Last month I talked about my struggle with Impostor Syndrome – the roots of which I can trace back to my childhood. Overcoming Impostor Syndrome has become the work of this season of my life.
To recap: The Impostor Syndrome is a collection of feelings of inadequacy and fraudulence that keep us from internalizing our successes; it is chronic self-doubt despite evidence to the contrary. Indeed, it is often the domain of high achievers.
How Impostor Syndrome Shows Up
In her incredibly helpful book, leading expert on Impostor Syndrome, Valerie Young, identifies several coping and protective mechanisms that “keep you safe from harm by avoiding the shame and humiliation of being unmasked, as well as to relieve some of the stress that comes from feeling like a fraud.”
From a career standpoint, this can look like:
- Burnout from working ridiculous hours/overproducing in order to meet an inner expectation of perfection.
- An endless cycle of obtaining (a lot of times unnecessary) training, credentials, or degrees (because you must know EVERYTHING about a subject before you can consider yourself competent).
- Flying under the radar: not raising a hand in a meeting, not volunteering for a committee, not sharing an idea for fear people will realize that you are actually quite stupid.
- Turning down a promotion because you don’t think you’re ready. (It turns out there is a fine line between natural humility and paralyzing fear.)
- Not applying for a position you really want because your experience does not EXACTLY line up with the job listing requirements.
- Switching jobs/career paths all the time – if you’re constantly on the move, no one will find out you are a Fakey McFakerson.
- Using your sense of humor, charm, and perceptiveness to deflect attention away from the areas you feel vulnerable and fraudulent.
- Waiting until the last minute to make a deadline. (Procrastination provides a built-in excuse because you probably didn’t give your best effort.)
- Not negotiating for a higher salary. According to Joyce Roche, “The concern that some flaw or lack will be highlighted if you push too hard can cause those with Impostor Syndrome to settle for ‘good enough’ rather than pushing for what is achievable.”
- Stopping just short of completion on a degree or project (keeps you from detection, possible criticism, and provides the excuse of being “in progress”).
- Self-sabotage (e.g., no-call-no-show for interviews, not preparing for the big presentation, and even substance abuse) helps to preserve the ambiguity of success or failure.
Impostor Syndrome Takes a Toll
Looking over everything I just wrote, it occurs to me that living this way is just exhausting. And you know what is the worst part of the Impostor Syndrome? It steals the joy we could receive by using our God-given gifts. I love the quote from Eric Liddell, on whose life the movie Chariots of Fire was based: “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.” When we let the Impostor Syndrome win, we are not doing what we were created to do, and we deprive ourselves of feeling God’s pleasure.
How to Overcome Impostor Syndrome
I appreciate Valerie Young’s message, that by learning to recognize and change your thought patterns, you might still have Impostor Moments, but you won’t have an Impostor Life.
Here are some things that have been helpful to me and might be helpful to you.
For me, the first step to loosening the grip of the Impostor Syndrome is calling it by name. There is SO MUCH being written about Impostor Syndrome these days – check out the resources I’ve linked, or do a simple Google search. As I think back on my life experiences, it can be painful to think about all the ways I have limited myself, but it’s also liberating to realize that it’s never too late to show up to your life. It is incredibly rewarding and well worth your time to figure out what’s holding you back and experiment with ways to manage it.
Call yourself out
Now that I am beginning to recognize my own behavior, the more quickly I’m able to SHUT IT DOWN. After submitting last month’s column, I received an e-mail with some really nice feedback. I noticed how much trouble I had literally reading the words on the screen. Catching my inner Impostor in such a fashion was a funny/sad kind of moment, but I made myself rewind and read it again.
“Act as if”
The people who don’t suffer from Impostor Syndrome are often times no more knowledgeable or better than we are; they just think different thoughts. From the world of sports psychology, I’ve learned that a little role playing can make a huge difference. When my son smashes the baseball in practice but struggles at the plate in games, one technique is to encourage him to pretend he’s an actor who has been hired to portray his favorite hitter (Kris Bryant). How does Kris Bryant stand in the batter’s box? What kind of facial expressions does he make? What does he do between pitches? How does he react when he strikes out? When he hits a home run? (Kind of like WWJD, but for jocks.)
In other words, “Fake it ’til you make it.” While it might be a little counter-intuitive, this is one of the best ways to combat Impostor Syndrome because research shows that confident actions precede confident feelings. Observe people who seem confident in the areas you are struggling, and get an idea of how they speak, behave, and position themselves in situations you would find daunting. Over time, “acting as if” you are that person can actually change the wiring of your brain.
Keep a file of your successes
Make a file on your computer, take a screenshot on your phone, or create a physical location where you can collect your “wins.” Complimentary e-mails, positive performance evaluations, transcripts, certificates, recommendation letters … all of these things are easy to forget when we were determined not to acknowledge them in the first place. This might feel awkward at first, but it’s a necessary discipline for some of us. Folks suffering from the Impostor Syndrome have an acute inability to internalize positive feedback about themselves.
Do it for someone else.
If there is one thing I can think of that always motivates me to push that Imposter aside and get out of my own way is when I wake up to the need in the world around me and use what I have been given on behalf of other people. To serve, basically.
I love that scene in the BEST MOVIE EVER MADE (Wonder Woman, obviously) where Diana storms No Man’s Land. I am just going to stop right here while you go watch this clip. Seriously. Waiting, waiting, waiting … are you back? Great. Gosh, I am not a crier, but that scene makes me weep at the sheer magnitude of awesomeness she embodies. I think we should all be forced to watch this every morning before we get out of bed. You know why? Because I am someone’s Diana Prince. You are someone’s Diana Prince. Eh, maybe not so much with the metal bustier, but you get my point.
As people of faith, we know that God has given us gifts, skills, and abilities to build up the body of Christ. We are called, anointed, and equipped with the power of the Holy Spirit working through us to do “great exploits” (Daniel 11:32).
If God gave you these gifts, who are you not to use them? Stop hiding out and playing small. And, yes, I’m totally channeling my inner Marianne Williamson here, but for good reason. Look around! This world is going to hell in a handbasket and we kind of need y’all to show up. Metal bustiers optional.
Read the first part of this series here