Impostor Syndrome? You’re in Great Company
By now, you’ve probably heard of something called ‘Impostor Syndrome’. Perhaps you even suspect you have it. It’s been getting a ton of attention these days and many bright, talented people are sharing their experiences with it – including people we all know to be ‘the real deal’ like – Michelle Obama, Tom Hanks, Maya Angelou, Meryl Streep, Jodie Foster, Lady Gaga, Sheryl Sandberg, Seth Godin, Tina Fey, even Albert Einstein & Leonardo Da Vinci.
“I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have.” Leonardo Da Vinci
In this article, I will claim that many of us are innocent impostors, and that impostorism itself is only the tip of the iceberg of a larger underlying issue that doesn’t get the attention it needs. Further, I will share a compassionate perspective that not only reframes this phenomenon so we can understand it better but also helps us begin to heal it.
To start with, what’s an Impostor?
An impostor is a person who practices deception under an assumed character, identity, or name (dictionary.com).
I could make the case that most of us are impostors in one way or another, albeit innocent impostors.
After speaking with thousands of people seeking coaching for personal growth and fulfillment, and working with hundreds of them, many of them established executives and business owners, it’s become evident to me that most people (who embark on the personal growth journey) don’t know who they really are and aren’t in touch with their True Essence or Authentic Self. At the same time, many have assumed (unknowingly and unintentionally) more than one false identity, and I will include myself in this group of people.
We become who we think we need to be and/or who we think the world wants us to be. We try to show the world our best parts, and hide the rest, even from ourselves.
Of course, our purpose isn’t malevolent deception to harm others or gain advantage, money or property but rather to protect ourselves from fear, pain and shame.
Most of the time, we don’t even know we’re deceiving anyone, including ourselves.
But some of the time, in some situations or environments, we get that unnerving, anxious feeling that we’re going to be found out; someone important will discover that we’re a fraud, and there will be consequences. We fear that we’ll be found out to be incompetent and our success, position or status has been undeserved.
That’s what people are calling The Impostor Syndrome, and this label is becoming more popular by the day, especially on social media. Different surveys report up to 87% of people have experienced it at one time or another. I found some data showing that around 30% of survey respondents in a large, international company were experiencing the phenomenon at the time of the study. That’s an astonishing number.
Think about your last meeting with a group of colleagues – chances are that one third of them felt they didn’t deserve to be there and were experiencing anxiety and stress that at any minute, they’d be found out to be impostors.
With compassion and respect to everyone who experiences this distressing phenomenon (myself included), it seems as though the impostor syndrome itself is an impostor. It’s not a syndrome, a mental disorder or an illness as its assumed name suggests. It was originally called The Impostor Phenomenon and was labeled as a ‘psychological experience’ that many people have – especially high-achieving, intelligent, hard-working people.
Common Definition of Impostor Syndrome
Wikipedia defines it as: “a psychological occurrence in which an individual doubts their skills, talents, or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud. Despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing this phenomenon do not believe they deserve their success or luck… they may think that they are deceiving others because they feel as if they are not as intelligent as they outwardly portray themselves to be.”
There’s More to It
Digging a little deeper and reviewing some of the original literature, we learn:
“[The Impostor Phenomenon] is an experience of feeling incompetent and of having deceived others about one’s abilities… Impostor feelings are shown to be associated with such characteristics as introversion, trait anxiety, a need to look smart to others, a propensity to shame, and a conflictual and non-supportive family background… seen as a result of seeking self-esteem by trying to live up to an idealized image to compensate for feelings of insecurity and self-doubt. Both research and clinical experience have revealed that impostor feelings are frequently accompanied by worry, depression, and anxiety resulting from pressure to live up to one’s successful image and fear that one will be exposed as unworthy and incompetent.” (Langford/Clance – Psychotherapy Journal)
Examining the Impostor Experience
What if we were to separate the syndrome into two different parts?
The phenomenon is often triggered when someone’s status is elevated in some way – a promotion at work, a new and higher position at a new company, an achievement, a grand success begetting acknowledgement from others, and so on.
I believe anyone in any context can experience the phenomenon, not only those in business or academic circles, on which much of the research was based. We’re hearing a lot from famous actors – so it’s not just about business or leadership acumen, or even intellectual prowess, it’s really about how we perform, and anxiety about the questions, can we live up to the image we believe others hold of us, and do I deserve to be here?
In any setting, the person triggered is often an intelligent, hard-working, high-achieving person though they themselves aren’t convinced of that.
The actual experience of ‘being afraid of being exposed as a fraud – even if one has the qualities, competence and intelligence needed for a position or a task’ is just the tip of a really big iceberg, and it can be separated out and examined on its own.
I want to suggest that that experience is normal – and what I mean by normal is a ‘completely human’ experience that has some value. Probably an ancestral, adaptive pattern we inherited to keep us in check, to keep us humble, to keep us motivated to keep fitting in to the group because we have an innate need to belong.
It’s the “Oh no, what if I’m not good enough at collecting wood for fire and they judge me… will I be humiliated and exiled?” experience. But if one puts in their humble efforts, they will be accepted by the group and eventually increase their skill, competency and confidence and they won’t have that fear crop up until they rise to the next level, for example from stick-gatherer to say, fire-maker, or whatever else the hunter-gatherer tribe needed.
Once separated out – everything else included in the Impostor ‘Syndrome’ is not about impostorism necessarily – it’s about deeper issues of shame, lack of self-worth, and trying to get self-esteem and a sense of safety within through external validation. It’s about trying to quell self-doubt and insecurity by trying to live up to an idealized self image (a false identity) while not being connected with and gaining the powerful and essential benefits of one’s own Authentic Self.
So many of us tragically cling to deep-seated beliefs that we’re not good enough, smart enough, capable enough, or deserving enough – ever, no matter what. Something my clients and I label as unenoughness.
But why are these beliefs still so strong once we have ample evidence to prove that we’re actually very capable and accomplished? It would make sense to a newbie, a new grad or even a new manager for instance, but why does it persist once one has the credentials and accolades to prove deservedness? Why don’t we remember and value ourselves?
The answer is in the rest of the iceberg – and very often (but not always) goes back to our childhoods.
I’m going to offer up a new (and totally made up) term for the rest of this iceberg and call it Self-Deficiency Syndrome.
Impostors to Ourselves: A Deficiency of ‘Self’
Let me share a trauma-informed model or frame you can use to see this whole situation differently and how compassion offers us the antidote to shame, feelings of undeservedness, and the anxiety of being found out.
Picture this – a young child, innocent, inherently worthy, school hasn’t robbed them of their creativity yet, they’re spontaneous and free. Then one day, they’re not so free and spontaneous.
They start to see themselves as others see them.
They do something that gets mocked, belittled, or harshly judged, and suddenly they feel the world beneath their feet fall from under them. They’ve been wounded.
They fall in to themselves and can’t even look up at their judgers (probably their parents or another family member). Time slows down. They blush and it gets noticed, and they get teased for it, making them feel even worse.
This child is having the powerful, intense and disruptive experience of shame for the first time. They might not remember the incident but their brain and nervous system will remember the feeling forever.
Shame takes us inward and makes us view nearly everything about ourselves in a negative light. It can cause a split between our true selves, and how we observe ourselves or think we are seen.
Self gets eclipsed and what we’re left with is the notion that we are flawed and unacceptable as we are, and we may carry that as a burden for the rest of our lives.
Shame is so intense that our psyche preoccupies itself with trying to find ways to protect ourselves – ways to prevent shame from being triggered, and ways to avoid experiencing it if it is.
The Compassionate Reframe
In a previous article on Self Leadership and getting to know the parts of our inner world – I shared an overview of a framework that explains so much of our inner experience and why we feel what we feel and behave in the ways we do. It’s based on Internal Family Systems, which I’ve been studying for several years and which has made a massive difference in my life.
The short(er) version goes like this…
We have an essence – a life force – our essential nature – some call it a soul or spirit – we are that. Let’s go with ‘Self’.
We form personalities – plural – we have multiple ways of being ourselves – and this is natural and inherent to human beings. We are not just one of these identities, we are the consciousness that has the capacity to have these identities or experience life through these personalities. Other modalities call these subpersonalities or sub-selves. In IFS, they’re simply called parts.
We could also look at them as programs – or neural networks. But relating to ourselves works best when we see ourselves as human beings, not as programs or nerve cells.
So, we’re multiples and each personality can take the wheel of consciousness and steer us through life. Drivers change seats – in different situations, with different people, we show up as these different parts of ourselves, and that’s all good. Creative parts, genius parts, loving parts, adventurous parts, brave parts, powerful parts and so on.
If you’re human, childhood came with some wounding and in many cases, if the conditions were met, we healed, we learned, and we grew. But if the conditions weren’t met, we stay wounded and it has a great effect on who we become, how we have and keep (or don’t keep) relationships, how we work and how we parent (look up attachment trauma / developmental trauma).
We may forget or we may discount the times we got hurt as kids but some of them were intense enough and overwhelming enough (for us at the time) that our psyche repressed them.
When our experience was too much to bear, our psyche cut ourselves off from it. We don’t just banish the experience; we banish the part of us that’s having the experience. A part of our essence and innocence goes with it and it’s still living in that state within us – unaged, and unchanged.
These exiles carry our pain, terror and shame.
Multiple unhealed woundings equals multiple exiles. We can have several or many, and they don’t all necessarily have their genesis in childhood. We may have exiles from more recent situations and experiences in our lives.
Imagine them all, alone, neglected, cut off from everything else, subsisting in the shadows of your being. Perhaps you’re feeling some compassion for them already.
In place of the exile – another part of us took over and took on the role of some kind of protector. It held the strategy and made all the rules for us to keep us from being wounded like that again.
It told us how to look, how to sound, and how to behave. It became a manager of sorts, proactively and pre-emptively working hard to ensure we stay in line and out of harm’s way.
There can be many protective managers within us and many of them can be part of what’s behind or beneath the impostor experience – a harsh inner critic, a perfectionist, a controller, a rule-maker, a judge, an achiever, a hard-worker, a loner, a nice guy/gal, a people-pleaser and so on.
Much of the time we think that’s who we are – we think we are those roles. Those are our false identities.
With critical and deprecating self-talk, we think it’s our Authentic Self talking to us from within, berating us, telling us we don’t deserve to be here, pushing us to work harder, strive and achieve more, get good grades and later good jobs. We achieve those things but any kind of pride, joy, fulfillment or validation is extremely short-lived, if experienced at all.
“What a liberation to realize that the “voice in my head” is not who I am. Who am I then? The one who sees that.” ~ Eckhart Tolle
All the while, that exile(s) is still within us carrying the Burden of Unenoughness – not smart enough, not good enough, not lovable enough, not enough.
As we go through life, we encounter situations or people, or even have memories or inner conversations that trigger an exile. When an exile is triggered, we start feeling its feelings – we start feeling the terror, the shame, the unenoughness they’ve been holding all this time – and we hate it. We can’t stand feeling this way.
That’s when another kind of protector kicks into gear – a rescuer – a reliever – a reactor. In IFS, they’re called Firefighters because they douse the flames of intense emotions like shame and pain by reacting impulsively. When we’re at risk of being completely overwhelmed and enmeshed with all those lousy feelings – it trumps the manager type protector and with its reactive defenses we might find ourselves acting in ways that are very uncharacteristic of the ideal image we want everyone to believe that we are (including ourselves).
We find ourselves engaging in all sorts of defenses, many falling under the banner of avoidance – ways to avoid feeling those difficult feelings, feelings that are spurred on by the managers within us. This can look like procrastination and explain the polarization we experience sometimes – vacillating between working really hard and hardly working.
Rescuers/Relievers/Reactors can also look like addictions: any behavior (not just consuming alcohol/drugs) that gives us relief in the short term but that has negative consequences in the long run, and we find it hard, if not impossible, to stop. Including working even more and adding more to our plates than we can handle.
Other defenses are when we shortchange ourselves and fall under the banner “why do I always do that?” We lie, we hide, we pretend, we freeze or don’t speak up. When we don’t feel safe to be who we really are and tell it like it is, something within us can take over and finds its own way to restore some equilibrium and feel safe.
No amount of thinking your way through or logical reasoning is going to change these internal dynamics. No amount of keeping score of external evidence that we are worthy or deserving, that we’re smart and capable, is going to validate us, though we keep trying. It’s all we know. So, we push ourselves to do more and to work harder and hoping one day we’ll feel good enough.
The exiles and the burdens they carry – that’s all the stuff below the surface (the bulk of the iceberg). That’s what really needs healing.
And the Impostor Experience itself – the tip of the iceberg – what is that? Perhaps that’s a moment in time when you’re feeling the feelings of the exile. A flashback of sorts. You are in some ways five years old again – not only feeling inadequate – you’re afraid you’ll be found out and get in trouble. In a way, you are an impostor – you’re a kid and you don’t feel like you belong, you don’t feel competent and deserving, and you’re scared you’ll be humiliated, rejected or abandoned.
Perhaps one of the fears we have is not so much that they’ll find we’re not competent – they’ll discover how scared and full of doubt we actually are. So, we hide all this stuff that happens to us inside – all our private and difficult experiences. We hide our shame, and out of that comes more shame.
“If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive,” ~ Brene Brown
So who are we – the manager? The reliever? The exile? All of the above?
We are something much greater that includes and transcends all of our parts and programs.
Self – who we truly are – carries with it the qualities that we all aspire to and long to experience. IFS expressed them as the 8Cs and 5Ps – Calm, Compassion, Connectedness, Creativity, Courage, Curiosity, Confidence, Clarity and Presence, Perspective, Purpose, Playfulness, and Persistence. But wounding and trauma without healing and resolution, divide us from Self. Self gets eclipsed and we never end up building trust in who we really are and how wonderful life can be when experienced from Self – or at least with a higher degree of Self.
We lived to some degree or another in survival mode – and the greater the degree of survival mode – the lesser the degree of Self we are accessing at any point in time.
Wounding and shame cut us off from Self and we didn’t get the chance to learn what natural confidence is, how much easier life is when we feel inherently worthy and acceptable and valid, even if we’re not perfect.
That is our natural state – we are compassionate and accepting of others and equally so with ourselves.
If you’re feeling that impostor feeling – it means you’re not in Self. It means it’s time to take care of your parts. Ultimately, it’s an invitation to begin the healing process but in the moment, it’s time to be unconditionally accepting of, and compassionate to your scared and protective parts. It’s time for Self Leadership.
When you recognize that a wounded part of you is scared and struggling, and your go-to strategies are to push yourself harder or run for the hills, it’s time to stop and reconnect – it’s time to give yourself the kind of love, compassion and acceptance you may never have gotten growing up.
Though having good examples of this in our childhood would have been nice – Self naturally and innately has those capacities and we can give ourselves what we lacked all along and tried to get through external validation (always in short supply and short-lived).
As you work with your parts, your protectors and exiles, you have more compassion and understanding for yourself (your whole being). Over time, more Self shows up and begins earning the trust of your complex and wonderful inner family. You learn to accept your parts and at the same time earn their permission to help them leave their rigid, protective roles behind and they can begin to serve the-whole-you in their own preferred ways – and that is how you begin to realize your incredible, full potential.
Though we can learn to do this on our own (there are some incredible books that teach you how to help your parts and invite in more Self) it always helps, only always, to be in the presence and get the unconditional support of people with a lot of Self energy. Their Self ignites and invites your Self to the fore.
A Helpful Self Leadership Coaching Exercise
Now, the next time you’re feeling unworthy, undeserving, and that you’re going to be found out for defrauding everybody, recognize the emotions, sensations, thoughts and impulses you’re experiencing. They don’t belong to the whole, adult you – they belong to an exiled part of you.
There’s a Self-Deficiency, so see if you can invite Self in and ask the managers or relievers to let Self take the lead.
My wish for you is that you switch seats and bit by bit, you’re in compassion, you’re in courage, you’re in calm and connected.
As Self, you’re able to separate from your parts and see the Exiles and Protectors and their problematic patterns and feelings. You recognize the burdens they’re carrying – the self-deprecating beliefs they hold about themselves and you hold them in compassion. From a deep level, you feel your inherent worth and you have a greater sense of trust and faith in your capabilities.
You’re more chill, and more warm at the same time.
You accept the scared or scattered parts and tell them, “I Got This!… We Got This!” and they relax and you feel a surge of wellbeing and peace within.
This is Self Leadership – a heart-centered way to heal, grow and become who you really are.