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Given that it is Thanksgiving week, I considered talking to you today about being thankful, about how being thankful is good for your emotional and spiritual energy, about how being thankful raises the level of joy and peace of all those who experience your thankfulness, about how being thankful will help you be more productive, calmer, and well happier. But I have decided that you would likely think that such a podcast would feel clichéd and overdone, so I won’t tell you all those things about the power of thankfulness. I’m sure you’re thankful for that!
Instead, I want to talk about a feeling many of us get regularly, a feeling I often have when I’m writing a blog, recording a podcast, or coaching an executive. The feeling that I am a fraud. You’ve likely felt it too. You are in a position where others are looking at you as the expert in the room, or you are with a group of your perceived superiors and you sense you have something important to contribute to the conversation, but you think to yourself, “who am I to tell these people how to do their job!”
What we are feeling psychologist call the impostor syndrome. The Caltech Counseling Center defines impostor syndrome as “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in the face of information that indicates that the opposite is true. It is experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence.” They break it down into three categories:
- Feeling like a fake
- Attributing success to luck
- Discounting success
Including myself, I have know many people who have these chronic feelings of self-doubt. For me it shows up in my constant need for self-validation. By the way, would you please leave a nice comment about how much you like this post :). It shows up in the young person who is new in her job, really smart and full of ambition but just can’t find her voice and lead from below when in meetings with people of higher rank and seniority. It shows up in the sales person who finds himself in a room full of executives and he begins to think, they already know everything I’m going to say, and I’m going to waste their time and look like a fool.
The fact of the matter is, our feelings of self-doubt and of being an impostor are usually very unfounded. They are rooted a fiction based upon conjecture and have no foundation in reality. I remember preparing for my first presentation to a major customer. All the while that I was preparing my presentation I held images in my mind of a room full of powerful people who would eat me if I messed up. I was new to my topic, I’d never presented to a customer before, and I was talking about their business as if I knew better than they. I was terrified! After just a few moments in the room I realized, these people are just like me. We are in this thing together. They are just as uncertain as I am, and they are hopeful that I can help them.
I could go on and on about this topic because it is very real to me. I feel it in my core, but I’ll stop for now and just give you a few tips that may help you overcome or at least manage your feelings of self-doubt.
First of all, don’t pretend to know things you don’t know. One of the strongest tendencies of a person suffering from impostor syndrome is to feel an inordinate amount of pressure to have an answer for every question and to always be one step ahead of those people they are afraid of being exposed to for the fake they believe they are. You will do yourself a great favor and a whole lot of good if you will stop giving into that urge. Nothing will make you feel like a fake more than faking it, so just don’t do it. Be honest. When you don’t know an answer just say so and either let someone else answer the question or go find the answer yourself. In either case you avoid feeding that feeling of being a fake and you learn something you didn’t already know. People will respect for your level of self-awareness, humility and willingness to learn.
Second, give yourself a break. We are all under a great deal of pressure to perform. Along with that pressure comes a massive fear of failure, which in turn creates considerable anxiety. The reality is that most of us who deal with self-doubt put more pressure to perform on ourselves than others ever thought of exerting. We set the expectation of success so high that we know instinctively we cannot measure up. As a result we fuel our self-doubt. We create an environment where the feeling of being a fake is almost a forgone conclusion. We must learn to set more realistic expectations of ourselves and allow for failure and the consequent growth and learning that comes. No one expects you to be as perfect as you do, so give yourself a break, lower the bar a little bit and embrace failure as something good and not as a sign that you are an impostor.
Third, stop comparing yourself to others. I don’t think I need to say much about this principle. The fact of the matter is that you are a unique person with unique gifts. I am different from you, and just like you, I have a place in this world where I bring value; value unlike the value you bring but no less important. The key is to understand your own unique voice and value and live there in that sweet spot as opposed to trying to mimic the unique voice and value of others. We will always feel like impostors when we are trying to live the lives of other people.
Well, much more can be and should be said about this topic, but we will leave it here for now. But I want to invite you continue the discussion either in the comment forum of this article or via email.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net