How to vanquish impostor syndrome

Recently I came across an online discussion in which the original poster asked if others suffered from impostor syndrome.

The ‘yes’ replies came thick and fast: perfectionism, guilt, lack of confidence, feeling unsure of one’s own abilities, needing affirmation. It seems quite a lot of competent professionals out there are suffering from it!

Part of me sympathises with this – as I’ve documented on this blog before, I’ve been a victim to it too – but a part of me also rails against a ‘me too’ type of interaction.

Why? Of course it’s always reassuring to know that others have experienced the same thing, but the problem with saying that you have a problem effectively creates an echo chamber.

Impostor syndrome paralyses

Impostor syndrome is paralysing. It wants you to fail.

In fact, it positively rejoices in inducing inaction.

Why do people feel like they don’t deserve to be where they are, whether it’s running a successful freelance business, creating beautiful work, writing a book, positioning themselves as an expert, or any other endeavour they’re well qualified to take on, and feel passionate about?

Let’s look at the reasons for impostor syndrome, and what we can do to vanquish it.

Lack of self-belief
This lies at the heart of the issue. Fundamentally, it’s a belief that we simply aren’t good enough. The key here is to identify and recognise why we might be feeling that way.

Years ago I went to a personal development class in which the course leader said that in developing yourself,  you can start from now: it doesn’t matter where you are in your life, you can consider your present situation ground zero.

Which, of course, is correct – we can only ever start from where we are right now, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we won’t have to take a few steps back in order to gain momentum.

Cassie* was experiencing a significant block in her own forward movement. She was a highly successful professional who wanted to go back to night school and study for a new skill, but could not for the life of her work out why she felt unable to.

‘Don’t worry,’ the course leader said. ‘You’re good enough, you can do this.’

Still, Cassie felt frozen. One evening, as we gathered round over coffee to discuss our progress that week, she sat there looking so lost. It was awful. I could see just how much she was struggling, and I realised at that moment that the course leader was never going to get Cassie where she needed to go.

Bite the bullet

It was time to bite the bullet. So I asked her:

‘Why do you think you’re incapable? You’re so talented! Where does this come from, do you have any idea?’

She looked blank. But she came back next week, and her countenance had completely altered:

‘I’ve been thinking about this. When I was at school I had a horrible teacher who told me I was useless. She made me feel so small.’

Then she smiled at me. At last – the clouds had finally broken.

This is what a genuine breakthrough looks like. In Cassie’s case, where had her impostor syndrome come from?

Cassie had internalised that negative message all those years, and it had developed into false self-belief.

Cognitive behavioural therapists would call this ‘faulty thinking’, but there is a further problem with that label. When someone is feeling so insecure about themselves, it’s hardly constructive to heap blame on top of an already debilitated world view.

In Cassie’s case, the cruel opinion of a past authority figure was limiting her ability to achieve and grow in the present. Understanding this helped her to see why she had been feeling so inadequate, and she was able to liberate herself. She had a choice: she could refuse to allow that message from long ago to define her. She could now rebuild her self-esteem.

This is positive, powerful stuff, and not to be underestimated.

The importance of insight
The lesson here is that starting from the present without any kind of attempt at insight does not work. When the reason for mental block – negative self-talk, creative block, impostor syndrome, feeling worthless or undeserving of approbation and success, low self-esteem, whatever you like to call it – originates in the past, it needs to be located, confronted and shifted.

Denying or ignoring our experience is fundamentally flawed because invariably, that experience has shaped who we are. It has led us to the present and created the lens we use to view our current situation; but importantly, it does not have to define our future.

Sometimes that lens is faulty, and it needs to be cleaned – or even replaced altogether.

Cassie needed to pinpoint the source of her block and recalibrate it with adult, empowered eyes, to truly vanquish what was holding her back.

If you’re experiencing self-doubt and paralysis, ask yourself:

  • Are any messages from the past inducing my impostor syndrome?
  • Can I identify them?
  • If so, why do I still believe them, and what can I do about it?

Confidence comes with experience
Impostor syndrome is a common factor in new learning, especially if we are offering a new skill, service or experience to our clients.

What if they don’t believe in us? What if we don’t know what we’re doing? Are we really expert in this area? Is our advice valid? Why on earth would anyone commission us to do this for them? Will we do a good job?

All of these are questions we ask ourselves in the process of developing and growing as professionals.

The valid question is to ask yourself why exactly you are asking yourself those questions. Do you know what you’re doing? If so, why are you not being your own best advocate?

Build your confidence

Extending ourselves and our capabilities always involves a steep learning curve and at least some feelings of insecurity at the outset – that’s entirely normal.

However, if you are further down the line and still suffering from impostor syndrome, then something is wrong and it’s important to deal with it, otherwise it will continue to hold you back.

There is a point past which self-deprecation becomes crippling negativity, and that doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t build your confidence, and it certainly doesn’t encourage your clients to have confidence in you.

It’s crucial to develop the courage to be seen. I know this is a hard fact to face, but if you are serious about your offer, at some point you need to start recognising just how good you are at whatever it is you are doing, and stop imposing such pointless self-doubt and internal struggle on yourself.

Stop wanting to be perfect
Throwing guilt, perfectionism and all that self-defeating negativity out of the window is the best thing you can do for yourself. Why wear a hair-shirt when it could be silk? Why decorate your situation with performance anxiety when, deep down, you know you’re great at what you do?

Neediness is deeply unattractive. There is absolutely nothing wrong with striving for excellence and committing to quality, but perfection is an unreasonable expectation.

Stop being so hard on yourself. Start believing in just how talented and capable you are for a change. Why should you not?

If I were to ask you right now why I shouldn’t believe in you, give me one good reason!

Then, ask yourself: where is all this coming from? The only person causing yourself this level of grief is you.

It goes without saying here that being confident doesn’t mean being cocky. The worst people in business are the arrogant – we’ve all met one at some point in our careers, and we all know what utter nightmares they can be.

The best are those who interact warmly and naturally, who are comfortable in their own skin and their offer. They’re emotionally intelligent, empathic, generous, trustworthy and really know their onions.

If you don’t project confidence, ask yourself: why should anyone else trust my ability to deliver?

The last people we should look to for affirmation are our clients. It’s always nice when they say we’re fantastic at what we do – it’s a gratifying feeling – but fundamentally they are coming to us because they want someone who knows their stuff.

They want someone who is competent, can guide and help them to achieve their intentions. They aren’t interested in our insecurities. They’re interested in someone who can get the job done – and rightly so.

It’s crucial to project that capability, and to allow our clients to foster trust in us.

Impostor syndrome is the enemy of productivity, development and growth.

Don’t allow it to define you or inhibit your working life. Be strong, and put it back in its box where it belongs.

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