The problem isn’t the imposter syndrome itself. It’s how we relate to it.
Research shows that 70% of us will feel like an imposter at some point in our careers. You might have even felt it this week. Whether you’re making a pitch, leading a meeting, or writing an article (ahem…) you might notice a creeping voice in the back of your mind telling you that you’re a phony.
This can manifest as annoying thoughts, shortness of breath, or crippling fear. At best it’s an unwanted distraction that slows you down. But at worst it’s paralyzing, preventing you from making any progress.
Although this sounds terrible, the problem isn’t the imposter syndrome itself. It’s how we relate to it.
How we relate to the Imposter
When you feel these doubts pop up, what do you make it mean about you? What do you believe to be true in that moment? It’s important to separate the feeling itself from the interpretation.
We think we’re experiencing life as it is, but really we are living through our filtered perception. We are meaning-making machines (or organisms) that run complex calculations every second processing data to make sense of it.
We take objective reality and selectively pay attention to a small piece of it. Then we make that information mean something, make assumptions about it, and draw conclusions. This then forms the basis of our beliefs and actions, which create our worldview and lived experience. This is called the ladder of inference, developed by Chris Argyris.
But this whole process is subconscious. It doesn’t occur to us that this is an active process we’re creating, it occurs to us as though that is the way things truly, objectively are.
So think back to the last time you felt like an imposter. What did you make it mean?
Some common themes I’ve heard from clients:
When I feel like an imposter, it means:
I’ll never make it.
Nobody cares what I have to say.
These are totally normal responses, but notice that none of these things are true. The feelings are real of course, but they’re not objective facts. They’re interpretations that we give to the thoughts and feelings we experience.
We can shift this story into one that empowers us to live more fully into our truth, express ourselves more creatively, and actualize our potential.
Our performance = potential – interference (Timothy Gallwey). “Imposter syndrome” is just interference that gets in the way of us reaching our potential.
So what else is possible?
First of all, it’s not a syndrome. Literally, it is not a medical diagnosis.
The language we use is important because it shapes our perception of reality. Words have power and we can access that by changing the way we talk about this.
Let’s call them imposter thoughts (or if you’re feeling spicy, imposter delusions).
So what does it mean when these thoughts pop up? Take a moment to reflect on the last time you had imposter thoughts. Really try to embody that moment. And then read this.
When thoughts pop up that make me feel like an imposter, it means:
I’m doing work that matters.
I’m being generous in putting myself out there.
I’m being courageous in trying something that might not work.
Take a breath and let that really sink in.
You might feel the fire re-ignited inside you. A stronger commitment to take action. A reminder of your purpose, why you’re doing this in the first place. These are much more powerful interpretations that you can create for yourself. And they’re just as true!
…Or you might be stuck on the part that it “might not work.”
But that’s the truth; there is a chance of failure. If you never felt like an imposter, you’d be stuck doing things that you know have a 100% chance of success. You’d be playing it safe inside your comfort zone doing repetitive tasks.
I want to be clear that there’s nothing wrong with that–the world needs plenty of it.
But if you’re reading this, you’re a leader committed to creating a more meaningful and prosperous future. And that means you need to:
Get over yourself!
I say this with love. It’s not about you.
I get that it feels scary. To step into the unknown. To commit to ambitious goals that you don’t know how you’ll accomplish. To take responsibility for something bigger than yourself.
But it’s not about you. It’s about the people you serve. The difference you’re wanting to make. The unique way that only you can change the world. It is a selfless act for you to show up and share yourself with others.
Indeed, what could be more selfish than withholding your beautiful, unique gift from the world?
Trust me, I’ve walked away from this article so many times worrying that you’ll think it’s absolute crap. But that’s a risk I’m willing to take. Because this article isn’t about me or my fear. It’s about helping you develop the courage to take the next step on your journey.
So how do we tame the imposter and change how we relate to it?
- De-identify with the thoughts. It’s not a syndrome, it’s a thought. And you are not your thoughts. You have thoughts. They pop up, and they go away. Take a step back and notice the imposter thought when it comes. Thank it for the warning, and let it know that you don’t need it right now. Let it go.
- Write a more powerful story. These imposter thoughts are a beautiful thing. They’re a sign that you’re doing something worthwhile. It means you’re headed in the right direction.
- Take the next step. WIth fear as your guide, move into action. Put one foot in front of the other and put your dent in the universe. One step at a time.
Are you more committed to staying safe, or fulfilling your mission?
What would be possible for you as a leader if you didn’t let imposter thoughts stop you?
If you want individualized support and someone to guide and challenge you on your journey, schedule your free 20-minute discovery session now. I’ll help you get crystal clear on your vision for success, identify all the blindspots and thought patterns that get in your way, and help you create a plan for action.
Gallwey, W. T. (1979). The inner game of tennis.
Sakulku, J. & Alexander, J. (2011). The imposter phenomenon. International Journal of Behavioral Science.
Senge, Peter M. (1990). The fifth discipline: the art and practice of the learning organization.