Imposter syndrome is real. And it’s a pain. Sometimes quite literally.
But what is it and why does it exist?
We all have things pop up from time to time that trigger feelings of inadequacy. Trust me, no one has their shit together and if they tell you they do, well, they’re full of shit.
The truth is that even when you KNOW what’s what and are DOING the work…you require regular reminders and regular maintenance.
It all starts (and ends) with those pesky and persistent limiting beliefs.
Limiting beliefs are thoughts or opinions we believe about ourselves or the world to be absolutely true. They have a negative impact on our lives by stopping us from moving forward, or growing personally or professionally.
Limiting beliefs are unconscious thoughts that show up as a defence mechanism. They pop up to help us avoid possible negative emotions like frustration, anger, sadness, loneliness, embarrassment…you get the picture.
So it’s important to recognize that those thoughts are not showing up as the enemy…they’re there to protect you. That’s what our brain does — keep us from experiencing anything uncomfortable.
But what triggers them?
Usually something from your past, that caused you to suffer, will trigger limiting beliefs.
See, in the past, you experienced an event, a trauma (keeping in mind trauma can be big or small…it’s all in how we experienced it).
When the event happened, we experienced an emotion. We told ourselves a story about why the event happened, our role in it, what the person meant (from OUR perspective), and we tie that STORY to the emotion.
For example: I knew a girl once who wanted to be an artist. She loved to draw. When she was 8, she drew something she was very proud of and showed it to her uncle who was an established artist. He gave her mild praise but said her “people lacked any kind of realistic form. They look ridiculous.”
She was embarrassed. She was ashamed. She completely ignored the praise she got and focused on the negative feedback.
The emotion: embarrassment
The story: I can’t draw people. I’m no good at drawing people. I’ll never be good at drawing people.
No matter how many times she created art after that, they rarely included people.
If she did include people in her art, it was always with a TON of anxiety and she rarely shared those pieces.
So you can see that sometimes no matter how much you accomplish, certain things will continue to trigger the EMOTION. That’s the key. The event itself faded away…the original emotion will, too. However, the story we told ourselves is what we relive, and what brings up the emotion again (ie: releases that same chemical cocktail in the brain and body) and THAT is what keeps us from taking action.
So, your subconscious tries to block it (the emotion) by altering your behaviour. Instead of doing the thing you want to do, you engage in behaviours like overthinking, procrastination, anxiety, conformism, comparison, and our friend, imposter syndrome.
And when you have feelings of inadequacy that are constantly there despite repeated proof of your success…that’s IMPOSTER SYNDROME, baby! It’s real, and everybody struggles with it.
There are 5 key “types” of imposter syndrome that I refer to as your Imposter Avatar:
- The Perfectionist — you set such high expectations for yourself, no matter how much you achieve your focus is always on your mistakes, and you never feel like you’re good enough.
- The Expert — you feel like you need to know everything about a job or task before you tackle it. Sometimes you’re afraid to answer questions in group settings because you don’t want to look dumb if you get the answer wrong.
- The Easy Genius — you pick things up easily, so when a situation arises where you have to put in an effort or work at it (ie: it’s hard) you feel like a failure.
- The Lone Wolf — you have to do it on your own, because asking for help means you’re weak, or dumb, a failure, or a fraud.
- The Superhero — you push yourself harder than most people around you and you HAVE to be good at everything to prove you’re not an imposter. If you drop a single ball, you’re riddled with feelings of inadequacy.
Who’s your imposter avatar? Comment below and let me know!
Is it fixable?
The good news is, all of the imposter avatars can be shut down by reframing the stories we tell ourselves about things that have happened or are happening.
Particularly when the event is an emotional one. Because that’s what is really being triggered…the emotion tied to the story we told ourselves about a particular event.
The actual emotion that we experienced AT THAT TIME faded away probably within 10 mins. But the story we told ourselves in the moment of that original emotion is what we held onto, and it keeps triggering an emotion that is outdated and no longer serves us.
So how do we deal with it?
It really comes down to learning to take your mistakes in stride, and I know that sounds too simplistic.
But viewing mistakes as a natural part of the process of life is critical. Developing a sense of internal validation instead of always seeking external validation can help nurture your confidence. Seeing yourself as a work in progress. Acknowledging that there’s always more to learn.
While you work on that, here are 4 ACTIONS you can take starting today that will help you deal with imposter syndrome, no matter who your avatar is.
1 Make a list.
List out at least 10 things that show you are just as worthy / qualified / capable as anyone else for whatever it is you’re trying to do.
If you’re struggling, then ask yourself if any evidence exists that you are any less qualified than anybody else to do the thing. Or even better, maybe you’re actually MORE qualified than the people around you!
Either way, cut your own bullshit out and be honest with yourself about what you’ve actually done in the past and been good at. Not perfect, but good.
2 Own your accomplishments.
Women are particularly bad at this. They tend to explain their success away by framing it as “luck,” or “help from others” instead of their innate abilities or intelligence. (Men on the other hand often own it even when they don’t have it!)
Start owning the role you play in your success by cutting out the bullshit (sensing a pattern?) excuses. Practice saying these words out loud: “I’m proud of all I’ve done and all I’m able to do.”
3 Track your success.
Keep a brag journal. Write in it daily. It doesn’t matter how MUCH progress you made, any progress is worthy of attention. Over time you’ll see exactly how far you’ve come. (My daughter and I keep “celebration boards”: we write ONE thing we did well each day on a sticky note and stick it on the wall. At the end of each month we go back and review.)
4 Say affirmations.
Yep, seriously. But say them out loud and use your name. Yes, SERIOUSLY.
It sounds ridiculous but saying it out loud and in the third person externalizes it for your brain, makes it objective and allows your brain to process it in a completely different way. Hey, LeBron and Malala do it. If it’s good enough for them…
The bottom line?
Imposter syndrome CAN be handled. But like with anything worth having in life it requires consistency and dedication. There is no self-improvement mechanism that is ever “one and done”. Do even one of the things listed above consistently and I promise your imposter syndrome will start to sit the fuck down. 🙂
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