Why the World's Most Confident People Create Alter Egos
Beyoncé, Adele, LeBron James, and Rowan Atkinson have all done it.
As a reporter, I’ve always been most comfortable writing. Not speaking on stage. Not appearing on video. Not moderating panels in front of hundreds of people. My job was to put other people in the spotlight.
But I was hyper-aware that those were skills I needed to gain if I wanted to have a career in media. The problem was that the mere thought of an on-stage interview in front of a live audience gave me heart palpitations.
As I was preparing, I had a memory of my high school acting teacher saying, “Before you step on that stage, you have to get into character. You’ve got to talk like that person, act like that person, and feel the emotions that person feels.”
I remember studying my monologue for weeks before getting up in front of my classmates. Two seconds before my “performance,” I thought I was going to throw up. But then something weird happened — it felt like someone else took over as soon as I opened my mouth. The nerves went away, and I felt confident because I wasn’t up there as the introverted Polina. I was up there as my very outgoing character.
Fast forward 10 years, I was sitting in my apartment determined to try the same technique. I watched countless videos of journalists and talk show hosts interviewing people in front of an audience. They were larger than life, they had open body language, they made jokes, and they had loads of energy. They seemed like an exaggerated version of themselves.
So I decided that I would step into a similar character when I was on stage. I wouldn’t be me — I would perform as someone so confident that nerves couldn’t phase them. That shift in mindset changed my voice, my posture, and my confidence level.
I had never found the right language to describe this phenomenon, but here’s how Beyoncé put it: “That moment when you’re nervous and that other thing kind of takes over for you.”
“That other thing” is often referred to as an “alter ego.” Believe it or not, early in her career, Beyoncé was shy and reserved, which is antithetical to the powerhouse we saw on stage.
That’s because she created an alter ego she called ‘Sasha Fierce’ that allowed her to perform with a level of confidence she herself didn’t yet have. “I’m not like her in real life at all,” Beyoncé said. “I’m not flirtatious and super-confident and fearless like her.”
Inspired by Beyoncé, Adele did something similar to help deal with her nerves.
In a 2011 Rolling Stone profile, the superstar opened up about her severe stage fright. “I’m scared of audiences,” she said. “I get shitty scared. One show in Amsterdam, I was so nervous I escaped out the fire exit. I’ve thrown up a couple of times. Once in Brussels, I projectile-vomited on someone ... I have anxiety attacks a lot.”
She created an alter ego called ‘Sasha Carter’ — a composite of Beyoncé’s Sasha Fierce and country music star June Carter — in effort to calm her internal terror before going on stage. Here’s why she created her new persona:
“I was about to meet Beyoncé, and I had a full-blown anxiety attack. Then she popped in looking gorgeous, and said, ‘You’re amazing! When I listen to you I feel like I’m listening to God.’ Can you believe she said that?” Later, “I went out on the balcony crying hysterically, and I said, ‘What would Sasha Fierce do?’ That’s when Sasha Carter was born.”
The legendary British actor Rowan Atkinson was bullied as a child for having a stutter. But his speech impediment mysteriously went away when he was performing on stage. “I find when I play a character other than myself, the stammering disappears,” he says. “That may have been some of the inspiration for pursuing the career I did.”
Research supports these mental tricks we play on ourselves. Adopting an alter ego is an extreme form of “self-distancing,” a psychological tool that helps people reason more objectively and see the situation from a slight distance.
Immersing yourself in your feelings can lead to unhealthy mental rumination, so creating a little bit of distance from the self can help us better regulate our emotions. One way people can create a temporary alter ego is through illeism, which is defined as “the act of referring to oneself in the third person.”
It might seem odd to talk about yourself in the third person, but athletes, politicians, and business figures do it all the time. One famous example of illeism in action was basketball star LeBron James talking about his decision to leave Cleveland for the Miami Heat. He says, “I wanted to do what was best for LeBron James, and what LeBron James was going to do to make him happy.”
Illeism is not generally well-received as it makes the subject sound arrogant, but it can be a powerful tool if used for the purpose of reducing anxiety and building confidence. “There are studies that show when people talk about previous traumatic events in the third person, they tend to regard themselves through much more compassionate eyes,” says psychotherapist Kim Schneiderman.
In other words, a distanced perspective can help soothe anxiety and fear by allowing us to muster up confidence for the moments that matter.
The point is that you’re not permanently tethered to the identity you currently have — you can alter it to get closer to the person you want to become. “Your current behaviors are simply a reflection of your current identity,” James Clear writes. “What you do now is a mirror image of the type of person you believe that you are (either consciously or subconsciously).”
So how do you build a new identity? Clear says you need identity-based habits, ones that make you believe new things about yourself. In a guest post for The Profile, Clear wrote, “Take whatever goal you are trying to accomplish and ask yourself, ‘Who is the type of person that could achieve that goal?’” If you want to be a better writer, become the type of person who writes 1,000 words every day. If you want to be strong, become the type of person who never misses a workout.
Here’s the cool part: In the beginning, your core self and your alter ego may seem like two disparate entities. But over time, they begin to blend together.
As you can imagine, Beyoncé doesn’t need the crutch of an alter persona to get through her performances anymore. She’s become confident just being herself. “Sasha Fierce is done. I killed her,” Beyoncé told Allure in 2010. “I don't need Sasha Fierce anymore, because I've grown, and now I'm able to merge the two.”
I’ll leave you with this quote from actor Cary Grant: “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.”
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Great post, Polina! I never, ever would have guessed that about Beyonce.