Is it really an imposter syndrome?
I cringe when I hear smart, confident people say they are suffering from the Imposter Syndrome. They don’t differentiate situational fears from the popularized term. A syndrome indicates abnormality or at least a long-term condition that creates consistent, chronic patterns of angst or panic attacks. Many of my coaching clients worry they won’t succeed when they take a new position or start a complex project. Their anxiety is typical, not pathological.
The paradox of being confident is the skills and abilities you are sure of are based on past successes; when future expectations are vague, you worry you won’t succeed as greatly as you have in the past. Instead of measuring your value against others which is characteristic of people who lack confidence and self-esteem (am I better or less than others?), confident people measure their value against themselves (am I up to this new task or role?). Confident people know how their skills and knowledge add value today.
When faced with the uncertainty of tomorrow, you may question your ability to succeed because you can’t judge yourself against unknown needs and pressures. The ambiguity can throw you into self-doubt.
A certain level of self-doubt can push you to work harder. You use your fear to activate your courage. This gives you the strength to argue against your over-protective ego.
But labeling the fear, “imposter syndrome,” can prevent you from growing. The label becomes a shield to hide behind. There are people who truly suffer from an imposter syndrome but the hesitation confident people feel is more about a short-term fear of failure than a paralyzing phobia.
You can override the trap of anxiety over an unknown future with deliberate re-framing.
The poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan wrote “When you realize you are mortal while regarding a mountain, you also realize the tremendousness of the future.”1 She explored how anxiety could be ominous or it could be that you are alive with the possibility of moving forward, of learning and growing with new experiences.
Adnan explored how we frame what seems like an arduous task that will test our abilities. Can the anxiety be a mixture of fear and excitement? Can you re-frame the story from being laced with the fear of failure to being full of gratitude for the mountain you now get to climb? When you are clinging to the cliff of your past, will you fall if you let go or will you remember how to fly? These are questions I have explored with my coaching clients. Many insights emerge when they begin to shift their perspective.
Taking from the deep somatic work of Gestalt therapy co-founders, Laura and Fritz Perls, my colleague and teacher of Gestalt coaching skills, Dr. Dorothy Siminovitch says, “The difference between anxiety and excitement is breath.” When you are anxious about your future success, bringing yourself back into the present by breathing can help balance assumptions from what else is possible. The dangers look less bleak. The challenge offers learning, growth, and the affirmation of strengths in a way that overshadows the fear of failure.
Dorothy also says, “Anxiety is excitement without breath.”
Here are a few ways to manage the negative voices in your head:
- When you are new to an organization, role, or task, acknowledge it’s normal to second-guess yourself until you can see what you will be called to do more clearly. Accept your doubt as normal and ask what you can learn from it as you go forward.
- Whenever you feel anxious, breathe and consider the opportunities to learn and grow. Your confidence will grow stronger when faced with the unknown in the future.
- Remember your purpose, what you stand for, and what strengths you bring to creating a positive outcome. Purpose will give you courage to act even when afraid.
- Find an ally or coach to talk through your stress. Re-framing is easier when someone else reflects your words so you can see your stories outside of your head where it’s easier to recognize what beliefs and assumptions are protecting your ego and prompting your fears.2
You aren’t an imposter. Your doubt is normal and can keep you alert. You might fall when you fly, but your wings will take you back up into the air. You’ve done it before. You can fly now, too.
1 Etel Adnan, Journey to Mount Tamalpais, Post-Apollo Press (January 16, 1986) Available through OpenLibrary.org
2 Read more about coaching people to see their stories in Coach the Person, Not the Problem: A Guide to Using Reflective Inquiry