“I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.‘” Maya Angelou
Imposter Syndrome affects even the most accomplished of people, from Tom Hanks and Michelle Obama to Justice Sonya Sotomayor. If you suffer from it, you’re in good company.
What’s at the heart of it? Fear. Fear of being found out. What is it for you? What do you fear people will find out about you? Not smart enough, educated enough, creative enough? Or is it a matter of deserving that has nothing to do with what you know but who you are?
The most direct root to changing a belief or behavior that limits you is to deal with the emotion(s) that keep it in place. It starts with feeling the emotions with awareness, consciously, purposefully. Being emotionally honest with just yourself, or with a trusted and intimate friend or partner, or a therapist all work.
While fear is the main emotion in Imposter Syndrome, there can be others – anger and toxic shame in particular. Here are some tips on how to work with these three emotions.
FEAR: If your life is not directly threatened, fears message is “Pay attention.” Too often, we assume that it means there is danger ahead. Stay present with your fear and pay attention to what you imagine will happen. You may realize that what’s causing the fear is actually inside you, it’s a thought (born of a belief) that you are inadequate or flawed. Where did that belief come from? Who or what circumstances gave you that message? First, feel your fear. Where do you feel it most in your body? Then say, “I’m aware of something in my (name body area, for example “stomach”) that feels (name sensation, “jittery,” “nauseous,” “like fear”).” Then acknowledge it. “Hello something that feels (name what you feel).” This makes you a witness to it and less identified with the fear.
ANGER: If you are angry at yourself for being inadequate, it’s time to uncover who you should really be angry with. Where did this sense of inadequacy come from? Were you highly criticized, abused or not given the love and support you needed growing up? You don’t have to have the parents from hell to develop self-esteem issues. Is it society who has failed you? Don’t try to rid yourself of the anger. Instead, channel it to what you want to say “no” to and find a way to safely express yourself. You may want to express it to others in your imagination or write a passionate letter you will not mail. Eventually, you can turn that anger to saying “NO” to feeling like an imposter.
SHAME: Specifically, toxic shame*, which is not a core emotion but a feeling based on a belief that you are somehow fundamentally flawed. This belief is a response to some messages or treatment from outside you, such as a parent or influential adult growing up who was often critical or abusive. Toxic shame is a trickier feeling to deal with, though it can be done more easily than you expect. Feeling it with intention and awareness will help move the energy. You may need a trusted confidant or therapist to work through this.
How ever you choose to work with it, do just that – work with it. You don’t deserve to have that holding you back. You are not flawed, nor are you perfect. You are beautifully, authentically human.
*It’s important to distinguish between toxic and healthy shame. Healthy shame is remorse. It tells us when you’ve hurt someone or gone against your own values. It wakes you up to taking an action of making amends or owning the fact that you’re not perfect, but can so something to learn and grow and become more of who you want to be.
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Excellent article, Joie. Thank you for getting underneath the surface of Impostor Syndrome. It’s comforting to know that such accomplished people experience this. I also found your description of “toxic shame” helpful (and connecting with me on a gut level)!