As per Merriam Webster dictionary, the impostor syndrome is defined as “a psychological condition that is characterized by persistent doubt concerning one’s abilities or accomplishments accompanied by the fear of being exposed as a fraud despite evidence of one’s ongoing success“. While there are negative implications if we let the impostor syndrome paralyze us, it is a normal part of our evolution and growth.
In its purest form, the impostor syndrome can reflect a beautiful part of our souls, in particular, the humbleness and honesty we demonstrate by acknowledging how little we know compared to a vast ocean of information, expertise, skills and knowledge that can be acquired during a lifetime or in a specific area. Paradoxically, it can also reflect, although not that intuitively, a good amount of self-confidence over what we know we can become or can do more…even if it doesn’t appear as an immediate achievable outcome. In other words, the impostor syndrome is signaling the potential that we know deeply within us we can tap into further. The impostor syndrome can therefore fuel a continued state of determination, grit and growth mindset, exerting enough pressure and positive stress for us to always improve.
There can be some cyclicity to it as well. In its initial phase, the impostor syndrome can manifest itself more like shyness and lack of self-confidence. However, as we experience real growth, the impostor syndrome tends to loose its grip, because the pull becomes stronger than the push. The pull of who we are becoming is stronger than the push of the past, the fake or limiting beliefs, or the voice inside us who was once a dominating and sabotaging force in our lives… The power of genuine growth manifests itself in that every day, we wake up firmer and more confident in who we are becoming and the why that drives our determination, resourcefulness and perseverance. To get to this phase, it likely took fears, trials, and experimenting with feeling uncomfortable. The impostor syndrome is therefore an indicator that we are growing, perhaps at a higher-than-average speed. In this process and journey of becoming who we are meant to be, we discover than feeling uncomfortable and even “exposed” is actually the path to growth. The impostor syndrome can therefore be the runaway to reaching our potential and dreams.
If you are feeling the impostor syndrome in any area of your life, quiet down for a little and acknowledge your feelings and fears. It can give you great insight into how you can use the impostor syndrome as a catalyst for growth. For instance, if you are a young professional feeling shy and inadequate in a meeting with senior executives, you can spend more time practicing deep breathing and power poses to grow your ability to stay calm and confident in high-stake meetings. If you are a seasoned professional grappling with feelings of not being or doing enough, engage in some authentic feedback discussions with your peers or leaders to more objectively assess how well you are doing, and what your areas of strength or improvement really are.
Regardless of where you are in the impostor syndrome cycle, three powerful truths are key to making the impostor syndrome work for you and not against you:
- Be compassionate with yourself and don’t be afraid to fail: failures and mistakes are actually the path to success. As Henry Ford noted, “failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.”
- Change anxiety into enthusiasm: don’t make it about yourself and your fears… but about the people you serve, the values you hold dear, and the bigger picture.
- Take action: even if you feel scared, identify the one step you could take to move forward even if that means to do the exact thing you are feeling uncomfortable about. You will be working your “growth” muscles, until one day, you are perfecting your art instead of waiting for the perfect plan and timing.
With the impostor syndrome most likely to impact, in fact, high-achievers and high-performers, remember the saying from motivational speaker Denis Waitley: “It’s not who you are that holds you back; it’s who you think you are not.”