Please don’t call on me, I silently prayed. Please don’t call on me. Please no. Please, please, please, please…
“Ashley? What answer did you get?”
“X equals 4?” I said, my voice quiet, but rising slightly in a plea for reassurance.
“Great. Now, let’s move on.”
The tight balloon of my belly released as Mrs. Stolfit moved on to the next problem on the board, knowing I had at least a few moments until the potential for humiliation was there again.
My right answer did nothing to assuage my anxiety. In fact, it slightly increased it. Shit. Now she’s going to think I can do even harder ones. And then what happens?!
Wait until you get found out
Such is the experience of imposter syndrome, the ever familiar phenomenon in which you see yourself as undeserving or unqualified for the particular situation you are in or the status you have achieved.
My own kicked into full gear when I started ninth grade, though I had long had glimpses of it before then. But when I transitioned to ninth grade, it had been from sixth grade. And I was absolutely, one hundred percent, without a shadow of a doubt, certain that all of the teachers and powers that be had made an enormous mistake about accelerating me.
It had seemed like a fine enough idea when it was in the abstract. Skip over the trauma of seventh and eighth grade? Sign me up.
But sitting in algebra class made me forget all of the testing and the elementary school boredom and the lengthy discussions on the pros and cons of accelerating. The only thing occupying my over-stimulated brain was the certainty that I was a giant fraud and that any second now, everyone else would know this just as well as I did.
For me, imposter syndrome followed me around like a bad boyfriend (or so I’m told — when you skip middle school, you’re not exactly killing it in the high school dating department). Through decades of escalating accomplishment, it continued to whisper in my ear.
Just wait until you get found out.
How long do you think you can keep this up?
You aren’t starting to think you’re really meant to be here, right?
That voice was brutal, and it was relentless. And just like my worry that Mrs. Stolfit would take my “lucky guess” as a sign to push harder, the further I got, the louder it got.
Then I did a lot of work on myself and read some books and journaled a lot and suddenly, I realized that I belonged at every table I sat at and deserved every accolade I received.
Ha! I wish.
In reality, I’ll tell you that I still encounter imposter syndrome on the daily. The difference now, however, is that I don’t give it my power. At least not as often.
Here are the tools that I have found helpful and that I often teach the people working with me.
1. You can’t grow if you don’t know
I’m a believer that the devil you know is better than the one you don’t, and that understanding the devil’s favorite colors, hobbies, and mother’s maiden name is even better. If we can cultivate insight into the details of our imposter syndrome, that gives us the power to more easily recognize when it’s showing up.
I’ve found that while “imposter syndrome” is a general and sometimes all-encompassing phenomenon, it’s often comprised of more specific and familiar core beliefs we carry about ourselves. We might call these “limiting beliefs.” Limiting beliefs are the mental frameworks we carry through which our perceptions of ourselves and others are filtered.
To get clear on what limiting beliefs are at play when you’re aware of feeling like fraud, try this: imagine someone who you think deserves to be in the meeting or giving the presentation. Consider all of the qualities that they possess that makes them qualified to be there. Then, compare those to your own.
Note that this is not an exercise in trying to disprove your beliefs about yourself. It’s actually just about drawing them out.
Maybe you think that the ideal person would be an expert in biomechanics (which you don’t consider yourself), or that the she would be self-possessed (which you don’t feel you are). Maybe you think she has more years of education or training or more experience in doing a particular task.
Breaking down that generalized sense of “I don’t belong” into concrete qualities. You may find that your own skills aren’t that far off in some areas, but again, that’s not actually the point. The point is to be able to honestly evaluate if there are places to grow (e.g. maybe a public speaking class could be helpful) and to become friends (yes, I said friends) with your limiting beliefs.
Friends with my limiting beliefs? But I’m supposed to destroy and overcome them, right!?!
Not here, friends.
Here, we play nice (and strategically).
The truth is that limiting beliefs are often built on decades of thought patterns and confirmatory bias and are really, really hard to change. So instead of expending all of that energy playing tug-of-war with them, I’d rather get to know them, and recognize them like an old friend (or at least acquaintance).
Hey, fear of failure! I see lurking around there, hanging out. Go ahead and make yourself comfortable. That’s cool. I’m just going to be over here kicking ass.
So get familiar with your own core limiting beliefs. They are bound to show up from time to time, so being able to pinpoint when they do and recognize them quickly gives you a new way of relating to them.
2. Tattoo your purpose on your arm
If the idea of letting your limiting beliefs just hang out seems wacky or just impossible, it may be because in the process of battling those anxieties, you’ve actually lost sight of what you came to do in the first place.
The thing about imposter syndrome is that it is bound to show up when we’re playing big and doing something that connects to our purpose.
If the situation didn’t mean anything to us, our demons wouldn’t bother hanging out there.
So the good news is that when imposter syndrome is present, it’s likely you’re doing something important. Now it’s about laser focusing on what that is.
You don’t have to tattoo it on your arm unless that’s your thing, but find ways to make the reason you are putting yourself out there abundantly clear and present.
I am teaching this class because I am committed to sharing information about how we can reduce our carbon footprint.
I am leading this meeting because I want to be the kind of person that develops and presents ideas clearly and makes an impact on our company’s future.
I am working on my degree because I need this knowledge to shape public health policy in the future.
I am running for this position because I care deeply about my kids’ education and if we don’t fix this system, it will be irreparable.
Make the doing it less about how you look or seem and more about the thing itself. Because in reality, if now you, who? If not now, when?
If you’re not clear on the “why,” it would help to start with doing some values clarification work.
3. Dig in to your imposter beliefs
If you are ready to dig a little deeper and upend your imposter syndrome from the inside out, a great tool to use is called self-enquiry. I talk about it in depth over here, with instructions for how to practice.
What self-enquiry does is gives you a practice for examining your own beliefs (and biases) and how you relate to them.
When it comes to examining imposter syndrome, here are some of the questions that have emerged during my self-enquiry practice:
What is this part of me that believes I have to be perfect at this before I can do it?
Who am I afraid to judge me here and why?
Where did I learn that the way I appear in doing it is more important than the actual doing of the thing?
What would it mean if I really took up space in this situation?
Your questions will inevitably be different. The important thing to remember is that it’s not a search for all the right answers. It’s actually about finding the questions that give you that tingly feeling — oh, yeah, something’s there.
You’ll notice again that these strategies aren’t about conquering your imposter syndrome. They are about learning to acknowledge, examine, and accept that it is normal experience that arises from doing important and meaningful work in the world. If we can have it take a back seat to showing up for ourselves, we can do just about anything.