Overcoming Imposter Syndrome with Curiosity
Do you sometimes feel like you’re not what other people think you are, that you’ve got them fooled, that they’re not seeing how limited you are? When insecurities and self-doubt trigger these thoughts, it’s a phenomenon known as imposter syndrome and many highly successful people have experienced it. The good news is overcoming imposter syndrome takes an attitude of curiosity. Really, could it be so simple?
In 1978, psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes developed the term “imposter phenomenon,” in their study of high-achieving women. Today, famous women such as Sheryl Sandberg, Maya Angelou, Tina Fey, former First Lady Michelle Obama, and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor have all confessed to experiencing it. Here are just a few of their comments:
- “I have written 11 books but each time I think ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.” – Maya Angelou
- “Every time I was called on in class, I was sure that I was about to embarrass myself. Every time I took a test, I was sure that it had gone badly. And every time I didn’t embarrass myself — or even excelled — I believed that I had fooled everyone yet again. One day soon, the jig would be up … This phenomenon of capable people being plagued by self-doubt has a name — the impostor syndrome. Both men and women are susceptible to the impostor syndrome, but women tend to experience it more intensely and be more limited by it” – Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In
- “The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh God, they’re on to me! I’m a fraud!’ . . . just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud.“ – Tina Fey
While I endorse labeling emotions and body sensations so you can use them to identify and manage your present state, I avoid judgmental labeling because labels have power – they stick and change how you feel about yourself and others. That being said, let’s see how curiosity is key to unraveling the emotions tied up in “imposter syndrome.”
Overcoming Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome arises when highly successful people think they don’t deserve their success, that they lucked into it, that they didn’t do it on their own.
At the heart of “overcoming imposter syndrome” we must recognize that we all experience feelings of self-doubt, lack of confidence and not belonging. This view of self is worsened by boundaries that society has arbitrarily set along racial, social, educational, economic and gender lines. Because we buy into those lines, crossing them and being successful sets off that voice inside that says you couldn’t or shouldn’t be this successful.
If it helps you to label a feeling of self-doubt as imposter syndrome, then employ your nonjudgmental curiosity to mindfully examine and explore it. You can mentally pause at these moments, and say: “that’s my brain/body connection telling me I’m not confident right now. Why is that? What’s causing me to feel this way? What do I need to gain my confidence again?” Here are some things to keep on the lookout for.
Be curious about the things that lead to the self-doubt of imposter syndrome…
Comparing yourself to others. When you look at others do you feel envy, anxiety, or incompetence? Switch those emotions by being curious and see what you can learn from them. Making comparisons solely to judge yourself needs to be firmly rejected.
Striving for perfection. This may have begun in childhood. Falling short of your parent’s expectations — “What! You got a B? You can do better than that!” — can follow you into adulthood. Re-examine how significant adults in your life responded to your early successes and “failures” (I view them as learning experiences, which can never fail you!) and see how that’s molded your self-image today.
Stepping forward into the unknown. New challenges create inner tension, but all you have to do is take the next step and see where it leads you. Wherever that is, you’ll learn something valuable that will open up the next step.
Being a solo flier. If you refuse to ask for help, consider that all successful people have help. None of us do it on our own. When you have help, give them credit and let your success shine on them too.
Not belonging. If you’re different from the majority of the people around you, you could focus on those differences and turn them into walls. Or you can use your curiosity to see how they’re really assets that bring a fresh approach.
Having to prove yourself. Because of stereotypes, there may be an unwarranted bias that you feel you need to rise above. However, this goes back to the issue of the harmful power of labels. Please don’t define yourself by them. You are an individual with unique qualifications and strengths. In addition, know that you don’t have to carry the burden of others on your shoulders, i.e., “I’ll be letting every woman down if I don’t succeed!” What others think of your success, as you see it, isn’t your problem.
Living down your past. Your background can make you feel like you don’t fit in, like you’re going to be caught out and asked to leave. But think of how your experiences have prepared you to be more knowledgeable, more empathetic, more valuable.
Benefiting from external factors. Sometimes your success is a matter of grabbing a lucky break. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have it! After all, you were the one ready for the opportunity.
As you curiously explore self-doubting thoughts that make you feel like an imposter, turn each possible roadblock into an exciting learning experience by employing your curiosity. It’s okay to be scared, to not do it perfectly, to receive help, to succeed. You’ve got this. You deserve your success because you’ve worked hard for it.
If working on overcoming imposter syndrome is important to you and you’d like guidance and honest feedback, I invite you to contact me and schedule a 30-minute complimentary consultation by phone or via Zoom, to see if we’re a good fit for working together. Feel free to ask me why somatic coaching helps people achieve their goals much faster than traditional therapy.