Episode #53: You are Not a Fraud – How to Overcome the Imposter Syndrome
Today, we are talking about one of the most commonly experienced ways to suffer that I have ever come across in all of my coaching work, and it is something called the imposter syndrome. The imposter syndrome is when you really feel like you are a fraud, they might be just about to find out that you’ve been faking it this whole entire time, and that in no way, are you qualified to actually do the job that you’re doing, to have received the rewards that you’re receiving, to be in the role or position that you’re in, or to have the confidence, success, happiness, or ease that you currently have.
So, if you are in a position right now, or you ever have been where you have felt unsure of yourself, maybe self-critical or self-judgmental, paranoid, afraid that others can see through you or they’re onto you. They know the game that you’re up to, and maybe you feel guilty or anxious about it or ashamed, or you might find yourself up all night long, or maybe you’re indulging and overworking in an attempt to make up this deficit.
What I want you to know is the work to do around this is mostly inner work. It’s mostly work that is done on a psychological level, on a self-healing level, on a level of questioning your own stories. The mistake a lot of us make is we jump in and we think I need this. I need to address it, and really what I need to be doing is working harder and, and finally earning my way.
I’ve worked with CEOs who are 40, 50, 60 plus years in age who feel 100% like they are an imposter, even if it is their fifth time being a CEO, and they’ve been a huge success every single time along the way. So this is not something that you earn your way out of. It is something you work your way out of, and it’s something that you accept as part of being a human being.
In fact, one of the best pieces of career advice I’ve ever received is that the way that you get qualified for a job is you do the job. I remember working with a client once who had a new position, it was a higher ranking position than she’d ever had in her whole entire career at a bigger company, faster, moving, so forth in her old career. We discovered this imposter syndrome was there with her right as she was about to begin the job, and she was giving herself a lot of homework. “I need to go and prepare, and I needed to read this. And I needed to, have answers to these questions. I needed to go and talk to all these people before I begin, and better, make sure I’m ready.”
And it was creating a lot of stress, and we could both feel that it was going to be much more challenging for her to enter that first day on a strong foot in terms of her presence and the kind of vibe that she put out into the company. If she was going in with this much insecurity and stress and feeling like she needed to overwork in order to just be prepared to show up.
So what we decided to do is lean into, I don’t know, and embrace that she could be the world’s best question asker. She could make it, her job that every day, especially in those first few weeks, when honestly you have all the permission in the world to come in and what she was going to bring into every room was curiosity. So I see that far too often, those first 90 days, we’re trying to fake it and pretend like we deserve the job when really we haven’t yet convinced ourselves. Then we miss that window where we are considered new still, and we fail to use that window to ask questions, to dig into all the things you don’t yet know, and to actually discover the answers so that you can be more informed going forward. So the curiosity thing, it’s always a tool that’s available for you to use, and it’s especially important when you feel like it’s not okay that you don’t know everything. That’s the time when you most need it.
This is Caneel Joyce. I’m your host. Welcome back to Allowed. Today. We’re talking about the imposter syndrome. This is such a meaty topic, and it’s one that I feel like there are a lot of different ways to address. I have what I believe is a really unique way to address having the imposter syndrome, but first I’d like to share my own personal experience.
So I remember when I first learned about the impostor syndrome, my husband and I used to be part of a community when we lived in the San Francisco Bay area, where even though we are not really practicing religious Jews, we were invited by this community to attend Seders for the high Holy days and just to come together as a group of people who liked and loved each other. This was a group started by my one of my dear and best friends, his mother, and he’d been going to since he was little. Then we were kind of brought into the fold, my husband and I.
So we would go to this and get to learn from all of these people who were in that generation above us. I guess you could call them elders. I remember one time chatting with my friend, Judy, who is in her, I’m guessing she’s in her seventies. She was a remarkably successful litigator in San Francisco, in the 80s, 90s, 2000s and beyond. A single mom who raised two powerful boys and a poet. Judy and I, when we first met, we just had this amazingly special connection where I really feel like I’ve known her from some other lifetime, and she feels like family to me. And in lots of ways, Jud Altura, I love you.
So I remember describing to her the hard time I was having when I was in my PhD program, and I was currently in the middle of that program and kind of confessing to her, I just feel like I am, I am faking it, and I don’t deserve to be there. They made a major mistake in letting me in. All of these twists and turns, I just, I feel like I’m on really thin ice and they’re going to find out and maybe they even already know. So every time I open my mouth, I’m so scared, which, for those of you listening to the show, like, duh, I run a podcast. I’m not actually afraid of opening my mouth as a character trait, I don’t believe. But I had just gotten myself into these loops of feeling very, very, very insecure and really believing I was right that I didn’t have a place in that program. This is not the first time I’d felt this way, but it was particularly acute here.
She said, have you read about the imposter syndrome? I said, “No, what is that? Because I think I have that.” Because that word imposter, it wasn’t one that I had used, but it exactly described the way that I felt. I looked into it and sure enough, this is a thing.
So if you are in a position right now, or you ever have been where you have felt unsure of yourself, maybe self-critical or self-judgmental, paranoid, afraid that others can see through you or they’re onto you. They know the game that you’re up to, and maybe you feel guilty or anxious about it or ashamed, or you might find yourself up all night long, or maybe you’re indulging in overworking in an attempt to make up this deficit.
What I want you to know is, the work to do around this is mostly inner work. It’s mostly work that is done on a psychological level, on a self-healing level, on a level of questioning your own stories. The mistake a lot us make is we jump in and we think I need to address it. They’re right. At least what I’m imagining, they’re thinking that’s right, and really what I need to be doing is working harder, and finally earning my way.
I have worked with CEOs who are 40, 50, 60 plus years in age who feel 100% like they are an imposter, even if it is their fifth time being a CEO, and they’ve been a huge success every single time along the way. So this is not something that you earn your way out of. It is something you work your way out of, and it’s something that you accept as part of being a human being. The fact is a lot of us are given opportunities that you could argue we are not yet qualified for. In fact, one of the best pieces of career advice I’ve ever received is that the way that you get qualified for a job is you do the job. That is what makes you qualified.
So this comes up a lot when they look at gender and the impact of gender on careers is that it seems in our society, women have been socialized to believe that they need to be qualified for a job before they get the job. So they’re constantly kind of holding themselves back to qualify themselves in order to learn and deserve that job, because the worst possible thing that could ever happen is that they have a job they don’t deserve. Oh my gosh, that would just be terrible, and they would definitely be found out and someone would point it out.
Okay. So I’m mugging a little bit here, and I sound like I’m being flip. But the actuality is, is that there is a truth to that. It is true that if you are a minority in any setting, and women are in the workplace and women are also a disadvantaged class, everybody except for the tippy toppy, white, rich, upper class WASP males are. There’s just some truth to what happens in power dynamics. that makes it true that some have to defend their position and their right to it and more than others. So it’s true.
However, it is not true that just because that is something you fear or something that you may be challenged to rise to the occasion of means that it’s true that you don’t deserve the job. Whereas a lot of those in privileged positions have been taught, get the job, then prove you’re qualified, then earn it. Then earn it once you’re in the job versus you need to be all ready to go right beforehand.
Anyway, I may be getting ahead of myself here. So let me back up. I want to share with you a couple of real-world examples where I had the imposter syndrome and see if you identify with any of these, because in my experience, it shows up perniciously. It shows up all of the time, even last week. So I want you to be attuned to it in your own life so that you can perhaps see how this is just such a piece of being human. Even if you think you’ve moved way beyond it, it may still show up for you, and it’s important to recognize that. So another place that can show up as in your self image with regard to how attractive am I, how desirable am I?
I remember when I first started dating my husband, feeling really just insecure around my own body. Feeling really insecure around my weight, and was I sexy enough, and was I pretty enough? In the middle of being in UCLA where there’s so many attractive women and feeling really like I needed to constantly make sure that I was fooling him into believing that I quote, “deserved” him.
I mean, at this point in my life as a 42 year old woman and mother, the idea that I spent time on this, I feel some like, ah, jeez, oh really? That’s not a good use of time, but it’s true. I remember one night sharing this with him, and he had me go into the bathroom and he kissed me and he said, “While I kiss you, you look in the mirror and you look at yourself. And I want you to see what I see. And I want you to see how attractive you are. And I want you to see that you’re sexy. And that’s what I see.”
And I looked over at myself, and I saw a person that I didn’t even know I was, or that I was capable of ever being. It was simply me being who I was and not trying to be some other way, which is how I probably was showing up most of the time when I would go out on dates. Just looking over and seeing myself with somebody that I was comfortable with, I could see. I could see what he was telling me was there. I could see that I didn’t need to fake it, and that I already was the person that he wanted. For more reasons than that, I believe.
Other times, I’ll include last week. So just last week, I am working with a partner on a project, and we’re working with a big executive team, and she suggested that perhaps we ought to propose that more members of this team receive coaching, receive support, that there’s more we could be doing for this client. This is the kind of work that I do very, very frequently. It’s normal for me. I’ve got lots and lots of experience in it. I feel really, really comfortable in, that home doing this work.
What I was surprised by is I felt nervous when she said this, I felt taken aback. I was wondering to myself, how is it that she’s seeing something and explaining it so clearly? I haven’t even seen it. But what came up is I don’t even think I’ve let myself see that there may be more that we could be able to do for this client. I quickly realized, “Oh, here’s that old imposter syndrome again.” If I really am honest with myself, and if you really knew me, you’d know, I’m wondering to myself, “Why did they even trust me with this to begin with?” There’s a part of me that’s feeling like I’m pretty lucky to have the work at all, and how dare I offer more. They’re never going to want that. They may see that as affront. They may see that as me trying to take advantage, they may see me as me trying to grab too much.
Now is any of those things true? No. Would it be of service to share more of what we have to offer? Yes, I can completely see that. So there it was again, and I’ve done so much work on this and, and yet here it is again. So when I find that, does it mean that I’m bad or wrong? Because here I am again, with the imposter syndrome? No, here’s how I hold it. I get excited. Here’s yet one more place where I can dismantle some of those stories that in the past I’ve used to critique myself, hold myself back and in turn, prevent myself from sharing my gifts with the world. I’ve been more caught up with my ego and my fear and my insistence that I should never, ever be rejected. Then I have been with, even if I’m rejected, sometimes I want to go out and do good.
Sometimes I may not think that I am capable of it. I may not think that I’m worthy of it. I may not think that you will accept it or enjoy it or embrace it or want to pay for it or want to pay what I’m going to charge, but I’m not going to hold back from offering what I can offer, just so that I can help myself hold onto some false sense of control and basically stay in my small little cave and imagine that I deserve everything, all these little teeny crumbs in here that I have, that I deserve all of them. That’s fine, that’s fine for one part of myself really needs to feel that sense of control. But the part of me who’s going to play out in the world is the one who’s really committed to taking that personal risk and overcoming it.
So this imposter syndrome, it shows up in all different places. It shows up in your motherhood, your breastfeeding, it shows up in your sex life. It shows up in your romantic life. It shows up with your parents. Am I really a grownup still? I mean, I’m 42. Am I really grown up or am I pretending to be a grownup? And they’re onto me. It can happen everywhere, and it’s often something that’s experienced when you’re early in your career and you’re new in a job or you’re new in a role, and you think to yourself, “How could they bring me on? How did I make it through this interview process?”
So I want to share with you, if this is something that you’ve been experiencing, a couple of ways to think about it, look at it and work with it so that you can leverage the imposter syndrome to skyrocket yourself to the kind of life that you are wanting to live. So there are a lot of theories around the imposter syndrome, and one of them is that the imposter syndrome is one of the stories that our inner critic tells us.
So we all have this inner critic. It’s part of actually being a healthy human is we’ve got this one who sits and watches us and looks for what could be done better. But we let the voice of that critic get pretty villainous sometimes and make us really, really wrong, and maybe even bad as humans. And we can let it run away with itself if we don’t question it. So if the imposter syndrome is just one of the many forms that the inner critic shows up with, it’s the same approach as always. We listen, what’s the story that you’re telling me? Or what’s the story I’m telling myself? Would I be willing to experience that the opposite of that story is at least as true as my story itself?
So let’s say that the inner critic or the imposter syndrome story is I don’t deserve this new job. What would be an opposite of that? It might be, I do deserve this new job. It might be everybody deserves this job. This is not a hard job. It might be this job doesn’t deserve me. It might be, there’s no such thing as deserving a job. It might be, I deserve the job three levels ahead of this job. It might be, I deserved this job five years ago. There’s lots of different potential opposites of that story, and any of them you could argue are at least as true. If you really try them on for size, you could argue, they’re at least as true as the story that I don’t deserve the job.
So that’s a way that we can work with it. I’ve also been told that affirmations are really, really helpful, and they actually do work. I have found that in my own life to be true. I don’t tend to do affirmations terribly often. Not for any particular reason, aside from perhaps my inner critic tells me you’re being really cheesy and new age and nineties and stop that. Which is also not true! But yeah, so affirmations really do work. It is helpful to say, “I deserve it. I deserve it.” The only case where it’s not helpful to say, “I deserve it, I deserve it,” is if your inner critic’s voice gets louder and every time you say, “I deserve it, your inner critic is jumping in and saying, “No, you don’t, and here’s why.” So affirmations may or may not work for you. I think you can give them a try and find out.
But I think part of the juicy piece here of the imposter syndrome is it can actually counterintuitively help point you to ways that it is true, that you have been and are being an imposter. So let’s just assume that it is true, and you’ve been an imposter. This is actually how I work with imposter syndrome personally. At that point, the question becomes, how is it true that I’ve been pretending? I’ve been wearing a disguise or a mask. I’ve been trying to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes and manipulate or deceive.
Now that sounds all very, very sinister, take it with a massive grain of salt. This is a fun kind of comic book, kind of an exercise where we’re going to put on the hat of a detective, and just actually hunt in a way that has no ego attachment to it. Just like, cool, how is it true that I’ve actually been an imposter because I’d like to know? Presumably the reason you care if you’re an imposter in the first place is because you would like to be authentic. You’d like to not be manipulative, not be deceiving. You’d like to be truthful. You’d like to know that you deserve what you have. So that’s kind of where I’m coming from here. It’s not that you’re bad, it’s that I know that what you want is to be authentic. So let’s discover how the imposter syndrome can lead us to that path of greater authenticity and honesty.
So if I test out this framework, I can put on my detective’s hat and I can say, “How’s it true that I’ve been pretending?” Now I can look back. Oh, I can see. I’ve been trying to make everyone and myself believe that I am, say, better at math then I actually feel like I really Am. If I look at that, I notice I’ve got stories that it’s really bad not to be good at math. I remember this happened when I was interviewing for my last actual full-time executive job. I was a head of growth at a venture backed technology company in Silicon Valley. I remember going through the interview process and, at that level, the interviews typically are many day affairs and you meet back to back with each and every one of the leadership team. You’re very thoroughly vetted in a variety of different ways. I remember being interviewed by the CTO who asked me about my strength in statistics.
At this point, guys, I had a PhD from Berkeley. I had taken probably Eight PhD level statistics classes from one of the best universities in the world. I actually used statistics every single day. I knew it, not just how to do it in Excel or in R or in SAS or SPSS. I knew also how to do it on paper. But I also knew that I was not one of the best in my class at statistics. I knew it didn’t come immediately naturally to me at first that it took some more time and effort, more attention to detail than some of my classmates for whom they seem to have been doing statistics since they were in pull-ups.
So I felt insecure about it, and I remember giving him this massive disclosure that I definitely, I know how to interpret and run a multivariate analysis. However, I am not as strong in nested analyses or panel analyses. I started getting extremely esoteric, and thinking that this was a really, really important disclosure because he must be asking me about that level of depth in mastery of statistics.
In fact, what he wanted to know is if you look at a chart of our web analytics in Google analytics, are you going to make massive errors in how you’re interpreting the data? At the end of the day, I believe that’s what the question actually was. The answer was, “Oh, dude, I got that covered. That’s no problem at all.” But I had really convinced myself that I must have faked my way to even getting this interview, and I was immediately really, really scared, which was a cool insight, right?
So with my detective hat, I can say, “Oh, I realize I have been a little bit, every time this topic of me running the analytics team of this company. Every time that comes up, I’ve been feeling a little insecure, and my response to that insecurity has been, I’m going to button myself up and fake it till I make it and act like I really know what I’m doing because I’m terrified that you’ll find out. I’m pretty sure this means I’m not going to get the job. I’m pretty sure it means I don’t deserve the job, but it would be awful if you knew.
I found out that there was that level, and it was so subtle. You guys, it was so unintentional, this unintentional, pretending that I’d been doing that was not only consuming some of my non-conscious brain space, it was consuming some of my energy and it was also bringing me out of presence.
So whenever it would come up, I was no longer fully present and engaging in an authentic, unthreatened, unthreatening way with anybody I was interacting with, and instead there was this bolstering and shielding I was doing around myself. Really to protect myself from the pain and fear that it might be true that I don’t deserve it. So this detective work of how is it true that I am being an impostor. That led me to this realization of, I’ve been acting like I know what I’m doing, and in fact, it’s not true, and I’m somewhat insecure.
Why is that useful? Here’s why. When I can go in and I can say, actually, there’s still so much I’m learning. If I’m honest, some of it, I don’t think I want to spend the time to learn it. Some of it, I actually would like some support in doing it. Some of it, I just prefer that, you know upfront, here’s what I believe I am capable of. Here’s what I’m not capable of. Let’s just have an agreement coming into this, that if that’s okay with you, then we move forward. If it’s not, let’s find a way to remedy it or let’s not move forward because it’s not worth it. Here’s the backstage, it’s just not worth it to me to undermine my presence and my energy in service of being an imposter.
This is borne out to be a really good strategy for me in so many ways. It has helped me to bring more support into my life. It’s helped me to staff my teams in a way that’s actually a good representation of what is needed. It has helped me to not waste energy spinning and pretending in areas that are outside of my natural zone of genius.
Instead, it’s freed me up to lean into my zone of genius. I can say, do I actually even have a whole body yes for doing that thing that I’m pretending that I want to do. I find that often, no, I don’t. I don’t have a whole body yes for that. It’s going to be painful the whole entire time. I’m trying to follow through on that promise. Because if I’m really honest, when I first even made the promise, I didn’t have a whole body yes to falling through. I may have had a whole body yes to wanting, wanting what was on the other end of that promise, but not if I’m really honest, to everything that it was going to take to get there.
The last point that I want to leave you with is curiosity is king. With the imposter syndrome, it comes bundled. Again, I do believe there’s a gender dynamic to this where women are these days more likely to experience it than men, although both definitely experience it. I can assure you of that. But anyway, the nugget I want to leave you with is, if I can say, “I’m not an imposter, I just don’t know everything, and I’m a learner.” Now I have just created a different identity than being an imposter. I have helped create an identity for myself that is one that can be proactive, can go out and learn, can be curious, can ask questions. I remember working with a client once who had a new position, it was a higher ranking position than she’d ever had in her whole entire career at a bigger company, faster moving, so forth, in her old career.
We discovered this imposter syndrome was there with her, right as she was about to begin the job, and she was giving herself a lot of homework. I need to go and prepare, and I need to read this, and I needed to have answers to these questions. I need to go and talk to all these people before I begin, and better make sure I’m ready. It was creating a lot of stress, and we could both feel that it was going to be much more challenging for her to enter that first day on a strong foot in terms of her presence and the kind of vibe that she put out into the company. If she was going in with this much insecurity and stress and feeling like she needed to overwork in order to just be prepared to show up.
So what we decided to do is lean into, I don’t know, and embrace that she could be the world’s best question asker. She could make it her job that every day, especially in those first few weeks, when honestly you have all the permission in the world to come in and that what she was going to bring into every room was curiosity. So I see that far too often, those first 90 days, we’re trying to fake it and pretend like we deserve the job when really we haven’t yet convinced ourselves. Then we miss that window where we are considered new still, and we fail to use that window to ask questions, to dig into all the things you don’t yet know, and to actually discover the answers so that you can be more informed going forward. So the curiosity thing is always a tool that’s available for you to use, and it’s especially important when you feel like it’s not okay that you don’t know everything. That’s the time when you most need it.
So I hope that you can be actually on the hunt for times when you feel like an imposter. Lean into it, question the stories that your inner critic is making up about you. Really question them and see how the opposite could be at least as true. Lean into the curiosity option and go on a detective hunt and find out how is it true that I am pretending, and would I be willing to actually be honest and authentic here? If I’ve got negative judgements about the person I am as negative and authentic, guess what I’m going to do? I’m going to go, and I’m going to question those stories too.
If you’d like to learn more about this concept of questioning stories and the difference between fact versus story, please go to aloudpodcast.com where you can find a previous episode specifically around fact versus story, and that is episode number 46. So go back and check out that episode.
If you’d like to learn more about imposter syndrome, please reach out to me. I have some ideas in the back of my head about maybe offering a workshop around this at some point. Please go ahead and reach out to me, and you can do that through an iTunes review, Spotify review, or you can find a contact me on my website. So that’s Caneel.com. More episodes at allowedpodcast.com along with a lot of free resources. Thank you for being here today. You are not faking it. You truly have given yourself the gift of investing in your own personal growth as a soul and a leader and a human being. I really appreciate you being here for yourself and for everybody that you impact in the world. Be safe, be well, be fearless. See you next time