3 Words to Beat Your Doubting Brain

A few months ago I facilitated a multi-day planning session for a group of scientists in Michigan.

I’d worked hard to get the project…and worked even harder once I’d landed it. Many hours were spent on planning with the CEO, who was waiting for me when I arrived on the big day.

“Ready?” she asked, a bit expectantly.

I smiled at her, looked her square in the face and said “I sure am!”

The truth? I was nervous. Really, really nervous.

This was my first time working with scientists, working in “The Great Lakes State”, working with this exact kind of process. And there was a lot at stake.

And when I’m nervous, I tend to show it.

Yet I knew that in this case, as nervous as I felt, I couldn’t show it. I hadn’t been hired to be nervous. I’d been hired to use my experience and skills to do a job, one that I’d prepared for and was ready for.

My creeping doubts were not the CEO’s problem.

Instead of showing my anxiety I needed to act as if I had every second in control…as if I wasn’t feeling one single pang of anxiety…as if I knew with certainty that it was all going to work out amazingly fine.

I had to act as if.

We have a lot of firsts in our lives, times when we try something new or expand on a project, skill or activity.

We spend a lot of time worrying about how things will go…whether we will be able to pull off a complicated presentation on time, whether we will be able to handle our kids’ teenage years, whether we’ll survive our first time in New York rush hour.

Worry has found a nice, warm, safe home in the brain. Our thoughts go in millions of directions about the various things that can go wrong.

When this happens we often try to change our thinking. We affirm that we know what we’re doing, convince ourselves that we’re ready, tell ourselves all will be fine.

And sometimes it works.

But there are plenty of other times when the brain doesn’t quite buy it. It’s not ready for reprogramming yet, and prefers to battle this one out, forcing our fears into our thoughts in a steady stream.

And that’s when we need to forget about trying to change the brain and focus instead on our actions.

That’s when we need to act as if…and trust the brain to catch up later.

Acting as if means…

  • Showing confidence when diving into a  new project head first, even though our brain tells us there’s no way we can do it as well as the other guy
  • Walking into a meeting with our head held high and engaging in conversation, even though we feel like everyone around us is more accomplished, knowledgeable and smarter than we are
  • Arriving on the first day of a new job with enthusiasm and energy, even though we wonder if we actually snowed our new boss into hiring us

Acting as if isn’t about pretending to be more confident just for the good of others. It’s about changing our own thinking so that we are more confident in ourselves.

Great leaders are masters at this.

When we act as if, we go full steam ahead into a situation, refusing to let the doubts in our mind win over. Eventually, as our actions show that we actually know what we’re doing – our mind catches up.

It says…“oh, I guess I really could do this. How about that?”

These three simple words – act as if – work in all kinds of situations…new responsibilities at work, new hobbies, new commitments to give up a bad habit we can’t imagine living without.

It’s similar to another common phrase: fake it ‘til you make it.

But I like this one better because we’re not really faking anything. Acting as if isn’t really about “acting”. It’s about “action.” It’s about forging ahead (knowing we’re smart and prepared). It’s about learning from what went right so we can do it again next time. It’s about learning from what went wrong so we can do it even better.

No…acting as if won’t guarantee a victory every time…though sometimes we’ll get there.

Either way, that’s life. The tragedy is when we allow our anxieties to keep us from trying something we are truly ready for.

Like facilitating a multi-day planning session for a group of scientists in Michigan. Was it perfect? No. But did it meet the objectives? Sure did. Was the CEO pleased with the results? Sure was.

And now every part of me knows I can do it.

Even my mind…which eventually caught up.

This week…

As you embark on doing something differently for the first time, recognize the doubts and forge ahead anyway.

Act as if. Your mind will catch up.

Now go do good…and do it well.


20 responses to “3 Words to Beat Your Doubting Brain”

  1. Shannon Avatar

    Your article came this morning at the precise second I needed it. Thank you!

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      My pleasure – and I’m so pleased to hear it…thanks for sharing!

  2. Scott Holzschuh Avatar


    Your approach is similar to professional athlete’s who “see” the shot before they take it. They see and “act as if” they hit the perfect draw before striking the golf ball. (We all know they don’t do this perfectly, but the practice, and hard work they put in before hand let’s them succeed often in this approach.) Your diligence and effort prior to this meeting with the science geeks put you in a position to let your mind not only “act as if”, but you had nurtured a deep seed of confidence that sprouted out of the soil of doubt and anxiety. It’s kind of like faith – an assurance of things hoped for, a conviction in that which is unseen. You had faith in your preparation and your God given talents. Good for you and thanks for encouraging all of us today!

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Scott. It’s funny you use this analogy because I’m realizing this is the exact process I also go through at the gym. As a weight-lifter, sometimes I can’t imagine how that barbell will actually get over my head – but then I just go for it, know I’m prepared and keep my brain out of it. Love your reply!

  3. Kenroc Avatar


    You’re right on time with this blog…I had some challenges this week and this is definitely applicable. Thanks for the good word!

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      Glad I could help – and trust me, I only figured it out from all those times I let my brain get the best of me! Best of luck dealing with your challenges and thanks for giving this a read…

  4. Pam Avatar

    Perfect timing! Tough decisions require courage. Decision made, implementation next step of courage/strength – acting as if in spite of the lack of courage. Very grateful for peer leaders who have exhibited this characteristic all my life.
    Thanks, Deirdre I have a big “acting as if” this next week! Action taken . . . now the courage and leadership – easy to say challenging to do.

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      Thanks for this, Pam…it really is about courage…and when our subjective mind can’t get there, our objective bodies can just forge ahead with abandon. Best of luck with your “acting as if” this next week!

  5. Patricia Costa Avatar
    Patricia Costa

    Thank you again Deirdre for another wonderful tip in making our lives better.
    Sometimes (maybe most times!) my brain doesn’t want to listen but the concept of “act as if” is a good tool. Our thoughts generate our actions and this is a good way to retrain our brain.

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      My pleasure – glad to add another tool to your toolbox! Thanks for commenting!

  6. Denise McMahan Avatar

    Thank you for the much-needed pep talk, Dierdre. I really did need to hear that today. My work life is so full of first times, I sometimes yearn for the same old, same old. Doubt is a constant companion so I’m going to try your “act as if” next time. Thank you!

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      So glad this helped, Denise! I hear you on wanting the same old sometimes – it’s so much easier and more comfortable! Good for you for taking the new stuff on anyway – and best of luck!

  7. Natasha Avatar

    I love how you explain that acting as if is not acting or faking, it’s taking control over your anxiety. Being nervous is normal when facing something new and the best thing to do is not chicken out (although we may be tempted to) but to stretch that comfort zone until we have a new comfort zone.

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      I love the way you put that, Natasha – that it’s taking control over the fear itself. Nicely said! Thanks so much for your great comment…here’s to newly expanded comfort zones!

  8. Hanna Cooper Avatar

    Love this, Deirdre. The sheer act of practicing strengthens not only our skills but our mental wiring so eventually it’s definitely more than acting or faking, and becomes the real deal! Thanks for the real world examples!

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      Absolutely – I really do believe that things that wire together, fire together in the brain…sometimes we just need to get creative about how we change the wiring. Thanks for giving the post a read!

  9. Heidi Hancock Avatar

    This takes me back to my acting roots and the central question around which a character is built. “in this situation what would this character do.” Not what would I do in this situation. From that point it becomes a matter of imitating the actions that can bring on the emotions until it all falls together and feels ‘right.’ We do wear different characters and portray different facets in our various roles. Great tips to keep “in character!”

  10. Emily Davis Avatar

    This describes so much of my work… in fact if I’m not a little nervous I know I’m not on top of my game in some way. I want people to love the work and services I bring to them. I find that if I operate as “if” long enough I start to integrate that confidence, but am still cautiously optimistic for future work. Great post!

  11. Mary Avatar

    Thank you for this post. It is very relevant to my life right now. You are awesome. 🙂

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      Right back at you, Mary! Thanks so much for giving it a read, and taking the time to comment. I’m so glad this fit your current situation – best of luck!