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The Hidden Gift of Impostor Syndrome

Feeling like a fraud at work has one surprising silver lining.

Courtesy of Drawlab19/Shutterstock
Courtesy of Drawlab19/Shutterstock

Ahhh, impostor syndrome. Just when you think you’ve finally worked your way out of its clutches, it comes back with a vengeance. Like a horror movie villain that returns to life with even more power than it originally possessed, impostor syndrome creeps up on us at unexpected times and in inconvenient places.

Got that promotion you’ve always wanted? Impostor syndrome is the voice that tells you that you don’t deserve it. Selected to lead a challenging new project? Impostor syndrome says you’ll be exposed as a fraud. Transitioning to a new field or function? Impostor syndrome shouts that you don’t belong here.

As a women’s leadership coach and a “recovering impostor” myself, I spend a lot of time thinking about this challenge. I’ve done workshops, written blog posts, and individually coached and counseled hundreds of women on how to manage impostor syndrome. It recently occurred to me, however, that we spend so much time focusing on the negative effects of impostor syndrome that we miss the hidden gift.

Research on impostor syndrome has found that it is most prevalent among high achievers. High-profile sufferers include: Maya Angelou, Sonia Sotomayor, Sheryl Sandberg, and many others. So, what’s happening here? How can it be that those we deem most successful and capable are more likely to experience self-doubt?

Here’s where it gets interesting. Impostor syndrome strikes hardest when you leave your comfort zone. If you’re a rock star in your current role and can overcome challenges in your sleep, you’re not experiencing impostor syndrome.

If you were doing the same work for years with limited changes to your daily routine, you would not be feeling like a fraud. You would be very comfortable. And guess what? Growth doesn’t happen in comfortable places.

Each time you experience impostor syndrome, you are getting a signal that you are pushing yourself. Is it uncomfortable? Yes! Is it scary? Of course!

But imagine the alternative. Imagine that you wake up every day knowing exactly what lies ahead. That you go to work, complete tasks for which you are outrageously overqualified, and then come home again, only to repeat this all over again the next day.

How uncomfortable is that? How painful is it to feel that you’re not living up to your true potential? How unbearable is it to know that you have so much more to offer, but you’re stuck in mediocrity?

Don’t get me wrong. If not managed appropriately, impostor syndrome can be highly disruptive. (I speak here from personal experience!) But the alternative is no picnic either.

It’s time that we recognize the hidden value of impostor syndrome. When I start to feel those old thoughts creeping back in, I immediately catch myself…and I smile. Because I know what’s happening. I’m about to embark on an exciting new challenge.

I recently heard someone say that the only difference between excitement and anxiety is the story we tell ourselves. Our brain can’t differentiate between the two because they create very similar physiological experiences. That same heart-racing, butterflies-in-the-stomach sensation you feel when you’re about to give an important presentation is what you feel when you’re going on a first date with a new potential partner. How you experience it is directly a function of how you think about it.

When you experience those physiological sensations of anxiety, tell yourself a different story. Instead of thinking, “I’m doomed to fail. Everyone is going to find out that I don’t belong here,” substitute new thoughts, such as, “I’m feeling really excited right now. I’m looking forward to this adventure!” With a new narrative, those anxious feelings will shift from dread to anticipation.

The next time impostor syndrome strikes, take a moment to deeply and sincerely congratulate yourself. You didn’t have to accept that promotion or challenge. You could’ve stayed in a comfortable, predictable spot and avoided the anxiety.

But you decided that it was worth it. You decided that you wanted to play bigger. You chose to stretch your limits and face new challenges. And that’s what makes you a high achiever!

Also, as you step into a new role with impostor syndrome looming above you, remind yourself that the comfort zone you’re stepping out of likely triggered those same feelings when you started that role. Everything new is scary, but it’s also what makes live worth living.

Originally published on Ellevate.

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