The power of impostor syndrome
What if you’re not good enough?
What if I’m not good enough?
I bet you feel the power of those questions without even asking, “good enough at what?”
Not fitting in feels bad. Being rejected is terrifying. Our human hard-wiring makes us need to belong. Our primal impulses jitter at the idea we are not as capable as those around us.
Every day I talk to at least one highly qualified professional who worries about their credibility and capability in the role they’ve been assigned. Regardless of past accomplishments, many folks have a nagging feeling that it’s only a matter of time before they’re exposed as a fraud.
This phenomenon is often called impostor syndrome, and it’s a nasty foe.
Do you suffer from impostor syndrome?
Anyone who’s experienced this phenomenon has done so in uniquely individual ways. The experience may be universal, while our situations are all different.
There are a couple different circumstance in which you might feel this way.
- You are facing an individual or group who consider you to be an impostor, or…
- You are telling yourself you are an impostor.
An impostor passes himself off as someone he is not. Impostors are deceivers. Unless you are a con artist seeking membership in the Villain United Country Club, feeling like an impostor sucks.
Why it’s so hard to deal with impostor syndrome
My story is riddled with fears of not being accepted. Approval and acceptance long stood as the twin pillars of meaning I chased after. From the time I was a kid I wanted to belong to the cool groups around me. As you might expect (or know first-hand), this obsession propelled me into some toxic patterns.
As I aged and got more comfortable in my own skin, a different kind of anxiety lurked above me. I was seeking successful groups. But regardless of the room, opportunity, or situation, the same question taunted my thoughts: What if I’m not good enough?
That question dominates many of us. The core consequence we fear is rejection, which leads to regret, which affects our confidence and decision-making ability.
Have you heard of anticipated regret? This powerful concept affects just about every thought you have and decision you make. Since we’ll do just about anything to avoid regret, the choices we make often come down to what we believe will cause the least future pain.
Think about a big decision you’ve faced or are facing recently. What makes the choice so difficult? Answer: possibly picking the wrong option and regretting what you selected.
Impostor syndrome is closely tied to our fear of rejection and regret. But when it comes to our professional pursuits, we’re on paths with somewhat limited choices and must move among people who might unjustly judge us.
Are we all frauds?
During grad school, a mentor of mine was going into a high-profile situation. He wanted to impress.
“Are you nervous?” I asked.
“Nope,” he said. “They’re just big vocabularies in fancy suits. But we’re all frauds.”
All frauds? I had never heard anything like that in my young life. The room to which he was referring contained all the academic gatekeepers of my world, plus a few other local luminaries. Those folks seemed impressive enough to me!
Then again, my mentor lumped himself in with the “We’re all frauds” comment, and that wouldn’t be the last time I heard him say so.
He didn’t mean everyone is an actual fraud. Many of those folks were friends of his. Not to mention he didn’t think so little of himself. His point was that everyone feels like they’re faking it. We’re all afraid of suddenly being found out. In other words, put people on a pedestal at your own risk. Don’t hold yourself back because you think you don’t deserve to be in a particular room.
I didn’t realize it then, but he had given me the first piece to a puzzle I would spend years putting together. His view sounded cynical, no doubt, but it helped me begin to see those lofty, intimidating people as, well, people. They were human.
Eventually, I spent a decade teaching courses at a few colleges. I became one of those academics and spoke at conferences where professors mingled over cocktails and catered lunches. From the other side of the classroom podium, I saw the same insecurities in teachers and administrators I had seen and experienced as a student.
You don’t have to pace school hallways or corporate offices to observe this shared perspective. Impostor syndrome applies to many areas of life, both personal and professional. Any parent or creative artist or executive is just as likely to feel like a fraud. We care a lot when it comes to the roles we are defined by. And when we care a great deal, we worry about coming up short in any way.
Should I fake it till I make it?
Some people survive on the philosophy of “fake it until you make it.” I lived by that idea for years, especially since I had bought into the fact that we’re all frauds anyway. If everyone was faking it until they made it, then why not just accept the fact and move on?
Eventually, I encountered Amy Cuddy’s brilliant TED Talk on body language. In that presentation, she explains how “fake it until you make it” can grow into a more empowering belief in faking it until you become it.*
Ooh, now that sounded right. To become something is authentic. “Faking it” isn’t about acting like a fraud but rather putting a bit more faith in yourself, one step at a time, until confidence grows.
So, how to get there? How do you show up appearing confident and yet continue improving until you’re no longer guessing at every turn?
How to deal with impostor syndrome
There’s no one path or answer, but communication is the key.
I’m no psychologist, just someone who can relate and understands the power of words. Here then are some thoughts and strategies I’ve found helpful over the years.
1. Accept what you’re feeling.
If you feel like a fraud, acknowledge it. Examine why you feel that way. Begin with what you believe about yourself.
Negative self-talk is a huge part of anxiety and insecurity. Talking from experience here. Can you relate?
What does your self-talk sound like? I help people create messages. Long ago, I realized that most people need to start with the messages they tell themselves before worrying about what they want to tell others.
How you speak to yourself shapes how you speak to others.
Your feelings are real, but that doesn’t mean they are always true. Tell yourself that you are qualified, adequate, competent, and worthy of other people’s admiration. Affirm your abilities when you speak to yourself. Let those words of faith become a powerful reality.
If people who care about you say you’re the only person who thinks you’re an impostor, take some time with them to begin working through the insecurity.
2. Find your allies.
No one thrives in isolation. We all need others. We need support. The good news is that you are not alone in what you’re experiencing.
Years ago, when I was just out of grad school and trying to earn some scratch to pay the bills, I started a business writing resumes and cover letters for job seekers.
Most clients demonstrated the same thought process. During our first meeting, they’d speak with insecurity about their professional experience. Then a few days after our conversation, they’d be surprised when I showed them their new resume.
“You made me look so good!” they’d say.
“I just wrote down what you told me,” I’d reply.
Watching people light up with confidence they could carry into interviews was sort of magical. It was like a day job version of being a wannabe Gandalf who could bestow an enchantment on someone.
All I was doing was encouraging people to see themselves in a better light. I didn’t know about impostor syndrome anxiety. I just had the vantage point to say, “Look at all these things you’ve done!”
When someone sees their work and abilities quantified and qualified, they gain confidence. Unfortunately, too many people lack that kind of support.
Who supports you?
If someone comes to mind right away, gravitate towards them. Don’t be a vampire though. It’s tempting to take from those who give because they make you feel so great. Respect boundaries and give in return. Such behavior tends to attract more allies.
If you desire to reach and serve others yet can’t identify any supporters, you’ll need to get out and connect with some folks. Yes, if you struggle with impostor syndrome this step may sound extra intimidating. One trick is to be honest about what you don’t know. Approach others with open hands. Ask for their thoughts and opinions on your area of expertise. People love being asked for advice.
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3. Uncover the root cause.
Working with people you trust, dig into the issues contributing to your personal situation.
If fear is holding you back from approaching others, begin taking action as mentioned above. To the extent that the root cause is a personal struggle for you, share those insecurities with a safe person. Seek opportunities where you can achieve quick wins in small settings. For example, attend a networking event and share your business card with a couple people. Build confidence a bit at a time.
If you’re facing discrimination, that’s something different.
In many cases, malicious people are the cause of someone’s impostor syndrome. There may be issues of power and privilege at play in the creation of false walls that define who is good enough and who is not. In too many industries and institutions, these gatekeepers target others who don’t fit their rotten mold of who they claim is acceptable and who is not. We should each work to push back against such discrimination to level the playing field wherever we are able.
I mentioned critics a moment ago. Criticism is often a helpful tool. When allies offer a critique out of care, listen to how you might improve. But beware those critics who offer nothing but judgment and animosity. Do not be defined by the big words of little people who tear down the honest work of others instead of creating anything worthwhile of their own.
In cases where the playing field seems to be level, what can we do?
4. Be yourself.
Don’t try to be someone else!
This one is so important. How many times do we attempt to model the actions and speech of those who look like they have it all together? A recovering chronic approval seeker, I spent years playing the chameleon, trying to adapt to the environment around me.
Mirroring others and matching the vibe of a group is wise, but don’t go so far as to be someone different. If you’re already feeling like an impostor, becoming inauthentic and acting like someone else will not help.
5. Know your stuff but give yourself grace.
As with any road to success, there are no shortcuts. We all need to study, learn, and do. Experience counts.
If you don’t know something, say so. If you’re putting in the work to learn and improve, be confident in acknowledging something you aren’t familiar with. Then go learn about it.
Early in my teaching career, I felt pressure to know everything. As a teacher covering 10,000 years of human history, I could never know it all. When I eventually asked students to inform me about something I didn’t know, a great deal of pressure slipped away and was engaging to my audience.
Repeat this statement to yourself often:
“It’s okay if I don’t know everything. I am not a fraud if I don’t know it all.”
6. Get your messaging straight.
Okay, you’ve got your self-talk moving in the right direction and are connecting with allies as you engage others authentically and a bit more confidently with each well-prepared encounter.
The remaining confidence explosion you seek will come from two primary activities.
a. Learn what you want to say.
b. Learn how to say it best.
Business professionals must create and refine clear messages. Each of these items takes time to work out, but the effort is necessary and worth it.
I help people work through their fear of speaking and presenting in front of others. Such fear is often attached to feeling like an impostor. Preparation is one of the best antidotes to all this resistance. If you feel good about what you’re doing and how you’re able to talk through your work, you have what you need to succeed.
Presenting yourself comes down to knowing what you want to say and how you want to say it. Prepare your message like a pro and build your presentation skills daily to gain confidence and strengthen your mindset.
Need a kickstart? Here are 12 Communication Skills for Business and Life Success
7. Focus on the right others.
Be thoughtful with your energy. Don’t waste it on haters. Gravitate towards those who need what you offer and want to hear from you.
One fast way to shake off the impostor experience is by helping people find solutions to their problems. Use your expertise to serve others, and you will encounter people who make you feel like the opposite of an impostor – an acknowledged, professional authority.
Replace those feelings of being an impostor with a focus on helping others. Overcoming your own feelings of inadequacy and inauthenticity is powerful. Helping others overcome those feelings is even more amazing.
Mastering your mind
In the face of all the factors that build up and get in your way – the insecurities and bullies guarding their arbitrary boundaries – you need to control what you can. At the very least, you can own your mindset.
The best way I know to harness my mind and gain confidence is through managing the way I present myself through words and actions.
I’m passionate about helping people connect with others through communication. Not only does our world need more civility, we also need more confident people sharing the best of who you are and what you have to offer the rest of us. We need your voice and solutions!
You are not an impostor. You are good enough. And you are worthy of respect and adulation. Don’t give up in the face of those natural insecurities we all feel. Become an admired authority one step at a time through the messages you share with yourself and your allies.
Do you struggle with impostor syndrome? What advice do you have for others who feel the same way?