I remember standing at the foot of the stairs, feeling enormous fear. I was looking down the hall towards a light that was being blocked out by my father. I called out, “Dad. Dad! Where are you going?” He stopped, turned around, and walked back to me. Crouching down, he put one hand on my shoulder and said, “I’m going now, son.” Wearing a fake smile, he said, “You’re the man of the house now.”
The man of the house … at seven years old! What the heck was I supposed to do with that? Talk about being set up to fail!
In that very moment, I went from being a lively, exuberant, playful kid to feeling like I needed to become the most responsible person in the world! How was I supposed to cope with that? You can imagine, the overwhelm was enormous.
Maybe you can relate to a moment where you remember feeling so overwhelmed that you couldn’t even feel sad. It took me years and years to remember that scene. I blocked that out because it was just too painful. When I did get it, I remembered how numb I had gone. It was a defining moment because as that little boy, I made the decision that being sad wasn’t allowed. I needed to be the caregiver, to “save” everyone. It became a perspective-shifting, life-altering setup for how I saw the world and my place in it. The duality of that dramatic yet totally numb moment was the birthplace of my sense of being an imposter.
Today, I’m honoured to work with the kind of people that others look up to, people that others use as inspirational figures. When I’m working with a CEO or some other high-powered individual, they will invariably talk to me about their childhood.
As high achievers, there’s a pretty good chance that some version of the statement, “Well, that’s in the past,” will show up as part of a self-protective rhetoric. My reply is direct and is meant as a wakeup call, “Just because things appear to have happened in the past doesn’t mean they remain there. The past is often leaking all over the present and about to pollute the future.”
No matter our status or esteemed position, feelings of being an imposter can be overwhelming. As we aspire to be more conscious leaders, we must be willing to have the courage to ask ourselves the questions that will give us a deeper understanding of how we have become who we are. In the case of feeling overwhelmed or like an imposter, we need to stop and ask ourselves, “What triggers those feelings?”
Please allow me to challenge you. I want you to consider that there’s no such thing as a new feeling, there are only old feelings that get reignited.
Aside from the psychological research that backs up the above statement, I know this at a very personal level. That feeling of being an imposter unconsciously determined the direction of my life all the way up until my thirties. As a result of constantly trying to meet some impossible standard I had no compassion for myself. I just drove harder and harder. I’d crack the psychological whip on myself and brag about it. I drove myself so hard that burnout was my most familiar state.
Just like that seven-year-old, as soon as I felt like an imposter, I would shut down my feelings and become hard-headed. Did it work? Absolutely! I just took on my role and made it happen. When I say that I would shut down my feelings, it doesn’t mean they went away, only that I wasn’t letting them out. The problem is, the farther down we push our feelings, the more likely it is they will explode later. I’d take on whatever role I felt I was “supposed” to be. All the time, becoming more and more numb. The problem with that is, the numbness made me less emotionally available to anyone: lovers, business associates, friends, family, and most of all … myself.
Every time I was presented with something that had me feeling overwhelmed or inadequacy, I’d have a knee-jerk reaction to abandon myself and do whatever would make me look like the white knight. In my mind, anything less than perfect meant that “they” would see I was an imposter.
To my point, when I’m presented with a challenge it’s automatic for the feeling of being an imposter to get triggered within me. It’s now more than fifty years since that little boy and his feelings of being an imposter were triggered. It doesn’t go away, but because I know where it comes from, it no longer controls me.
Do you sometimes feel like an imposter?
Remember there’s a situation in your past that gave you that belief, and as much as it may have been true at the time, there is a very good chance that it is no longer true. In fact, that very situation may have been the catalyst for what others see in you as mastery. One of the ways you can overcome that feeling is by having compassion for the child you were and for the situations you were put in when that feeling first arose.
In closing, let me ask you to consider something. What if you are enough? What if you always were enough?
The Mic is Yours:
How has the feeling of being an imposter driven you (for better or worse)?
Dov Baron, Expert on Leadership, presents his Authentic Leadership Matrix!
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