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Why You Experience Impostor Syndrome And How To Respond

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impostor-syndrome

Do you recognize that feeling where you’re in some position and think that you’ve somehow managed to fool everyone into believing that that you know what you’re doing, that you’re up to the job, that you’re the person to lead the important project and that you belong? Inside however it’s a very different story and you feel more like a fraud, terrified that at any moment the inevitable will happen and you’ll be unmasked. All will clearly see, what you’ve known and believed all along, which is that you are in fact not good enough, you don’t belong, it’s all a mistake and you’re most certainly not up to the job? Impostor Syndrome is the term we commonly use to describe these feelings, and this very prevalent and visceral feeling of being a fraud.

Impostor Syndrome is highly distracting in terms of the internal emotional turmoil it causes as we get entangled in unhelpful thoughts that spiral and distract us from engaging fully in our lives. Let’s start our exploration of this terrain by looking at the origin story of Impostor Syndrome. 

I’m An Impostor – The Origin Story

Early in our lives all of us experienced emotional pain. Starting with interactions with our parents and early care-givers, that pain was born of the subtle injuries we suffered when our emotional needs weren’t adequately met. Perhaps our parents were very busy with careers or had many children and didn’t have the energy or time to devote to our needs. Maybe they themselves were very emotionally immature and didn’t know how to create the environment to promote emotional security. Perhaps they showed their love by pushing us to achieve in some domain, placing high expectations and pressure to do more and be better or the best, and we learnt that love and acceptance was conditional.

Whatever the particular circumstances of our early upbringing, as a child our mind came up with a view of exactly how we had to be and what we had to do for our parents and others to give us attention, acceptance, and love. Our inner voice was there to warn us should we stray beyond this acceptable territory, this boundary of belonging. 

As we grew older, and the influence of our parents gave way to the influence of our peers, suddenly the requirements for how we should be and behave in order to be accepted expanded considerably. Authenticity was relegated to a back seat and the focus moved to conformity and fitting in. Again our inner voice was there to help, policing our behavior to make sure we stayed within the boundary of belonging, where approval resided. The inner voice made clear that stepping beyond, risked censure, negative attention, and ultimately rejection. 

As if that wasn’t enough, along comes the most sophisticated of the three key contributors to your impostor syndrome, the mass marketing monster (or “TripleM” as I like to nickname it). Since the very first moment we sat in front of a screen TripleM has been grooming us to believe that we don’t belong. Its job is to ensure that we are constantly dissatisfied with who we are, what we have, and what we’re doing and to subjugate us to the position of passive consumer, primed to respond to TripleM’s bait, and ultimately to trade our power and potential for the comfort of conformity. Yeah, I know that comes off as quite dark – I did study marketing in college though… 

These 3 key influencers moulded our creation of a self, a vision of who we are, that offers us safety from emotional pain. This is the small self of the comfort zone and, policing the perimeter of that shrunken territory of belonging, is an inner voice ( the Inner Critic) warning us that to go beyond that boundary is to trespass and become an impostor. 

How Prevalent Is Impostor Syndrome?

Although you may feel that your experience of impostor syndrome is a dirty little secret best kept to yourself lest anyone discover that you are the biggest fattest fraud ever, I’m going to introduce you to your A-List company in the Impostor Zone!

Exhibit A-List!

Let’s take a scenic trip through some of the more sparkly, successful and seemingly ultra secure and confident members of the populace, and see what they have to say on the topic of impostor syndrome. Surely these otherworldly creatures are immune from the sludge and shame of all this messy and uncomfortable self-doubt business and instead spend their time basking in the light of diamond-encrusted self-belief….yes?

Hmmm…apparently not!

Dripping in Oscars, Emmys, BAFTAs and more, the immensely talented Kate Winslet shared this in a 2009 interview:

Over the years, the stakes have become higher for me. Sometimes I wake up in the morning before going off to shoot and I think, I can’t do this. I’m a fraud.

Natalie Portman shared similar feelings of not belonging in a 2015 Harvard Commencement speech about arriving into Harvard Yard as a freshman in 1999:

I felt like there had been some mistake, that I wasn’t smart enough to be in this company, and that every time I opened my mouth I would have to prove that I wasn’t just a dumb actress.

Hollywood Icon Meryl Streep (Oh come on now! Surely she’s immune!) shared this in a 2002 interview:

You think, ‘Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?

And then there’s the inimitable and absolute national treasure, Lady Gaga, who had this to say in a 2011 HBO concert documentary:

I still sometimes feel like a loser kid in high school and I just have to pick myself up and tell myself that I’m a superstar every morning so that I can get through this day and be for my fans what they need me to be.

And what about Tom Hanks who on the podcast Fresh Air in 2016 admitted the following:

No matter what we’ve done, there comes a point where you think, ‘How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?

And it’s not just performers of the screen and stage but across the board in all areas of life. 

Howard Schultz of Starbucks admitted to feeling undeserving and insecure in his position of authority and influence. In a New York Times article he shared this:

Very few people, whether you’ve been in that job before or not, get into the seat and believe today that they are now qualified to be the CEO. They’re not going to tell you that, but it’s true.

The civil rights activist, author, poet and Nobel Laureate Maya Angelou admitted that at times, she often felt like a fraud, once saying:

I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.

Clearly I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Welcome to the very large club my fellow humans.

Truth Bomb Alert – Feeling like a fraud doesn’t make you a freak, it just makes you human. 

Well, that’s all very reassuring Eimear and, don’t get me wrong, I love being in this A-List company, but that doesn’t exactly help me….

Alright, alright I hear you. That was just to normalize your experience and now we’ll speed things up a little and get to the bit where we do something with your new awareness and that warm glow you’re carrying after your virtual shoulder-rubbing with the super talented, the rich, and the famous.

How Can I Move The Boundary So I Belong In All Areas Of My Life?

When the 3 Key Influencers (Parents/Caregivers, Peers, TripleM) contributed to how our vision of who we are developed, we essentially created an artificial boundary through our potential. On one side of this boundary is by far the smaller of the two territories and this is where we have decided that we belong. This is our comfort or safety zone, where we don’t risk the emotional pain that comes from potential negative judgement and rejection. On the other side of this boundary is a land of expansive possibilities but which we’ve unfortunately,  unconsciously oftentimes, branded as foreign territory and is where we don’t belong and can only occupy as visiting impostors, fearful of unmasking at any moment should we slip up in some way. 

Totally messed up, right?! 

Well let’s just take down that boundary, fence thing and then, ta-dah! problem solved, right? 

Yeah…nice idea but there are some operational issues there unfortunately. Our minds are not quite as amenable to a software upgrades as our iPhones are. Although rationally we can now see that this whole Impostor Syndrome thing makes no sense, that only gets us so far. We’re working with our minds here, which are other level old tech. We need to approach the challenge from an awareness of the form and function of this ancient mind and its processes in order to be effective. 

Four Steps To Loosen The Grip of Your Impostor Syndrome 

1 Understand The Underlying System – Your Mind

Acknowledge that your ancient, old tech, mind is doing exactly what it was designed to do, protect you from a perceived threat. The mind is programmed to deliver the impostor/fraud message when you take actions that are beyond this comfortable zone of belonging. It’s a hardwired, auto-response from an ancient system that was designed to protect you but just hasn’t evolved to audit threats with any meaningful nuance. Imagine for example the perceived threat level that the mind would have placed on you leaving the safety of your ancient tribe to search alone for new hunting grounds. Pretty dangerous stuff! Lots of reasons not to be doing that! Now imagine a more modern example where you’re leaving your modern day job that you’ve totally outgrown to pursue the challenge of your entrepreneurial dream. The mind evaluating this move is the same mind. It is alerting you to a threat but rating possible business challenges, embarrassment, disappointment and “failures” as pretty much equivalent to potential death. You’ve got to understand the system that you’re running so that you can interpret the data correctly. 

2 Interpret And Respond Accurately To The System Data 

Once you understand the underlying system a little better you can translate the data it sends you more accurately. That data comes in various forms such as bodily sensations, emotions, and thoughts. When the mind is telling us the impostor syndrome story it will not just tell us all the reasons we don’t belong, aren’t good enough, and are a big fat fraud, it will also accompany that will emotions such as fear and sadness, and also bodily sensations such as a tightness in our stomachs or throat for example. We translate these as the auto-reaction of a malfunctioning system but not by fighting them or trying to ignore them. Instead we notice them and accept and make room for them. Imagine thanking your mind for the intention behind this impostor syndrome script that its playing, which after all is to keep you safe.

3 Greet The Doubt and Fear with Love and Compassion

I know, it’s sounds really touchy-feely doesn’t it? Where’s the powerful magical technique to slay this impostor beast I hear all you A Types shout. Relax and bear with me. Instead of judging this default mechanism of the impostor syndrome experience, that is so universal, practice allowing it and actively sending love and compassion to those parts of yourself. You can do this very simply by just briefly closing your eyes as the fraud story pops up, thanking your mind for trying to protect you, and as you breathe in deeply imagine that you are breathing in a pure white light of love and compassion to every part of you where you feel the doubt and fear. Just a few moments of this, acknowledging, accepting and breathing in love and compassion is very powerful. 

4 Take Values-Aligned Action 

In the presence of the discomfort that you feel when this impostor syndrome script pops up for you, continue to take action. Pursuing big goals and dreams is the territory of boundless possibility and potential, and where we are naturally vulnerable to impostor syndrome. So having clarity on why we are in pursuit of a certain goal is absolutely key. These are moments to anchor into values [ Read The Power Of Leveraging Values to learn more] . Values are what makes life meaningful and important to us and they act as a compass giving us direction throughout our lives. With our values clear, our actions are imbued with a deep sense of purpose which helps us to continue on our path in the presence of the discomfort of impostor syndrome. We can move forward to a life where we can notice the artificiality of any boundary that would seek to separate us from claiming our full potential, choose to move beyond it, to play full out, and explore our boundless potential. 

Final Thoughts

We have all been guilty of taking what our mind says too literally. If I think “I’m a fraud!” that must mean that I am in fact a fraud. No! It’s a message from a malfunctioning survival system, designed millennia ago which is rooted in fear, terrified of failure, loss of love, rejection and what it imagines will be overwhelming pain, death and ruin. No wonder it’s so persistent with its messaging. But you are not your mind. Your mind is your servant and it’s time to re-establish the hierarchy so you can get out of your mind and back into your life. If you’d like a guide on this journey why not jump on a call with me (click the link below to book a Self-Doubt Breakthrough Call) to see how I can support you. You might also enjoy this TED talk from Australian entrepreneur Mike Cannon-Brookes on Impostor Syndrome

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