Confronting "Imposter Syndrome"- breaking through those self-imposed limitations
So here I am, owner of my own business, the new and exciting Bloom Development Solutions.
I have my very own registered business name, a website, an email account and hopefully some clients. To say I'm frightened would be an understatement. It's a brave new world that I'm keen to pursue and yet I feel torn between wanting to do well and yet desperately fearing the possibility of doing well. Some of you may relate to the feeling I am describing. The sensation of feeling afraid of something new is pretty common. I'm referring to that sensation but I'm also referring to another feeling, the feeling of being unable to identify your worth, to celebrate your successes and to have faith in your own capabilities. It is a fear of never being able to live up to your own expectations or the expectations you perceive are posed upon you by the world around you.
The sense of unease can be so overwhelming that it can lead people to reject wonderful opportunities through a fear of potentially not living up to expectations. Others might manage to accept an opportunity such as a promotion then spend every minute in that role feeling petrified of being "found out."
The fear of being "found out" is one of the three core fears that seem to plague people with self-doubt. The two others are:
1. fear of not being liked
2. fear of not fitting in
In the case of the fear of being "found out" this relates specifically to the marked inability of an individual to understand their worth and accomplishments, and gives rise to them experiencing a persistent fear of being exposed as a "fraud." It's known as "Imposter Syndrome." I know the feeling well and apparently many other women do too. Whilst Imposter Syndrome is typically associated with high-achievers (especially women according to the subject matter experts) I also want to explore how it applies to pre-potential-achievers who are capable, yet super scared of taking the steps required to achieve and possibly become "successful."
This may relate to what Gay Hendricks refers to as the "Upper Limit Problem" in his book "The Big Leap" in which he explores how to eliminate self-imposed barriers that can prevent you moving beyond your comfort zones. I am yet to read this book, (it's on my to-do list) but here is a short synopsis from what I can gather from reviews:
"Each of has an internal thermometer for how much success, wealth, happiness, love, and intimacy we'll let ourselves experience...When we hit the upper limit, meaning when we achieve success, happiness or wealth, our ego tends to bring us back down within the lines, in other words our comfort zone, by giving us negative thoughts or behaviours that ruins what we’ve achieved - like losing all the money after winning lottery, arguing with your partner after becoming successful or thinking of negative things when you have happy thoughts. Most of us are not yet ready to feel good or be happy 100% from within all the time. We say we want to be happy, positive, healthy and wealthy but we’re still doing things that hold us back from achieving it because we don’t believe it’s possible." - The Upper Limit Problem: What's Holding you Back in Your LIfe?
So for anyone wanting to step beyond their comfort zones, this presents two challenges a) first is the matter of breaking through our Upper Limits, facing fears and embracing the unknown, then b) If we break through and achieve success we then encounter Imposter Syndrome which might lead us to self-sabotage and hold us back from breaking the next Upper Limit, Yikes this all sounds like hard work...
For the moment, let's go back to focussing on Imposter Syndrome. Essentially at the basis of Imposter Syndrome is a feeling of unworthiness, a feeling that despite any evidence to the contrary, you or your efforts and achievements are never enough. It's a feeling of constantly trying to prove yourself. Striving for perfection relentlessly and constantly making comparisons to others whilst regularly feeling insecure and inadequate. Then when success, praise or achievement does occur, it is dismissed as pure luck, explained away as a result of being "in the right place at the right time" or as a result of some other external source as opposed to being rightly seen as the fruits of one's own labour, effort or talent.
Praise and Self-Worth
I've always been better at seeing the potential in others more easily than I can see my own. I've found myself occasionally receiving praise or generating positive results and then, a) feeling incredibly uncomfortable receiving said praise and, b) feeling intense fear that the praise subsequently establishes an expectation of continued performance that I may not be able to live up to.
The main trouble with this is that you rarely stop to celebrate your achievements. It's a constant pursuit of more and a constant tail-chase of striving to justify one's own capabilities. Quite frankly it's exhausting. I'm not saying I'm a high-achiever or anything. I'm one of those people that probably sits more in the camp of a "could be" if I would only get out of my own way. I'm working my way towards identifying and adjusting my perception of my Upper Limit and the potential for self-sabotage is always there looming over my shoulder. Sound familiar?
As you can gather, self-doubt, insecurity and fear are topics that are close to my heart and mind and they also seems to be topical for a lot of my clients and friends. In fact, so much so that I thought I might write a book about it. Now, believe me, if you never have experienced Imposter Syndrome then try writing a book - you will experience it FOR SURE! For me it has come in the form of thoughts such as "who the hell am I to be writing a book? I'm no expert", "I'm sure it's all been said already," "I've got nothing original to offer," "nobody is going to buy this" etc etc.
What should we do about fear?
So what does one do when faced with fear, uncertainty and self doubt? There are many different ways to respond to the feeling of fear. Typical responses are:
a) run (flight)
c) confront the fear (fight)
When you want to do something but you are afraid it's incredibly tempting to opt for behaviours a or b. Problem solved, just avoid the situation. In some cases, completely avoiding the situation might solve the issue but when you really want something and you are held back by fear this can manifest itself in your life as avoidance, procrastination, delay and paralysis, and may be accompanied by feelings of guilt, low-self esteem, disappointment, frustration, resentment and a sense of feeling that you're not living up to your potential. So what's an alternative? Let's talk about c.
As someone who has experienced moments of anxiety and fear (who hasn't?) I let the title of a book written by Susan Jeffers guide me:
Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway
I love the simplicity of it. In the book which is now over 25 years old, Jeffers outlines some really basic approaches to managing your response to fear. The crux of her message is beautiful in it's simplicity:
1. Allow room for fear
Acknowledge and accept the presence of fear that arises in all of us at one time or another. By acknowledging and allowing fear it enables us to give up the futile attempt to eradicate it before we are prepared to take action. Let's just acknowledge that it's there and that's kinda ok because fear is a survival mechanism after all.
2. Know that you have the potential to survive fear
Recognise that it is possible to feel the sensation of fear and still take action anyway. Know that whatever happens, you will handle it. Understand that many people rise above fear and in some cases not only survive it, but thrive as a result of moving beyond it.
Pushing through fear is less frightening than living with the underlying fear that comes from a feeling of helplessness.
That might sound overly simplistic to some of you but perhaps the solution is simpler than we like to think. Perhaps we don't need to wait until we feel confident or wait until the nervousness subsides. Maybe we can just feel the fear and do it anyway? Isn't that liberating? Terrifying yes, but liberating too? I think so.
Conquering Imposter Syndrome requires a slightly more elaborate approach.
1) Recognise your achievements and celebrate your wins
2) Identify your strengths - pay attention and record positive feedback
3) Allow yourself to be vulnerable - being ok to ask for help
4) Self disclose to someone you trust, e.g "I feel inadequate" and open up a conversation about it
5) Explore your relationship with mistakes
6) Explore your interpretation of failure
7) Explore your own internal standards
8) Quit making comparisons with others
Hopefully by the time I finish the book I will not only be able to articulate the struggles that accompany self-doubt, fear and insecurity, I will be able to offer readers some tools and strategies to help overcome these limiting emotional states.
Which brings me to a gargantuan challenge - following my own advice!