Why Imposter Syndrome is Badass
Updated: Sep 5, 2022
What is it - this nefarious imposter syndrome? Put simply, it is a set of thoughts that create a very unpleasant, often intense, bodily experience of emotions - insecurity, loneliness, discomfort, anxiety. The imposter syndrome thought cocktail usually stems from a variation of these two root thoughts or beliefs: "I am not good enough" and "I don't belong here". Ouch - hello direct hit to our sense of self-worth and belonging. Not fun. It's no wonder we want to get rid of these thoughts AT ALL COSTS. However, I've discovered that thinking them isn't the problem. The problem is that we believe they are true. So we usually respond by trying to ignore or "outperform" them (very exhausting...not sustainable) or fight them with external validation (not reliable...temporary). Sound familiar?
I've come to an interesting conclusion. The best way to get rid of imposter syndrome is to stop trying to get rid of it and to start re-framing what it means.
What if experiencing imposter syndrome is actually a sign of some serious badassery? A courageous rebellious feat of showing up to something despite it being challenging or new or unexpected? I've personally found the focus on it being a sign of weakness, a huge problem to be fixed, to be unmotivating and unhelpful. (Trust me - I tried to "fix it" most of my career.) Fully accepting that my imposter thoughts will continue to exist has allowed me to see them as a symptom of me choosing to live on my "growing edge". They show up most frequently when I'm learning and evolving, trying new things and taking risks. This acceptance and knowledge has allowed me to manage my imposter thoughts and feelings in a much more intentional and empowered way. They still show up but I spend significantly less time and energy on them.
Here are a few tips to help you start to create a more empowered relationship with your imposter thoughts:
GET CURIOUS ABOUT YOUR BRAIN
Rather than spending precious energy finding all kinds of evidence that these imposter thoughts are true (our default response), I highly suggest starting to get curious about why your brain might be offering them to you in those moments. Your brain has a critical role - to keep you safe, ensure you survive, and help you navigate life. But it cannot properly assess risk or danger without your direction.
Your brain will offer you an opinion but you ultimately get to decide whether to accept it or not.
What exactly are the context and facts associated with your brain's opinion? In the case of "I am not good enough" and "I don't belong here" - if the context is you are among a group of Olympic swimmers about to swim 20km in the ocean and you have very little experience swimming - those thoughts are likely to save your life. In most professional contexts, the risks are much more nuanced and personal. They require you to be more discerning of your brain. You can start with questions like: Why am I choosing to think this? Is this useful? What am I making this mean? What else is possible?
REMEMBER: UNCOMFORTABLE DOES NOT MEAN INCAPABLE
This shocking revelation came to me over 15 years ago. I was speaking in front of a large group on a subject I had never spoken about before. I was full of fear and nerves and a flood of imposter thoughts - I am not prepared enough. I don't know what the hell I'm talking about. Someone else should be doing this. They are all going to realize I don't know the topic well enough. Despite this, I did what I often do and told myself - you're in it now Jennifer, so whatever you got, bring it. Then I spent a good chunk of time imagining how terrible I was. Luckily, the talk was taped (this is old school for "recorded"). I eventually mustered up the courage to watch the video. It's wasn't perfect but it was also pretty darn good.
My level of discomfort was intense and yet I still demonstrated I was fully capable of doing the hard thing.
I've since done a ton more hard things, felt super uncomfortable and had to intentionally remind myself over and over - you are uncomfortable AND capable and it's going to be okay. The first 6 months of every new job I've ever taken has felt this way. If it has for you too, you're likely choosing roles that allow you to grow and learn. Discomfort will always come along for that ride.
EXPLORE THE THOUGHT: I AM NEEDED HERE
Our sense of belonging is created by our thoughts. However, these thoughts are certainly influenced by the environments we find ourselves in. It is generally easier for us to think we belong when we are surrounded by like-minded and/or open-minded people. It is generally easier for us to think we belong when we can see where we are similar alongside where we are different from others. We don't always have the benefit of these types of environments or the capacity to see what is possible within them. Having spent a lot of years in technology, I felt the impact and overhead of being "the only" in many environments - the only woman, the only one with a different opinion, a different way of communicating and a different way of leading.
Your power rests in your ability to believe your skills, experiences and perspective are valuable to the group, regardless of what anyone else is saying or doing.
You can start to build this belief by brainstorming all the reasons why you are needed - what perspective or strength do you bring that nobody else can? If everyone else has more years of experience, you bring a fresh perspective. (Be careful not to compare your "chapter 3" to their "chapter 20". All chapters are needed and valuable.) If everyone else has opinions you don't share, you bring the opportunity for innovative and diverse thinking that better serves your clients. Having said this, it is also okay to decide that the environment is one that you do not want to be a part of - not because you aren't good enough, which is what imposter syndrome would have you believing, but because the environment isn't good enough for you.
REACH OUT TO YOUR PEOPLE
This last tip is a crucial one. Despite your best efforts to manage them, your imposter thoughts will sometimes take hold and take over.
It is in these moments - when you truly forget what you are capable of - that you have people in your life that will always remind you.
These are trusted humans that will help you unravel your imposter thoughts with their unrelenting belief in you and your ability to be brave and figure out all the hard things. Reach out to them and keep their friendship sacred. And be that person to others. There is no greater gift.
If you or your community needs help managing your imposter syndrome thoughts and feelings, consider working with me. I'd love to coach you forward.