Discover the Power of Your Alter Ego

by John Gelder, FCMC

Have you ever witnessed someone who you thought was painfully shy suddenly spring to life when performing in front of a live audience? Or perhaps you’ve watched in amazement as your favorite actor or actress transforms themself into some terrifying, out-of-control villain on stage or screen? Have you ever wondered how they do it? Do they have some kind of special gift the rest of us don’t?

Of course, we all take on different roles in life but for some people such as those in the hyper-competitive world of professional sports and entertainment, the ability to perform at the highest level often means the difference between success and failure. Indeed, success may ultimately depend on their ability to overcome serious mental blockages—to step outside of their own skin so to speak and tap into creative energies that lie trapped below the surface of conscious awareness. But what if the power to trigger those inner energies is not a rare gift accessible only to a select few but rather, something waiting to be discovered by each and every one of us?

In his book The Alter Ego Effect, author and performance coach Todd Herman tells us about famous personalities such as two-sport professional athlete Bo Jackson who have leveraged the power of their alter ego to achieve exceptional levels of performance. In his book, Herman describes how societal forces and pressures to conform subconsciously supress natural creativity often leading to a “trapped self” that prevents the true “heroic self” from emerging. And, says Herman, “you can’t think your way out of a subconscious problem”. Herman makes his living by helping clients to escape this predicament. Through his company, Herman Performance Systems, he has coached hundreds of elite athletes and business professionals on how to achieve peak performance by “getting out of their own way” and releasing the power of their alter ego.

The literal definition of alter ego is “a second self”, sometimes described as “a different version of oneself”. The idea of an alternate self is thought to have originated with the Roman Philosopher-Statesman Cicero in the first century BC. The idea gained further prominence in the 18th century when the German physician, Anton Mesmer, began experimenting with hypnosis and altered states of consciousness. Freud further refined the notion of consciousness in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as he explored the relationship between the subconscious mind and the ego. Freud came to believe that the subconscious mind is the primary driver of human behaviour and that the roots of the alter ego resided in the fantasies and imaginings of early childhood.

Indeed, Freud’s theories may help explain the popularity of the comic book superhero phenomenon. Such is the power of the alter ego that Clark Kent can become Superman, that Bruce Banner can transform into the Incredible Hulk or that Diana Prince can morph into Wonder Woman. But in modern times, the alter ego phenomenon has progressed far beyond comic book caricatures and all their blockbuster movie spinoffs. Creative artists of all types have tapped the power of the alter ego by inventing personas that allow them a freedom of expression not otherwise attainable from their everyday identities. Thus, David Bowie creates the androgynous Ziggy Stardust and Eminem invents the real Slim Shady. Even Beyoncé once used Sasha Fierce as her alter ego reportedly stating that “Sasha Fierce is the fun, more sensual, aggressive, outspoken and glamorous side that comes out when I’m on stage.”

Writers often tap into their alter egos through their characters or by adopting pen names. Thus, Harry Potter author, J. K. Rawling, adopted the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith for her crime thriller “The Cookoo’s Calling”. Rawling followed a long tradition of women writing under “noms de plumes”—a tradition that included the likes of Emily Bronte (Ellis Bell), Louisa May Alcott (A. M. Barnard), Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) and Nora Roberts (J. D. Robb), among others.  To be sure, the use of pen names by female writers was meant to overcome publishers’ bias towards women but it also afforded women licence to cast aside personal and societal constraints in order to take on subjects that might have otherwise offended sensibilities. Indeed, in her classic novel, The Well of Loneliness, a book that was banned in England for three decades, author Marguerite Hall (Radclyffe Hall) tackled lesbian themes drawn from her own lived experience that, at the time, were considered taboo.

To the extent that a pen name can serve as an alter ego, these women take back power. Their power lives on through their writing, their storytelling, and through the bold examples they set for others to follow. Today, taking on an opposite sex persona has become a commonplace and the notion of gender identity has opened up new avenues of self-expression.

Releasing the power of the heroic self takes courage; it requires a willingness to relegate the everyday persona to the sidelines while relinquishing control to the alternate persona—the alter ego. Once the performance is complete the original persona returns but it’s also possible that, over time, the two personas will integrate into a more holistic and authentic self.

What is the secret to tapping into the power of your alter ego? One way is known as illeism, defined as “the act of referring to oneself in the third person.” The creation of an alternate “I” might seem odd but athletes, politicians, and business figures do it frequently, and sometimes their “brands” seem to take on a life of their own. Another way is through the act of writing. As we have noted, authors often adopt pen names to distance themselves from their everyday persona or they may create a character that allows them to express their identity vicariously through their written words. Indeed, renowned author Stephen King once described the act of writing as “self-hypnosis”. Naming, adopting a symbol, a mask or a uniform are often important aspects of the alter ego because they give tangible expression to the alternate identity. Famous basketball star Kobe Bryant was known as “The Black Mamba,” a nickname he gave himself to separate his professional life from his personal life. The name was inspired by the deadly assassin in Quentin Tarantino’s 2003 movie “Kill Bill,” and reportedly helped Bryant release his combative spirit on the court.

Todd Herman stresses the importance of being intentional in developing your alter ego story—in other words to be clear on the superpower you are seeking and why. Giving the alter ego a name and an identity makes it easier to disassociate from the psychological aspects that may be subconsciously holding a person back. Of course, in the business world, showing up for work in a strange costume may not seem like a great career move. Metaphorically speaking however, the same principles apply. Business leaders are often plagued by the same performance doubts and anxieties as those in the sports and entertainment world, and a reimagining of the self can serve as a welcome release from what Herman calls “the war going on in our heads”—the tendency to define ourselves by the expectations of others.

Postscript: Lately, I’ve been experimenting with my own alter ego journey of discovery. I’ve always enjoyed writing and, over the years, I’ve put my modest talents to good use as a consultant. Creative writing, one of my “hobbies”, has been more of a challenge. I frequently suffered from writer’s block and had become a master of procrastination, always waiting to discover the really big idea amidst the fog of all the lesser ones. But recently, I completed my first full length novel and my personal breakthrough came as a result of clarifying the central character—my alter ego—with intention. The novel is called The Endurant and it is written under a pen name. For the curious, it can be found on Amazon.