Dealing with Impostor Syndrome
It’s a common phenomenon, especially in leaders who are perfectionists or high-achievers. Thank it, and meet it with compassion.
The idea of “impostor syndrome” is something I talk about a lot with my clients. It’s this notion that, no matter what we say or what we do, we’ll soon be called out as a fraud. No matter how good we are, we’re not good enough, and it’s only a matter of time before we’re found out.
It’s a common phenomenon, especially in leaders who are perfectionists or high-achievers, with some estimates suggesting that around 70% of these leaders will experience impostor syndrome at some point (The Guardian, “Feeling like an impostor? You can escape this confidence-sapping syndrome”). The issue, though, is that in most cases it’s not real.
In reality, nobody cares about what we think as much as we do. In reality, we’re “making it up” as much as anyone else. Our own self-limiting beliefs and voices of insecurity are bigger and louder than the truth.
I struggled and still struggle with this idea. As a coach, I find myself sometimes wondering if I’m really being helpful or if people are wondering why they’re even paying me. I’m conscious of my own impostor, what I call the “voice of the saboteur.”
The good news is that this voice is not nearly as loud as it used to be. I don’t feel like an impostor nearly as much as I used to. And there was one thing I did to change this dynamic in a really meaningful way.
I thanked my impostor.
FIND OUT WHERE THE VOICE IS COMING FROM
“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.’” — Maya Angelou
Thanking your impostor or saboteur, though, is not a Band-Aid remedy. This is a deeper change that begins with deeper understanding.
For me, I had to take a journey into how I truly felt to understand where that little voice of doubt and insecurity was coming from. I sat with my discomfort and my fear instead of pushing them to the side, like I usually did. I tried to pinpoint what I was actually telling myself.
What was the story in my head? Why was I comparing myself to others and feeling like I was never doing enough? With some serious reflection, I realized that this was a voice that had been with me since childhood. I always wanted to do better and be better, but I never wanted it to look like I was really trying. What was behind that, for me?
The truth is that I wanted to feel accepted and valued. If I was an awesome person, people would like me. And if I did it effortlessly, then people wouldn’t think I was pretentious.
For me, it connected back to being valued. Others value being loved or safe or making a difference. And most of us have these ideas and needs come alive around puberty. But the critical first step in addressing my saboteur voice was to understand where it was coming from.
FIND OUT HOW THE VOICE IS HELPFUL
“Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.” — Marie Curie
Armed with this understanding, the next breadcrumb for me to follow was in understanding how this voice was really being useful to me. I get that I wanted to be valued and accepted, but why was there this impostor in my head telling me I was never going to be good enough? Isn’t that the opposite of what I needed?
I’ve learned since that everything we do has a clear and rational reason. Everything. When we hurt ourselves or make ourselves feel alone or do any seemingly irrational thing, it has a reason. There’s always a big, powerful “why” that makes complete sense, even if it’s unhealthy for us. And often they tie back into safety and comfort.
With my own insecurities, the function they served was to do just that, to keep me safe. If my value depended on my success, then by always striving to achieve more and be better, I would minimize the risk of not being valued. This impostor, this saboteur, was trying to protect me from not being accepted.
Another thing I’ve learned is that, for many of us, this voice has been incredibly helpful. I could point to a lot of success and achievement that came about because insecurity was fueling my ambition. I have a lot to be thankful for, a lot that this “impostor” gave me.
MEET IT WITH COMPASSION
“For in every adult there dwells the child that was, and in every child there lies the adult that will be.” — John Connolly
In reality, this voice loved me. It was born in adolescence, out of a time of confusion and fear, as a light to guide my way. I built this voice as a child, because I needed it and wanted it. I built it because it helped me.
This was the powerful realization that helped me to change how I dealt with my impostor syndrome, the voice of my saboteur, today. My instinct was to reject and shame this voice. I would tell it to get lost, tell it that it was ugly and hurtful. I would push it away and, by pushing against it, stand it up that much taller.
It didn’t work. It never worked.
But since I realized where it came from (and through the help of counselors and coaches), I started rewriting my story around this voice. When it came up, I would thank it. I would meet it with compassion and thank it for where it came from, for trying to keep me safe.
And then I would gently let it know that it wasn’t what I needed right now.
This was my turning point in turning insecurity into inspiration. No, the voice didn’t go away. But I didn’t argue and fight with it anymore. And that opened up a new world of how I felt about it and what I could choose to do next.
I hope that what I shared is in some way helpful to whatever you’re thinking through. Be kind to yourself, embrace the parts of you that are real and alive. Meet them with compassion.
Good luck on the journey.
Adapted from “On Dealing with Impostor Syndrome” originally published in Mind Cafe