6 Steps to Eliminate Imposter Syndrome
Last week, I performed stand-up comedy for the first time. I did my act on the big stage at Gotham Comedy Club in NYC, the culmination of a 6-week class I took at Manhattan Comedy School.
The outpouring of support from my friends online has been amazing. Many people have commented that I inspire them with my bravery and courage.
I am grateful to hear that.
But there’s been a dark side to that praise and encouragement.
The more people tell me how I inspire them with my courage and bravery, the more incongruent I feel. Because I know that they don’t see the “full picture.”
There are other aspects of my work that I’ve been hiding, and I don’t feel very brave in that.
My inner critic says things like,
If they only knew, they would see you don’t walk your talk. You’re really not that brave.
This feeling of incongruence — the feeling that I am a fraud — is a symptom of imposter phenomenon.
Imposter phenomenon was first described by Suzanne Imes, Ph.D. and Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D. in the 1970s.
People with imposter phenomenon are unable to internalize and accept their success. They often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud.
The Reach and Impact of Imposter Phenomenon
Here are some things to know about imposter phenomenon.
A High-Achiever Affliction
Imposter phenomenon is an affliction particular to high achievers, and it tends to affect women more than men.
Impact on Income
It can have a real impact on our income and our career trajectory. Consider this:
In a traditional workplace, if you believe that your success is a result of luck rather than your ability, how likely are you to ask for a raise?
If you’re a business owner, and you believe your success results from luck, how likely are you to command your value when enrolling new clients? And how likely are you to share your success stories in public — an activity essential to your marketing — if you believe that will be outed as a fraud?
It’s hard to do effective marketing if you don’t own your results and accomplishments.
Impact on Mindset
Beyond the direct financial consequences, imposter phenomenon eats away at our mindset. It triggers negative thoughts and limiting beliefs, and puts us in a comparison trap against another part of ourselves.
This is what it means when we say “the enemy is within.”
I don’t need to compare my struggles against another person’s success when I can compare against my own success in other areas.
It Can Kill Your Productivity
Imposter phenomenon is related to two of the biggest productivity killers: perfectionism and procrastination.
When we are caught up in imposter experience, we often work harder in an attempt to be perfect, as a cover for our “lack” of ability. Perfectionism becomes a mask to show that we are good enough, that we do belong.
The fear that we might not do it well enough may cause us to procrastinate. On the opposite extreme, we may over-prepare, to ensure we measure up.
It Creates a Cycle of Overwork
When we overwork or drive ourselves to anxiety to accomplish something and we succeed, we fuel the belief that we need to do these things to succeed every time. We begin to fear that without the anxiety that leads us to overwork we won’t get results.
This drives us to a dangerous cycle where we overwork, until we reach the point where we are exhausted or burned out. In that state, of course, we cannot produce results. This reinforces the belief that we aren’t good enough or smart enough to get results without the late nights or intense work sessions. And the cycle continues.
It Thrives in Silence
Part of the imposter experience is the fear of being “found out,” which leads to little open discussion about it. This means we often bury it, hoping it will go away. But what we bury doesn’t go away. It grows into fears that can paralyze us from taking action.
How to Minimize Imposter Phenomenon
First, recognize that imposter phenomenon has deep roots that typically begin in early childhood. It takes a while to pull up those weeds. Like other deeply ingrained patterns, you need to work on this a little over time.
Here are five ways to minimize imposter phenomenon:
(1) Notice where it shows up
Remember the ABCs of breaking any pattern: Awareness Before Change.
Notice when you feel a sense of being incongruent, or where you feel like a fraud, or not good enough. This is a place where listening to your inner critic can be helpful — simply to hear what the inner critic is saying to you.
For example, as I read the praise from friends about my bravery in doing stand-up comedy, I heard the inner voice that said
If I can get on stage and do stand-up comedy, why can’t I ….?
(2) Notice the Judgments and Comparisons
This requires a willingness to be uncomfortable. See where you are implicitly judging yourself.
My inner dialogue has an implicit judgment about the places where I’m not being brave.
Do not shoot a second arrow at yourself by judging the judgment. Simply notice what’s there. Noticing the judgment is an important step toward resolving it.
Bring a dose of self-compassion to the process.
(3) Get Curious
Ask a better question, and you’ll get a better answer. A good way to reframe judgment is to replace it with curiosity.
For example, as I noticed my judgment, I reframed the thought to
I notice that I really loved doing stand-up comedy and I thrived on stage. I also notice that I am struggling to be more visible in this other area. What the difference?
Getting curious about the reasons for the incongruence helps pull out any stories or limiting beliefs that might be in the way. Once they are in the open, you can work with them.
(4) Embrace Your Talents and Expertise
When we are caught in the illusion of the imposter phenomenon, we live in fear that we will be “outed” as a fraud. This fear comes from a belief that the qualities that others see in us are not really there.
But what if they can see the whole picture? What if it is our lens that is faulty?
We often discount our qualities and expertise because we forget that what comes easily to us doesn’t come easily to others. This is especially true for those of us in creative fields, where the value of our work can be subjective.
As sketch artist Carl Richards wrote:
We often hesitate to believe that what’s natural, maybe even easy for us, can offer any value to the world. In fact, the very act of being really good at something can lead us to discount its value.
As I read comments from friends telling me that I’m an inspiration, I had to remind myself that I’m not quite “normal” in my choice of activities.
I tend to run toward the activities that others fear the most — things like public speaking, doing stand-up comedy, flying trapeze, trampoline, anything involving heights. That doesn’t mean these activities are entirely comfortable. It’s more that I embrace that feeling of pushing my edge, and I do it regularly.
Looking at myself through others’ eyes helps me own that I am brave and courageous.
The fact that I see other places where I can be more brave doesn’t take away from that. Each of us is a work in progress. I can own my bravery and still work to apply it to other areas.
(5) Record and Celebrate Your Accomplishments
One thing that has helped me shift away from imposter experience is a daily ritual of celebrating my “wins,” from the smallest accomplishments to the big achievements.
I don’t just celebrate them; I actively record them as part of My Daily Recap, an evening journaling practice I created.
Over time, I have seen that the big wins are in the little wins. When I have a big accomplishment, I can trace it back to all the little things I’ve done. This practice reinforces for me that my success is not luck, but a result of diligence and consistent efforts over time.
Bonus Tip: Illuminate It
A crucial component of imposter phenomenon is the fear of being found out. It thrives in the darkness. We can destroy it by speaking about it and bringing it into the open.
Secrets lose their power in the light.
If we are willing to acknowledge our feelings in public, we will see that we are not alone. The burden of any experience is lightened when it becomes a shared experience.
Do you experience imposter phenomenon? How does it show up for you? Please share in the comments.