A 3 Step Process for Working through Imposter Syndrome
That paralyzing fear – perhaps you know the one – that makes your cheeks burn and your heart race when it tells you that you have nothing to offer.
Or maybe you don’t recognize it as fear.
Maybe you experience a stench of stagnation around an activity you used to be excited about. Maybe you can’t get off the procrastination train when your new project’s to-do list is calling.
Maybe you believe the voices in your head that tell you why you couldn’t or shouldn’t or wouldn’t move forward with something you really care about.
That, my friends, is likely the fake news newscaster, imposter syndrome, speaking smelly untruths into your ear.
I can write about it with some level of authority because I work to kick its annoying butt on the daily. So if it’s haunting you too, you’re not alone.
In fact, you’re in really great company! Imposter syndrome is becoming such a pervasive concept in humanity’s canon of experiences that Mirriam-Webster added the term to its dictionary in April 2020.
But just because it’s common doesn’t mean it has to win. In fact, it’s really important that it doesn’t!
The world is hungry for our contributions, and unless we work to overcome imposter syndrome it can really put a damper on our progress.
I don’t know about you, but I want to live in the world that we create when we all collectively move toward our inspiration.
So let’s do it! Let’s overcome imposter syndrome and add our unique contributions to the world.
This three-step process works for me – when I work it. It is my sincerest hope it works wonders for you as well.
Step 1: Break down the definition
look at the scary monster for what it is
We’ve all heard that naming a problem is the first step to recovery.
Part of why that’s so effective is because when you can see something clearly, it becomes easier to work on.
So let’s get 2020 vision about what we’re dealing with so that you can overcome imposter syndrome already!
We’ll start by defining this baby using Merriam Webster’s own words:
Woah there, word count! That’s a lot to take in – but there’s also a lot in there worth unpacking.
Breaking down the defintion helped me grasp the lessons packed inside it.
I’ve broken it down into its three main ideas, and then took a closer look at the key words in each idea (yes, I was that kid in school).
What did I find?
Almost all the guidance you need to overcome imposter syndrome is hidden within the definition. Sometimes I just need to remind myself of its contents and I’m good to go!
Take a look with me:
Part 1: a psychological condition that is characterized by persistent doubt concerning one’s abilities or accomplishments
…characterized by persistent doubt
How interesting is that?
The doubt isn’t intermittent. It doesn’t wait to strike us at our weakest moments. It isn’t something we achieve our way out of.
It is persistent doubt that plays in a loop, depleting our energy and often stopping our forward momentum in its tracks.
This is one reason we struggle to overcome imposter syndrome’s lies – because repetitive content sounds like truth. That doesn’t mean that it is.
concerning one’s abilities or accomplishments
Our capability, skillset, and even our worth can be brought into question through the insidious pathology of the imposter syndrome. Rude.
And if all imposter syndrome attacked was our sense of our own abilities, it would be harder to spot the lie.
But here’s where imposter syndrome has messed up: it’s trying to rewrite history! Our accomplishments are past experiences that actually happened. We were there, no proof needed!
Sure, in our more vulnerable moments, imposter syndrome can have us questioning if we really accomplished that thing or if we really deserved our accomplishments. Imposter syndrome has gaslighting down to an art.
But if you compare what you know to what you’re being told, imposter syndrome doesn’t stand a chance.
You were there – it really happened. You have unquestionable abilities and are undeniably accomplished. Blow out that gas light and step into your truth.
Part 2: accompanied by the fear of being exposed as a fraud
accompanied by the fear
Fear can definitely be a catalyst for great things, but within the imposter syndrome paradigm it often has the effect of keeping us stuck.
Some of the ways this fear succeeds in holding us in place are through negative self-talk, distractions, procrastination, overthinking, or blaming our circumstances for our stagnation.
Imposter syndrome’s fear talk uses the tactics that work best on us, so the lies usually sound true! Start to notice the patterns so you can recognize these lies.
of being exposed as a fraud
Exposure is a fancy word for being seen. It is already scary enough to put ourselves out there, but vulnerability can feel downright impossible with the unfriendly voice of imposter syndrome in our ear.
Because even scarier than being seen is being seen in a negative light.
The definition doesn’t say that we are afraid of actually being a fraud. In fact, we tend to know deep down what our levels of skill, potential, and integrity are.
What we are afraid of is the shame we would feel if other people thought we were frauds.
It’s not surprising that imposter syndrome can stifle your momentum. It’s not playing fair! Be kind to yourself as you work through this and put yourself out there.
Part 3: despite evidence of one’s ongoing success.
The proof is in the pudding, and yet imposter syndrome is having its say.
The doubts placed in our minds are the unhelpful words of an unproductive mindset, opposite in every way to the proof provided by our lived experience.
Remind yourself of your lived experience.
of one’s ongoing success
Again with the idea of consistency: we’re not talking about intermittent success, we have evidence of our ongoing success.
Small wonder that the message of doubt also has to be consistent! A gap in imposter syndrome’s story would expose it for the lie that it is in the face of our irrefutable and ongoing truth.
So, basically, our capability is so evident that imposter has to bring it’s best, most persistent game to keep us down.
Imposter syndrome doesn’t show up because we are failures. It shows up because we are formidable opponents!
Important caveat – I believe the word success may be interpreted too stringently by some readers (ex: perfectionists like me).
Success can be anything from a college degree, years of experience, or a passion that earns you an invitation into a conversation.
Sure, it is important to have discernment about actual limitations you have so that we don’t act irresponsibly. But way more often than not, we are being held back by our fear and not by our limitations.
Perfectionists: consider that at the very least, you’re probably plenty qualified to get started and ask for the support you may need along the way.
Step 2: Understand how Imposter Syndrome does a disservice to the world
hold yourself accountable and activate your purpose
There are two major ways I see imposter syndrome playing out in the world around me, and I’m not really sure which is more dangerous.
Before we look closely at overcompensation, it is important to remember that ongoing success must be present for imposter syndrome to be present.
The truth is, there will always be elements of our passions, jobs, and areas of expertise where we are out of our depth.
A challenging thing about always feeling like an imposter – when we aren’t – is that it can make it harder for us to recognize when we are actually underqualified for something.
Or it can have the opposite effect, causing us to work extra hard to prove ourselves.
Both of these scenarios can lead to overcompensating.
Ways that overcompensating can look:
- Acting like a know-it-all
- Speaking outside our scope
- Giving unsolicited advice
- Refusing to ask for help
- Unwillingness to listen to others
- Not communicating healthy boundaries
- Burning out
- Working extra long hours to prove your value
- Brown nosing
- Becoming the loudest person in the room
Raise your hand if you’ve ever done any of these things? (Guilty! I shudder at the memories, and will probably find myself doing them again because #human.)
The dangers of overcompensation can be as trivial as having to put your foot in your mouth after speaking out of your scope in a conversation. They can also be as serious as causing workplace inefficiencies, implementing poor policy, burning out in your hustle to prove your worth, disseminating fake news, or causing harm to others.
Let’s avoid all that, okay?
Before we leave this topic, I want to be clear that there is no shame in being underqualified or unqualified in something. In fact, all of the experts I respect in the world willingly admit when they are out of their depth.
If you acknowledge your limitations and are still welcomed to participate, then stay and learn! Ask questions! Get qualified! Just don’t fake it till you make it – start where you are and build it with integrity instead.
The other truly unfortunate way that imposter syndrome rears its ugly head is by forcing us into hiding.
What do I mean by hiding? It can look a lot of ways depending on what area of your life imposter syndrome is bullying you in.
At work, it can look like not speaking up in a meeting because you’re not sure if your idea is important enough.
In a conversation, it may look like adopting someone else’s opinion because you’re worried yours may not be worthy of being heard.
In an interview, it could look like failing to highlight a piece of your value because you aren’t confident the skill or experience is impressive enough.
For me, imposter syndrome loves to tell me stories about how imperfect I am, and how much better I would do if I waited to start until I’ve reached perfection.
What a drag.
Hiding does a disservice to you, but it does an even greater disservice to the world.
Because you, as a person who lives in the world, help create the reality we all live in.
You something unique and important to offer – even if it is just the spark of the beginning of an idea.
If you don’t show up and act on the inspiration and the knowledge that you have, whether great or small, you will never be in the arena that grows your experience. This holds you back from achievements, fulfilling work, and meaningful relationships.
If you aren’t achieving, if you aren’t doing fulfilling work, if you aren’t in meaningful relationships, you are not contributing to raising the vibration of the world around us.
Can you imagine a world where the role models, experts, and innovators that we celebrate now never got started with their work because they were waiting for permission?
We have leaders because people showed up in the world.
Not interested in being a leader?
You are not exempt from the truth that your contribution to the world is unique, valid, and valued. Hiding your light means there is less light in the world, simple as that.
If you are going to overcome imposter syndrome, it is essential that you get really clear on who is being served by your imposter syndrome (hint hint: no one), and who will be served by you showing up and embodying the fullness of what you have to offer.
In this context, imposter syndrome is no longer just an pest whispering discouraging thoughts in your ear. It is keeping you from your life’s work!
Send imposter syndrome a howler and show up to do your part in co-creating the world you want to live in!
Step 3: Take an action to disprove the lies of imposter syndrome
show up in the world – on purpose
You: Great! Howler sent! Now what do I do?
Me: Fair question. But you’re asking the wrong person.
Only you know the specifics of the self-talk that imposter syndrome is taunting you with. Remember, imposter syndrome crafts its lies specifically for your ears. It’s up to you to uncover the actions that will overcome imposter syndrome for you.
The goal here is to take actions that disprove the (up until now!) effective lies that the imposter syndrome has been telling you. You are responsible for discovering how to overcome imposter syndrome as it relates to you.
Doing something that disproves these lies pops a hole in the story imposter syndrome is telling, which provides you the chance to see the truth for what it really is.
It also creates that surge of energy caused by productivity and achievement, which can propel you into the next moment where you disprove bigger lies with bigger actions.
This cycle of activation renders imposter syndrome ineffective, as long as you are practicing it!
Based on my experience, here are some ideas of how you can practice:
- When you get a feeling of inadequacy, remind yourself what is true about your passions, knowledge, and experience. There’s no shame in pulling out the resume for a read if that’s what it takes! This helps to identify if the feeling you’re experiencing as either a lie of imposter syndrome or an opportunity to learn something from someone else.
- Get feedback from trusted loved ones about your strengths and weaknesses as a cross-reference for your own self-assessment.
- Review the imposter syndrome definition breakdown to remind yourself of who imposter syndrome is and who you are. You can grab your free pdf copy here.
- Seek out encouraging content. I love podcasts for this, specifically, because I can take the words with me into the activity of my day. Brené Brown’s podcast, Unlocking Us, has a great episode on the fear of inadequacy that first-timers face, and the What Do I Do? podcast has an episode that deals specifically with imposter syndrome.
- Do you struggle with comparison? Read this article.
- Do the thing you are afraid of doing. Get clear on what you can do in alignment with your skills and passions, and where you may need support. But actually do it!
- When you start doing the thing that you are afraid of doing, write down all of the reasons you come up with for stopping. Keep them in a notebook so you can start to learn what specific tricks imposter syndrome uses on you. Then you can recognize these tactics for what they are (lies of the imposter syndrome goblin!) when they come up in the future.
- Give the voice of imposter syndrome a name. I know it sounds silly, but it helps to view its lies as the voice of a separate entity rather than as a piece of who you are (which it is not).
- Connect to your purpose. Nothing inspires getting off the couch like thinking about the lives that could be changed by doing your work in the world.
- Move your body. Never underestimate the power of getting out of your head and into your body. This is one of the coolest lessons I’ve learned from my dog, who is down for anything once she’s had a good full body shakedown.
Now it’s your turn…
I’d love to hear what actions you’ve come up with to overcome imposter syndrome. Let me know if the comments!