Six Powerful Steps To Overcome Imposter Syndrome
Updated: Oct 19, 2021
The moment we are born, we are gifted unlimited potential, the ability to do or be anything we want. It is unfortunate that at the same time, we are also bombarded with messaging about how inferior we are. Whether it be an errant comment from your parents (or in some cases and daily barrage), a failing grade in school or a less than stellar performance review, we slowly start to lose sight of that unlimited potential and begin to come to terms with a false belief about our capabilities. On top of that, we live in a world where success, wealth, and high achievement are flung in our faces constantly. Our “feeds” from social media, TV, and the internet regularly expose us to those that have more, do more, and accomplish more. It’s no wonder that so many of us suffer esteem and confidence issues.
For me, these feelings culminated in a thought pattern that I was fake and generally inferior to the people around me. It’s a pervasive trait in our society and has been given the name “Imposter Phenomenon” by scientists. First identified from clinical observations during therapeutic sessions with high-achieving women, the study showed that these women believe that they were intellectual frauds and feared being recognized as impostors. They suffered from anxiety, fear of failure and dissatisfaction with life (Sakulku, J. (1). The Impostor Phenomenon. The Journal of Behavioral Science, 6(1), 75-97. https://doi.org/10.14456/ijbs.2011.6 )
I have a clear recollection of one of the first times that I felt inferior. I was probably around 11, and I was having some type of petty argument with my father around making Jell-O [of all things]. I can’t remember the details, but I do remember saying: Do you think I’m not smart enough to make Jell-O,” at which point he turned, looked me in the eye and said, “You said it, not me.”
Now don’t get me wrong; my father was an amazing man. Born in poverty in India, he worked his way to the London School of Economics, where he obtained his degree in chemical engineering. He was a brilliant man who worked throughout the world, published detailed scientific papers, and raised three boys with a great deal of help from my mother. It was just that he had a very particular view on his expectations and his definition of motivation. I suspect somewhere in the back of his mind he thought that his minor insult was probably not only a way to get me to do better but also win his argument. For me, it was a slap in the face and a comment that I can vividly recall 40 years later.
I won’t say this was the single event that leads me to this feeling of “imposter phenomenon.” Still, it was a vivid memory that I carry with me. Combine it with dyslexia, a complete inability to understand geometry and zero sport skills, and you arrive at adulthood with a voice in your head that tells you that you don’t belong. I was able to accomplish a few noteworthy items. I obtained a Business Degree, a Computing Science Diploma, married an amazing lady (23 years and continue to be in love), and even fathered two incredible kids, but the feeling persists.
It rears its head every time I step into a meeting or attend a seminar or networking event. I slink to the bar, grab a drink, and then back myself quietly into the darkest corner of the room. I use my glass as a shield to hopefully stop any encounters where I’ll be forced to talk about who I am to someone that my subconscious has already determined to be more intelligent and more successful.
It does not just affect my networking abilities; it’s cast doubt on my skills to do my job and certainly had a part to play in the speed at which I advanced my career. If you keep listening to that small voice in your head that says you are not worthy, it soon turns into a booming high decibel scream broadcasted in Dolby surround sound. Of course, “thoughts become things,” so you invariably drop your shoulders and hunch your back when you stand. You shy away from eye contact and possibly resort to limp handshakes. Eventually, you adopt the personality of a troll and find an even darker corner to hid in.
So, how does one go about reversing this negative behaviour pattern that has nurtured over decades? Well, it’s simple, but it might not be easy (trust me, though, it’s entirely worth it).
1. Do the Superman
Believe it or not, the simple act of changing the way you stand can have huge effects on how you feel about yourself. A study done by Harvard and Columbia University (Carney DR, Cuddy AJ, Yap AJ. Power posing: brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance. Psychol Sci. 2010;21(10):1363-1368. doi:10.1177/0956797610383437) showed that humans display power through open, expansive posture and powerlessness through closed posture. When you adopt a power posture, you lower the amount of cortisol (stress hormone) in your system and increase testosterone. Daily practice can have surprising effects on your well-being and sense of worth. If you want to learn more about power posture, watch this Ted Talk (https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_may_shape_who_you_are?language=en)
2. Change your Thoughts
The idea that changing your thoughts will ultimately affect your life is the cornerstone of most self-help gurus, but that is because it’s based on real, proven science. A perfect example of this is “The Placebo Effect.” A Placebo is an inert substance (often a sugar pill) that is used to test the efficacy of medication during drug trials, the idea being that those patients taking the placebo will have no change in condition. What scientists have found is that just the idea of taking a medication changed people’s thoughts, and suddenly they were experiencing improvements even though the drug had NO MEDICAL VALUE. How can this be? I believe the best scientific explanation lies with your Reticular Activating System (RAS). This tiny piece of your brain close to the top of your spinal column is essentially a gatekeeper for the vast amount of information that floods your brain every second. It decides what is essential and what can be ignored. When you change your thoughts to include feelings of worthiness and value, the RAS ensures that you are made aware of events that reinforce and validate those feelings. Be aware; the RAS doesn’t discriminate on positive or negative thoughts. The RAS is partly responsible for your belief that you lack merit, so chose your thoughts wisely.
3. Write down your accomplishment
As a species, humans are very good at forgetting the good they do and remembering the bad. I’m no scientist, but my investigations lead me to think that this trait has evolved to keep us focused on the things that might kill us. In the caveman days, that would have been a tiger, bear, or someone running towards you with a pointy stick. Most of those concerns are gone these days, so our minds turn towards remembering our failures and mistakes.
The simple act of writing down all the good you have done will not only give you a visual representation of your many accomplishments but there is science that shows even more significant benefits. The act of physically writing down goals activates an encoding feature in our brain. That is where an idea (your written words) is converted into a construct in the mind that now allows for better recall and long-term memory. In layman’s terms, you will better envision all the traits and achievements you have that make you a success and those achievements will now hold a more prominent position in your brain.
4. Give up the idea of perfection
One of the reasons that we sometimes feel inadequate is because we think we need to be perfect at everything we do. If we aren’t batting a thousand, then we often feel like we might as well not even try for fear of being labelled a fraud.
Let’s face it; you will never achieve perfection. To go back to the baseball analogy (disclaimer, I am NOT sporty, so my apologies for not being fully versed in the terminology), a good batting average is .275, and players with batting averages above. 300 are considered to be very good. A batting average of. 400 over a season is the Holy Grail for a batter and is nearly unattainable in baseball. The best, most famous baseball players in the world are considered giants in the sport if they manage to hit a third of the balls thrown.
If you tell your brain that you must be perfect at something to be an expert, you are setting an unobtainable goal. Scale back those expectations to what is reasonable, knowing that even the most seasoned and knowledgeable professional in any field still makes mistakes.
5. Embrace your uniqueness
Your life skills and experiences are as exclusive as your fingerprints. You are the total of every achievement and failure, win and loss, up and down, and an infinite amount of other experiences you’ve had in your time on this planet. Each of those moments, no matter how enjoyable or painful, has shaped who you are, and you bring all of that to every boardroom table, networking event, and zoom session. You will have different views on a topic, and it’s essential that you express those. Your life experiences may shed new light on an issue that no one has ever seen. For example, if you are a parent of young children, you may have some excellent ideas as to how your companies COVID-19 Work From Home policies might play out; ideas that an Executive with no children wouldn’t realize.
6. Take baby steps
Imposter Phenomenon isn’t something that appeared overnight. It’s been years, and possibly decades, of negative internal talk in your brain, so don’t think it’s going to go away in 24 hours. Believe in yourself and believe in your skills and talents. Every day you’ll start to experience some wins that will confirm your pure awesomeness, and over time that wiring in your brain will change.
I may not know you personally, but if you suffer from Imposter Phenonemnon, know that you are not alone. I believe that so many talented people suffer from the same feelings I have, and I’m confident that you are worthy and have earned your place at the table. I still struggle with these feelings but strive daily to change. I’m more open with my points of view and with the belief that I can accomplish great things. I’m also much more empathetic of others I feel might be in the same boat. I can see the people in a room that are in the same dark corner I would have occupied, and I know I can help them into the light.
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