The Batman effect: Can an alter ego help you to overcome anxiety at work?

The Batman effect: Can an alter ego help you overcome anxiety?

Adele and Beyoncé have something in common off-stage: early in their careers, they both created an “alter ego” to cope with stage fright. For Beyoncé, it was the super-confident, super-sexy Sasha Fierce. For Adele, it was Sasha Carter, a combination of Sasha Fierce and country music singer June Carter. So how is this information useful to you? Well, if you suffer from anxiety at work, or don’t think you’re good enough to get the job you really want, then creating an “alter ego” can help you to overcome your fears. While the so-called “Batman effect” has been studied extensively in child psychology, it can also be an amazing tool for the professional world. We spoke with an expert in psychology, as well as a professional who has used this technique to gain confidence at work and in his personal life.

An alter ego for managing anxiety?

If fear or anxiety is holding you back in your professional life, it may be time to don a superhero cape. Not for a costume party, though, but to take advantage of the Batman effect, a technique that urges kids to think about what Batman (or any other real or fictional character they admire) would do when faced with a situation they find overwhelming or don’t know how to handle. But this strategy isn’t just for kids. According to Ethan Kross, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who has been studying the subject of self-distancing for years, this technique can also be applied to the professional world –– and with impressive results. Putting yourself in the shoes of a character you admire isn’t just a simple game: adopting an alter ego can help you to gain a certain perspective that will allow you to see the situation in a more objective and realistic way. This can be very useful at work, especially if you tend to dramatize issues and dwell on your problems.

When faced with a problem, the tendency is to fixate so much that it’s hard to see the big picture. Elisa Sánchez, an occupational psychologist, explains that externalizing can allow you to take a step back and deal with a situation in a rational and calm manner. This approach also allows you to change the relationship with your emotions and to develop more self-control so that problems and conflicts become more manageable and less stressful.

A recent study shows that these techniques can reduce anxiety levels, as they can help to reduce the heart rate and blood pressure, both of which often go up in challenging situations, such as when giving a speech.

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Who benefits most from the Batman effect?

This technique isn’t new. You’ve probably heard the expression, “Fake it until you make it”, or the idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy. For Sánchez, all these beliefs are connected. There are even similarities in traditional psychology with the Pygmalion effect in educational settings, which holds that high expectations can lead to improved performance. Essentially, all of these beliefs are based on the idea that “if you think you’re going to fall, you’re probably going to fall; on the other hand, if you think something will go well, it’s more likely to go that way.” In this respect, she believes that by creating a character, you allow space for positive expectations in your mind, which can then help you to achieve your goals more easily. Sánchez says that these techniques don’t work for everyone (in some cases, they can even lead to problems with a dissociative personality), but some of us could definitely benefit from this type of externalizing. These include:

  • Really shy people who freeze up in certain situations such as when speaking in public or organizing a conference.

  • Professionals who have to play a very different role at work than they do in private.

Could your superhero help you uncover hidden talents?

If you create your alter ego in a conscious and healthy way, it can become useful for your career goals and development. Chal Jiménez, an expert in marketing, advertising and communications based in Spain, overcame his crippling childhood shyness and developed his full potential thanks to Batman and Superman. For him, slipping into the shoes of these comic book superheroes helped him to become confident in his talent, to “know and accept himself” and to carve out a career. He’s even written a book about it in Spanish in which he explains how to go about it. (The book is called Supertalent).

According to the author, it’s not just about becoming a character and wondering what they would do in your situation, but also about challenging yourself every day, discovering your hidden talents, which will be revealed along the way, and then cultivating them to become better in the professional world.

You shouldn’t get stuck on just one character, either. You may have different roles to call upon, depending on the situation, he says. “Depending on whether you have to show up for a meeting where you’ll need to call on your assertive side or, on the contrary, strengthen your soft skills, you won’t find inspiration each time in the same characters,” he says. This alter ego must be someone who inspires you on a personal or professional level through their values and the way they react or work. But nothing is keeping you from having several of them!

Sanchez adds that your alter ego should have a limited life span. You should say goodbye to it when the period of anxiety or anguish is over as it is “more effective to learn to manage your emotions with other long-term tools,” she says.

Keys for putting the Batman effect into practice

As mentioned, the Batman effect allows you to take a step back from your problems, which helps you to examine them from another angle. Here are the keys to successfully putting them into practice:

Take a step back

Studies have shown that the more negative and intense an event is, the more likely someone is to remember it as a participant. However, when an experience is more positive, the tendency is to remember it as an observer. So the next time you have a hard day at work, or you mess something up, try to see the incident from someone else’s point of view. Maybe that someone else could be your alter ego. Would you judge that person as harshly? You’ll realize that it’s not really that big of a deal.

Develop your talents

Very often, an alter ego can help you to discover hidden talents. For Jiménez, this is one of the most positive aspects of the Batman effect: “I was ashamed of my own creativity at first and I had to retrain myself to use it. Today it’s one of my greatest talents and I make a living in part because of it.” If you discover an aspect of your personality during the process, hold onto it. Explore your full potential. Who knows? It may serve you well in the future.

Use the third person

If you’ve had a bad work experience, it’s not unusual to replay the story over and over in your head until you’re exhausted. But watch out, this behavior directly influences the way you deal with problems. When dealing with a difficult problem at work, try asking yourself what your alter ego would do in the same situation, and see if that helps lessen the negative feelings and your emotional response.

Accept the negative feelings

Negativity becomes toxic when it’s permanent. By engaging in self-distancing, you can successfully break this cycle of negative thoughts. You have to learn to recognize the whole spectrum of negative emotions, but the real challenge lies in understanding how to control them without getting stuck and learning to be comfortable with moments of uncertainty.

Don’t forget: Whatever alter ego inspires you to overcome your fears and insecurities (someone you admire, a made-up personality, or even Batman), use it with a clear goal in mind. And who knows? Perhaps a little imagination can help you to get closer to being the person you aspire to be.

Translated by: Kalin Linsberg

Photo by Welcome to the Jungle

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