices. You just buck up and deal with life, but if the negativity is strong and you don’t have the techniques to deal with it you will get burnt out or suffer from debilitating depression. Thank you article.

Joan Young 3 May 2009 - 7:10 pm

Thank you for an inspiring look at a topic very near and dear to me. In my own growth process, as well as in working with students, I am often reminded of the power of the “inner critic.” Sometimes I am mortified at the contrast of how we can say things to ourselves we would never utter to another person. I wrote about my own battle in a blog post a couple months ago.
At the time I was in the middle of reading Barb Fredrickson’s book, Positivity and practicing an exercise she cites as adapted from the Penn Resiliency Program. The technique, which I am sure many are familiar with, involves writing down typical critical inner voice comments on index cards and then randomly picking the cards, disputing each statement aloud, giving the facts. For me, a self-admitted recovering perfectionist, this strategy helps me see the illogical conclusions that my inner critic is so willing to devise.
Once again, thanks for your article!

Louis 12 May 2009 - 12:50 pm

LLnL –

Glad you got some good tips for taming from this article. We ALL have to deal with the inner voices. It’s part of being human, I suppose. Coaches certainly can help in the process!


Louis 12 May 2009 - 12:54 pm


Thanks for reminding us that contrast: what we say to ourselves vs. what we say to other people. Consciousness and awareness are the first keys.

Your students are blessed to have such a forward thinking teacher-


Stephanie Kiser 1 November 2009 - 9:30 pm

Dear Louis,
I really enjoyed your article. I am currently enrolled in a Positive Psychology class at NCSU and also wanting to better my own mindset and gain better control of my negative thinking to turn it around into positive thoughts so that I can “reconstruct” my mindset and the way that I think.
My question for you is this, by following your suggestions to replace these negative thoughts with more positive thoughts, are there specific statements that you have found work best with people that you work with? I have a list of statements in my wallet to say to myself when I am having negative thoughts circling in my head and these sentences are not working. Perhaps they are not aspiring hope within myself. Or maybe I am not focusing enough on my positive self thoughts? I try to tell myself over and over again the good things that I do, the things that other people tell me that are positive about myself. BELIEVING them is the key. What if we are saying them and thinking them, but not believing them deep down and not knowing you are not believing them? Thought processes are very interesting to me academically and personally, and I want to know how to better myself, but also to learn more about it in an academic way so that I can learn and therefore when I am older and settled into a psychology-related career I can help others change their thought processes. If you could write me back, with some suggestions, I’d appreciate it! Thank you,

Jai 22 August 2010 - 2:07 pm

Nice article, I think it also helps to be with positive people and avoid ones who lower your self respect.

Louis Alloro 23 August 2010 - 12:54 pm

Thanks, Jai! What are some of your strategies for doing so?



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