As a general rule, the person that I am meanest to, rudest to, most demanding of, less forgiving of, regularly show a lack of confidence in, think is most likely to fail at a given task, and am generally hard on is me.
I don’t consider this an inherently bad thing — I have a semi-productive relationship with my negative self-talk, anxieties, and impostor syndrome. When I can keep it at reasonable levels, it gets me moving more effectively than a general, non-urgent desire for improvement. It’s not the cleanest-burning fuel, but more often than not, it gets me where I want to go.1Important caveat: the amount of anxiety I’m talking about is more or less “standard human with an overactive inner life”; the kind that can definitely be overwhelming or cause second-guessing, but normally exists as low-grade background radiation. Clinical anxiety is a very different thing, and there’s no shame in getting professional or chemical help for this or any mental health issue.
One of the ways I harness these peccadillos productively (as opposed to letting them stun me into doing nothing, ever, for fear of bad outcomes) is with alter egos.
Alter egos and alternate personas have long been used by entertainers and other highly successful people. Beyoncé has Sasha Fierce; NFL/MLB double-all-star Bo Jackson famously never played a single down of football as “Bo Jackson,” instead literally pretending he was Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th movies; according to biographers, Steve Jobs perfected and embodied a “Steve Jobs, Apple CEO” persona that only tangentially resembled who he was when with his family.
It’s also a strategy that can be found in several books that are broadly about gamifying your life, like Steve Kamb’s (quite good) Level Up Your Life, Chris Hardwick’s (also quite good) The Nerdist Way, and Jane McGonigal’s (excellent) SuperBetter: The Power of Living Gamefully2She calls the concept a “Secret Identity,” but it’s the same basic premise., among others.
The premise is pretty simple: whenever you feel like you’re not the person you want to be, make the person you want to be up, and then pretend to be them. Who needs to know that you’re faking? And if it’s still you, are you really faking at all?
We already wear different personas by just existing in the world. The person I am when I’m alone with my partner is different from the person I am when running a workshop for 20 people is different from the person I am when I’m trying to squat twice my bodyweight. They are all me, but with different facets of my personality dialed up or down to suit the needs of the situation. This trick is an extension of that — it creates the necessary critical distance between you and your problems, and gives you an explicit, easy-to-embody persona to step into when you can’t do it “yourself.”
By becoming your you-but-not-you alter ego, you open yourself up to achievements and possibilities that regular you may not have thought possible; possibilities that “regular you” may have given up on out of hand. That is, if don’t think you can do something, make up an aspirational version of yourself who can — an embodiment of you once you’ve already reached your goals — pretend to be that version, and do the damn thing.
If you can’t be compassionate (or encouraging, or kind, or productively critical) with yourself, create an alter ego that can perform that emotional work for someone else — a someone else that happens to also be you. Be your perfect advice-giving self, and give that compassionate, empathetic advice to a version of yourself that will take it well, and then become a version of yourself that can use it productively.
If this all feels a little silly and self-helpy to you, I don’t disagree. It is. It’s also effective, and at a whopping five minute time investment, I strongly recommend you give it a try. And if you’re reluctant to try something for fear of it being silly, one trait your alter ego can have is to be someone who likes being silly.3As a profoundly silly person, let me just say: silliness is highly underrated, and it’s completely possible to take something seriously without always being serious.
Creating the alter ego
The creation exercise as I do it is an amalgamation of a few main sources: the three books I mentioned above (The Nerdist Way, Level Up Your Life, and SuperBetter), and performance coach Todd Herman’s alter ego framework, which you can listen to here.4Interestingly, all of these frame the exercise in some way or another in the context of superhero stories and/or role-playing games. Which makes sense — these are the two most common cultural touchstones we have for alter egos, and adding a twist of fantasy or heroism makes it a little more fun than your standard goal-setting exercise.
It has four steps: identifying your aspirations, identifying your limitations, creating a character, and identifying a trigger.
Identifying your limitations
What do you get in your own way about? What holds you back from getting what you want? What scares you? Where are you putting the brakes on because of fear or lack of self-perceived ability?
Congratulations, these are where your alter ego is the best at. Are you shy at networking events? Your alter ego walks up to groups of strangers and knows they can win them over easily. Have a tough time with procrastination? Your alter ego is laser-focused. Do you give into impulsive and undisciplined behaviors a little too often? Your alter ego is an iron-willed, no treats, wake up at 4AM discipline machine.
I don’t actually think the alter ego needs to be someone you want to be full-time, nor does it need to be the perfect version of you (think of the pressure!), it just needs to have the qualities that you need to get what you want, which in many cases can mean over exaggerating certain capabilities or traits past what would feel normal — by overshooting, the combination of regular you and the alter ego have a tendency to together express about the right amount of the desired trait.
Identifying your strengths
This is the inverse of the previous: to make your alter ego still feel like you, it has to have some recognizable characteristics — things you’re already good at, just amplified. Are you funny? Your alter ego is hilariously witty. Are you strong? Your alter ego is superhuman.
What traits, if turned up to 11, would make current you the best version of current you?
If you’re not sure what you’re good at, or don’t feel like you’re good at anything, you can ask a friend, or better yet, answer the question for yourself as if you were a friend answering it back to you. Alter ego training!
Here are a few guiding questions that I’ve found helpful, whether talking to yourself or someone else:
- What challenges have you seen me overcome successfully? Easily?
- What do I seem happiest or most at ease doing?
- How have I helped you/others?
- What do people compliment me on? (this phrasing is a little easier to deal with for both parties than asking a friend to compliment you directly)
Even if you just draw out banal surface stuff like well dressed or nice, that’s fine — can you use these things as a tool? As a confidence booster? Do they say something more general about your taste? Your put-togetherness? Your empathy? Your ability to blend into situations appropriately? Find the bigger strength in the little compliment, and amplify that.
Creating a character
The most effective characters (and that’s what you’re doing here; creating a character) have detail. Take some time to flesh out your alter ego’s physical characteristics and personality traits.
How do they sit? Are they cool and relaxed? Or alert and upright? How do they walk? How do they speak? What kind of words do they use? You can emulate a character or real person that already exists, or combine traits from a few (e.g. when I’m getting through a tough workout, I actively pretend to be a cross between Christian Bale’s Batman and golden-era Arnold Schwarzenegger).
As you decide on these traits, write them down for easy reference, and be specific. Chris Hardwick recommends making an actual D&D-style character sheet for current you and super you, and tracking yourself becoming them with experience points. Herman recommends creating a fictional origin story, like a superhero. McGonigal recommends creating a unique name.
The point of all of this documentation is to have a concrete, well-rounded sense of who this person is, because embodying them is very similar to acting, and to effectively act as a character, you have to know who they are in a more holistic way than “they’re better than me at getting up early.” Well, when do they get up? Why? What motivates them to do that? What does it look like?
If it feels too weird to make someone new up, an easy approach is an “alternate universe” you: you with a different, more heroic backstory (the radiation from air travel has turned you into SuperYou!), time traveler you from a future where you are already your better self (and therefore know it’ll happen to you), and so-on.
Identifying a trigger
It becomes easier to step into an alter ego over time, but as you get started, a trigger or totem can be helpful — something that helps you embody the character by being a trait or object that is unique to that alter ego.
The classic superhero option (but not the only option) is a costume change. I have different costumes for work, for hanging out with friends, for going to the gym. While most of these are functional garments and/or outward signals that I’m dressed to be in the place I’m supposed to be, they also serve as signals from me to myself about which version of me I am when I’m wearing them.
It doesn’t need to be a whole outfit — you’re not off to fight crime. Often a single item can do the job just effectively. Case in point: I wear my glasses when I’m writing, and it’s pretty much the only time I wear my glasses.5They’re pretty much just readers anyway. I wear a baseball cap when I’m working out, and it’s pretty much the only time I wear a baseball cap. I tuck my shirt in at the office, and almost never wear it tucked in in social situations.
Some other ones that can work well are locations (I’ve mentioned my gym alter ego before), rituals (most pro athletes have very specific warm up routines for this reason), posture, gait, hairstyle, and any object that you can carry or hold easily.
Bonus idea: Build a multiverse
I think a lot of the writing around creating alter egos focuses on superhero and fantasy stories as a lens because without them, the alter ego is too hard to believe. A single aspirational version of myself that is well-actualized, lacks my fears and limitations, and is completely capable of everything that I want to be better at? Impossible, unless I somehow also have superpowers.
For one thing, you’re making this person up, so feel free to also give them superpowers — make them super-strong if you want to get stronger (well I don’t know if I can deadlift 500 pounds, but StrongMe has literal super-strength, so this isn’t scary at all) make them telepathic if feel like your emotional intelligence is lacking, make them off-the-charts smart if you feel like you’re not smart enough for your role.
But here’s another thing: you can actually create as many different alter egos as you want. This is what I do, actually. I find that creating a variety of alter egos, each with their own personality traits and triggers, can be easier to get my head around and deploy strategically in situations where I most need them.
I don’t have one “SuperMe,” I have a variety: ScholarMe, who is a good, focused writer and an expert in everything I write about and never doubts his credibility or credentials to write a blog post about alter egos;6I have a different EditorMe who thinks ScholarMe is full of shit and should be fact-checked thoroughly, but if I don’t separate these tasks and personas, I don’t ever actually start writing. CaringMe, who is the kindest, most empathetic version of myself; StrongMe, who is a brutal, powerful, fearless strongman, and so-on. I step into each one in a different place; one alter ego for the gym, another when I’m in airports, a third when feeling anxious about meeting new people, a fourth when I’m writing, and so-on.
Another bonus idea: The trashbag alter ego
You can also create an alter ego to attribute all of your worst and least desirable traits to. Negative self talk? Impulsive behavior? Self-doubt? Those aren’t you, they’re Trashbag You, an alter ego that you intentionally never embody, a collection of your least desirable traits all in one place.
When negative self-talk is getting the better of me, I ascribe that voice the name and personality of that alter ego, and use it when trying to distance myself from the self-doubt — it’s not Coleman telling me that I can’t do something, it’s Trashbag Coleman. Is Trashbag Coleman right? Probably not, he’s a trashbag. Tell him to shut up.
I’m not advocating shirking personal responsibility for your actions —it’s all still you in the end — but instead suggesting a strategy to help you get some distance to see if those actions are aligned with your true desires, and to help you not beat yourself up over the inevitable personal failings we all make — is this something SuperMe did/would do? Or something TrashMe did/would do?
Using the alter ego
Now that you’ve got an alter ego (or a few) you’ve got to use ’em. This part is fun. If you’re doing it right, it should feel like play, like improv. Who cares what you would do in this moment, what would SuperYou do? How would they act?
It’ll take some time to build up to embodying an alter ego for long stretches, and you’ll probably never want step into them all the time. Pick small, high-stress or high-impact moments and extend from there. When you’re feeling like you’re going to give in, go into your alter ego. Would they give in?
“Would my alter ego do that?”
Even when you’re not actively embodying your alter ego, you can use them to spot-check your behaviors as a person that you want to be all the time, even if you’re not pretending to be them at that moment.
“SuperMe wouldn’t do that” can be a powerful mantra. Would they stick to their nutritional goals? Hit snooze? Take the easy way out of a situation instead of doing the hard-but-right thing?
More importantly: would they treat you harshly if you failed? Or would they be forgiving and compassionate?7Some people might need a hard-ass alter ego, but I’d strongly recommend making a compassionate and forgiving one up if possible. Would they berate you over a failure? Say unkind things to you that made you feel ineffective or worthless? Or would they treat you with love and kindness? What if you tried to give them a serving of negative self-talk—would they stand for that kind of nonsense?
You get the idea.
Killing the Alter Ego
Eventually, the conscious decision to step into an alter ego to get into the right mental state won’t be necessary, because it’ll just happen. It won’t be SuperYou doing those things, it’ll just be plain ‘ol you.
As I was thinking about and researching this article, I ended up reading a Times profile of RuPaul8This one, from the beginning of the year. It’s great. RuPaul is great. RuPaul’s Drag Race is great. — drag is maybe the most obvious non-fictional ‘alter ego creation’ activity that exists — and this quote about his evolving relationship with drag struck me:
[RuPaul] Charles frequently described his relationship to drag as “the Superman to my Clark Kent.” The first time he stepped into his drag persona, Charles felt fully alive, electric with a power to command attention and desire. One day his therapist told him he could be Superman regardless of his attire. “She said, ‘The power you feel in drag is available to you 24/7,’ ” he told me. That realization, he said, is what he is trying to relay in each season of the show, to both the queens and the viewers. Charles is rarely in drag these days — only for special occasions, and during the judging and elimination rounds on the show — a shift that he made about a decade ago.
Cary Grant has a similar (maybe apocryphal)9It’s on his wikiquote page, in any case. quote:
“I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until finally I became that person. Or he became me. Or we met at some point along the way.”
I think it’s valuable to try and incorporate your alter ego’s traits back into what you consider “you”, but this may not happen quickly, or ever. Speed is not important. Bo Jackson used his alter ego for his entire football career, and I think you and I are allowed to pretend to be Batman in the weight room for as long as is necessary, even if that means forever.
Eventually, though, you’ll probably outgrow the need for an alter ego to embody the traits you want to have, because you’ll have enough practice that it’ll just become you. If you’re Beyoncé, regular you can publicly “kill” your alter ego, but for us mere mortals, there’s no explicit next step necessary. Just fake it until you make it.