Updated: Dec 10, 2019
I moved to another country, and launched a new business. Not exactly a “wise start-up strategy.” I knew I had a lot to learn, and quickly. I picked a few luminaries in the industry and started modeling their businesses (read: I stalked them). I went to every industry conference, networking event, and somehow, I managed to get myself into some private parties and mixers.
I can distinctly remember walking into a New Year’s Eve showcase and event. I felt like an alien. A luminous, lime green, oddly shaped being with it's own eerie sound track that caused the record to skip as I entered, and everyone to turn and STARE as I stumbled my way in. I wanted to throw-up, run away, and curl into a ball so small someone could free-throw me into the trash can - nothing but net. And all at the same time.
Instead, I took a deep breathe, smiled, walked over to the nearest group of people and made a bad joke about how I had clearly over dressed for the event. Everyone agreed, who even knows what to wear for these work / holiday / parties RIGHT … and my awkwardness + insecurity fell away with each new person I met.
I had what I now like to call a "big girl conversation" with myself the moment I felt the alien take-over. I said, “I don’t give a shit how you feel about this, you are here, you have a purpose, so FAKE IT.” WhatI didn’t know at the time was this strategy would become my mantra.
Of course you’re uncomfortable, insecure, and getting an acute case of comparisonitis when attempting to familiarize yourself with an entirely new community. WHO CARES?! Everyone starts there. Everyone is probably feeling some degree of this, even if they’re the speaker or the organizer.
I didn’t realize that this fear is so common, and so intense, that it can keep people from not only avoiding industry events, it can keep people from accepting their accolades and success, from enjoying their careers and business, and most especially, from pushing into new territories to explore the upper echelons of their potential.
Imposter Syndrome, as it was originally called, was thought to be a mental disorder suffered only by high-achieving women pushing professional limits, because hey … it wasn’t until a few years ago women were "allowed" to get post-doctorates and wear red lipstick, at the same time.
In the late 1970’s Dr’s Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes published a paper on this syndrome effecting “high achieving women.” Truly, until then, no one had identified this phenomenon, and even then, it was assumed it was a female-only problem.
As soon as this research hit the academic world, everyone started stepping forward. The more these psychologists discussed and researched this “syndrome,” the more everyone from political leaders to corporate executives to celebrities validated this same experience - they felt it too.
And guess what, it effects men. People of all ages. People of all levels of success. And especially the people you look up too.
People who experience the imposter phenomenon, the modern term, “persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. Numerous achievements, which one might expect to provide ample evidence of superior intellectual functioning, do not appear to affect the imposter belief.”
Feeling like a fraud, or like you’re faking it, and that you are a “less-then-worthy” causes us to over think, second guess, fixate on what others may think of us, and live in panic waiting for people to discover we don’t deserve to be here. We worry, ruminate, suffer from analysis by paralysis, and over-prepare to the point of exhaustion.
Did you pay attention to the “high achieving” component of this individual? Who has the time, and especially the energy, to incorporate all of the above (worrying —> over-preparing) when you’re aiming to be the best or at-least very good at your professional and personal endeavors?!
No one. Its exhausting, disappointing and leaves us feeling frazzled and unfocused. It’s a huge problem. And we all experience it. But what we don’t all do is let feeling like an imposter hold us back or even ruin an event.
What Does Imposter Syndrome Feel Like
Here’s the thing about being deeply concerned that you don’t deserve your success, your place in life, or even allow the small hope that maybe things will be ok. You can’t talk about this shameful fear. That is how they will discover you, so this worry starts to eat away at every part of your life.
Some of us don’t even recognize our imposterism. We simply accept this anxious reality, and torture our selves by trying to keep up the no-fear façade. Chances are, everyone else perceives us as strong and more than capable.
So we don’t talk about it. We suffer in silence. We read articles about feeling this sensation *ahem*, study the concept of imposter syndrome, and we shake our heads. Those poor successful people who don’t get it. How sad for them. But how much sadder for us, since we are failures and it’s only a matter of time until everyone knows.
We can't even allow ourselves to celebrate our successes. We downplay our wins as insignificant, or my favorite, we know any success or win was only a random stroke of luck. Surely that random happenstance of success pails in comparison to our long list of mistakes and failures.
Where Does Imposter Syndrome Come From
Guess what, not everything traces back to a critical comment our 3rd grade teacher made or the bullies in middle school.
Imposter syndrome is so prevalent, and according to multiple studies, universally experienced at some point or another by nearly every person, that there are widespread causes of this series of thought distortions. Researchers don't even call it a syndrome anymore, it's a phenomenon.
IP might be influenced by societal expectations and a perceived pressure to perform. Perhaps an overly ambitious upbringing and our internalized familial expectations led us here. Or the unrealistic pressure to perform assumed in our workplace culture. It could be something else. it could be all of the above.
If you can’t enjoy the success you’ve achieved, if you don’t feel good about the things you do well, if you won't accept recognition of your capabilities, guess what, you’re normal AND you’ve got a case of the imposters.
The worst just might be, the more success, the more imposteritis. How do we embrace our BHAG’s (look it up - its outdated corporate lingo) when we don’t even feel worthy of the success we have already achieved?
Why Do I Have Imposter Syndrome
Although this experience has dominated our reality at some point or another for most of us, and though there is no traceable root cause, as we can blame it on multiple influences in our lives and throughout our professional and personal situations, there are certain tendencies where imposter syndrome really rears it’s ugly head.
Call them triggers, or simply, the most efficient way to highlight + bold + underline this phenomenon:
The desire for things to look and be perfect.
Stress, overflowing into anxiety.
Defining one-self as a high performer.
And being afraid to fail.
These tendencies are imposter steroids.
Perfectionists, stress that overwhelms our day to day (aka chronic anxiety), wanting to be the best, and / or a fear of failure open the door to imposter syndrome and poor it a cup of strong, black, coffee. I mean, lets agitate this suffering, right?
Here’s what’s happening with imposter syndrome. We start to monitor our selves so closely - "what if they find out, what hints may I be giving of my innate incompetence, what are they thinking about ME" - we actually step out of an experience, disconnect, and by default, deliver a mediocre performance due to our heightened state of distraction.
And then lets add the worst culprit of all, Fear of Failure, to the scene.
Who fears the most? The people who have not only experienced success, but those with some big wins under their belt, and they’re terrified of losing the next round.
Not only does the imposter experience limit our ability to succeed, it exaggerates our perceived potential to fail, and we obsesses over any examples of past deficits.
A constant need to validate the imposter experience means we seek out our mistakes, we want proof to criticize ourselves repeatedly, and we’re basically looking for every excuse we can find to underperform, because gee whiz, if that’s not what think we do already.
And it’s more than possible to stop.
You start with awareness. Yay, you did it.
*** Remember, if you're experiencing this phenomenon, start celebrating your wins
Overcoming imposter syndrome begins with a commitment to accept this is actually normal, it is actually a thing, and it is up to you to shift your focus and allow yourself to accept … you.
How Do I Overcome Imposter Syndrome
If we ALL feel like imposters, maybe … just maybe, we’re wrong.
Just like fear keeps us safe, and so getting rid of it all together is not only missing the point but likely unnecessary, imposter syndrome isn’t about PROVING we deserve to be here, it’s about learning to cope with our inherent need to feel worthy, and fulfilling that desire.
I can hear you saying, “Well, I don’t deserve anything …”
“You just don't know, I'm actually a fraud”
“Sure, the persons making $X00,000 can let their imposter syndrome go, but not me.”
Those thoughts, those worries, those ruminations, THAT is your imposter syndrome talking. So lets work on some strategies to counteract that little voice inside your head that is SCREAMING at you to the point of exhaustion.
And don’t be deceived by the simplicity of these exercises. Daily practice yields stunning results. Don’t believe me? Don’t believe it will work for you? Try it. Prove me wrong.
Capture & Release.
When we come to terms with the fact we may not be the fraud we have told ourselves, repeatedly, since our first acceptance letter, that we are … it’s startling.
Capture those thoughts. Get a small notepad, send yourself texts, journal - whatever enables you to easily start writing the IP messages out.
You need to know what you’re telling yourself when you imposter it up.
But here’s the trick. After a fun day of repeating to yourself that "you are a fake, you are not worthy, this win doesn’t count, the next move will be a fail, they are about to discover you, it’s only a matter of time until this implodes … " you have to write out the opposite thought.
The speaking engagement was a mistake, they didn’t know when they asked me that I am not worthy of this opportunity. Everyone in the audience is smarter and more successful than me. I have to pull out before they find out.
I trust the organizers of this event to find the best people for the job. I am smart enough. It is my responsibility to perform and I am more than capable of fulfilling my speaking commitment.
This award is meaningless. No one cares.
I celebrate and appreciate every one of my accolades.
I am not worthy.
I am worthy.
Select 5 people you admire. They can be leaders in your field or industry, your Dad, or societal luminaries. Detail what you find so inspiring about them. List their qualities and characteristics, as you perceive them.
Circle your top 5 qualities in each leader. Things like - humility, intelligence, powerful, confident, relatable, visionary, etc.
Now, rate yourself on a scale of 1-10 for all 25ish of these qualities. Circle your top 5 leadership qualities.
Anywhere you’ve marked yourself a 6 or lower, start to brainstorm on activities you can try to raise your rating.
Creativity, 4 // I can take a creative writing class, I can try painting again, I can sign-up for an improv group.
Then commit and schedule at least one activity for your each your top three leadership priorities.
Action is the anecdote to fear.
Train yourself to stop ruminating and take action.
This is a creative, imaginative exploration. This embraces the “fake it ’til you make it,” or the evolved “fake it until you become it,” practice of saying NOT TODAY IMPOSTER EXPERIENCE. I am playing the part.
Write out a character sketch of … You. But not the fearful, doubtful, plagued by thoughts of inadequacy, believer of “I don’t deserve this” you.
Who are you without those thoughts? You may have a different name. You may wear different clothes. You might have graduated to an entirely new career or profession. How do you walk, and talk, and where might one find you on an average day? Who are you engaging with? What do you smell like?
Yes, get detailed.
Must you play only one character? NO. You can be the villain, the hero, go for gender neutral! Who cares, this is a playful exercise, until we engage that character. Then it gets real. Real fun.
Yup, you heard me.
Once you’ve written out a character sketch, it’s time to embody the part. Wrote a few? Pick whatever character is calling to you. You don’t have to dress the part, but maybe add some flair. Wear a pin, do your hair, find those fancy socks - grab something and throw it on as a little inside joke with yourself, and a subtle reminder, you're trying on a new imposter-free persona.
See how it feels, just for one moment to allow yourself to be present.
Then do it again.
Fake it until you become it.
At your next event - be it a family dinner, a business conference, or even the scheduled client phone call, play that part.
Set your intention - In this moment, I am worthy. At this event, I am successful. From 9am - 10am I am pure confidence.
Step into a physical pose - hold it for at least two minutes. It should feel silly. That means you’re doing it right.
Hands on hips, back arched, feet slightly wider than hips distance, and chin held high is a proven strategy. Lean back in your desk chair, put your feet up on the desk, raise your arms, cross your hands behind your head, and relax just enough to feel a smile creep across your entire face.
Any physical pose that makes you feel powerful will do. Look up power poses, there's a few.
Lastly, and not so much an exercise as a simple prescription for life, do new things.
Find something that scares you and try it. It can be cold calling a potential client, pitching a new level of business, running around a museum barefoot, public speaking, a yoga class, or taking your kids out with no plan (terrifying).
But embrace that physical sensation, the one that tells your brain NO DON'T STOP and re-label it.
What if it’s not terror, what if this is excitement?!
What if you can harness this power and use it for good.
What if your imposter experience is a bad habit, and really, truly, the people in your life are worthy of inviting you in, relying on you, and see you for who you truly are?
What if you can believe them just long enough so you believe it yourself.
You are worthy. You deserve everything you have. You might fail, but you are strong enough to persevere. The list of evidence supporting your amazingness is actually much longer than the other lists.
Believe in you.