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5 Ways to Keep Impostor Syndrome from Ruling You
Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Jenn Labin. There was one specific moment when I almost quit. I nearly walked away from everything I had spent the better part of a decade building. I was sitting on my bed, crying. No . . . strike that. I was sobbing. I was on the phone with my mentor and had my laptop open, showing the results of a workshop I had recently presented. The ratings were horrible, downright embarrassing. As soon as I saw those results, I started imagining what sorts of alternative careers might be open to me. Lucky for me, my mentor stepped in. She helped me look more closely at the results, and we saw that only 9 people out of the 250 people in the room had submitted evaluation forms, and only 4 evaluations were negative! It turns out, that year was the first time the event organizers had used digital evaluation forms, and very few people could figure out how to submit their responses. Before my mentor helped me change my perspective, I had managed to tell myself a sad story about epic failure and mass rejection. But that was Impostor Syndrome talking. Since that time, I’ve had many opportunities to learn how to overcome this debilitating problem. The thing about Impostor Syndrome is, it doesn’t always show up in the same way. Sometimes it rushes upon you like a panic attack. Sometimes there’s a slow and steady chorus of, “Why am I here? Who would want to hear what I have to say? Who do I think I am?” Yet other times, Impostor Syndrome manifests as procrastination, giving you an inexplicable need to organize your office, respond to Facebook posts, wash your laundry, and plan a party that is scheduled for two months from now. Your version may look different from these descriptions, but one thing is constant: Impostor Syndrome ultimately gets in the way of our best work. With my work in mentoring programs and leadership development, I get to meet many people from a wide range of demographics. What I’ve found is that Impostor Syndrome doesn’t differentiate based on title or gender. I’ve seen Executive Regional Vice Presidents and frontline managers alike question their contributions to the organizations they work for. By drawing on a few more personal experiences of Impostor Syndrome and the experiences of many dozens of coaching clients, I’d like to share some of the methods that can help you defeat it.
1. Identify Triggers
For some people, Impostor Syndrome shows up because they have a presentation to deliver, a book to write, a meeting to lead, or some other high-stakes event to handle. If everything goes right, this specific event will create opportunities. However, if things go wrong, it seems like the world will stop spinning. Many authors, including yours truly, are faced with this issue when they sit down to write. There is some fear that what we share will not be original or entertaining enough. Even after being published many times, we can still have Impostor Syndrome. If you struggle at all with this issue, it’s critical that you examine which situations tend to cause it to show up and identify how it manifests for you. Do you feel anxious whenever you speak about your work to executives? Do you procrastinate on final versions of your deliverables until there’s no time to get them right? Do you write, scratch out, write again, delete, and write again, questioning yourself the entire time?
In Start Finishing, Charlie calls this thought process “thrash.” Some of us thrash before we start working on an idea. “Who am I to do this project?” “Does this project even matter?” “Is this original enough?” “Can I actually do this?”
Sometimes we thrash in the middle of the project. “How the hell do I get this project back on track? “Why is this project so hard for me?” “Is anyone even going to care if I finish this?” “Is this really the best thing I can be doing right now?”
And many of us thrash at the end of the project. “Is this good enough?” “What will people think of me?” “What about the haters, trolls and naysayers?” “What if I miss something important?”
Throughout every stage of a project. We’re masters of the flailathon.
Practice: Review your calendar and/or sent emails from the past week. Which events or deliverables triggered your Impostor Syndrome? How did it manifest for you? Like other fear-based issues, Impostor Syndrome tends to lose some of its power when it is brought into full awareness. Once you identify when and how it affects you, you can begin to conquer it.
2. Stop the (Negative) Self-Talk
Once you know it’s coming, Impostor Syndrome becomes easier to handle. As soon as you start questioning your contributions, it’s time to stop the negative self-talk. “Who would want to read this?” and “No one is going to care” should be taken out of rotation and replaced with, “There are some people who will really care and get a lot of value from this.” You have to focus on your Yaysayers. Easier said than done, right? Here’s the thing: The more you believe that the art you are shipping is your best work, the easier it is to change the tone of your self-talk. If you truly believe that your work is adding value to others’ lives (even a very small subset of others), you are in a great place to change your self-talk. I learned the hard way that the most helpful reframing comes from having a deep sense of purpose in your work. Back in 2010, my first book was published and I was as nervous as a first-time parent. Part of the reason for my anxiety was that the book was full of fundamental training concepts. I told myself, “This stuff is too basic. No one will care about these ideas.” There it was — Impostor Syndrome in the worst way. In truth, there were plenty of people just starting out in the training field who needed exactly that content. It took some reflection, but I started to think about how proud I was of the unique approach in the book. I believed in the work because it was fresh and innovative in design. I knew that I had done my best work in that book. That changed everything and gave me the inspiration I needed to keep going. My second book came out just a few weeks ago!
Charlie calls this negative self-talk “head trash” based on our own personal experiences, histories, and contexts. In chapter 3 of Start Finishing, he explains that while much of this head trash is formed from our childhood experiences and families of origin, we also pick up new trash as adults. Some of us end up creating or holding on to stories that we’re somehow uniquely defective.
For one week, set an alarm to go off several times throughout the work day.
Each time the alarm goes off, spend five minutes reflecting on your self-talk over the previous hour. If you had negative self-talk, write down some notes describing your thoughts, what triggered them, and how you were feeling at the time. You can use a paper journal or an app like Evernote.
At the end of each day, to reframe your perspective, consider how your work creates value for others.
3. Imagine the Worst and Best Outcomes
Another great way to overcome Impostor Syndrome is to visualize the absolute worst thing that could happen and the absolute best outcome. Because Impostor Syndrome can gain some ground when we think the stakes are high, putting everything in perspective can help us defeat it. A few years back, I was leading a webinar for a professional association. This was a follow-up to a workshop I had recently done that went very well. The organizers told me, “It’s no big deal. Just adapt some of the content you did for your other session and it will be fine.” In this case, Impostor Syndrome didn’t show up until an hour before the session, when I received an email from the sponsor noting that we had several hundred people registered! Why on earth would that many people want to hear me talk about this subject for an hour? I pulled out my “Worst and Best” trick and thought about outcomes, starting with the absolute worst result of the webinar. In my mind, the worst thing that could happen was that hundreds of people would feel like they wasted an hour of their time. The best result would be having several people interested in my company’s body of work. Imagining both extremes helped me determine the most likely scenario: the webinar would go well, it would be valuable for most people (but not all), and I would get some good leads. I relaxed and got ready to start. The funny part of this story is that I wasn’t anywhere close to imagining the worst-case scenario. It happened less than 10 minutes after we started the webinar. My office suffered a momentary blackout and I lost complete access to the webinar and the phone line. Hundreds of attendees were waiting in silence while I desperately tried to get re-connected. I’m happy to report that not only did almost everyone wait for me to join back in, but they also found it so valuable that many people turned out to be future clients. Practice: The next time Impostor Syndrome sneaks up on you, take a minute to think about the worst-case and best-case scenarios. Write down your fears and use those ideas to figure out the most likely outcome somewhere in the middle. It’s also helpful to have a few catastrophes in your past that you can call upon. Now I can say, “Well, this might have a few issues, but at least I won’t have a huge audience waiting on the phone line for me after a blackout!”
4. Phone a Friend
Here’s your common-sense idea: talk about it with someone else. The worst cases of Impostor Syndrome are best fixed with a good dose of perspective from a spouse, colleague, or friend. As with the sobbing mess of a phone call I mentioned earlier, sometimes the advice of a mentor is exactly what’s needed to help you overcome Impostor Syndrome. Share with someone else how you are feeling, what story you are telling yourself, and why you are feeling like an impostor. Ask them for their opinion and feedback on the situation. Try talking through some of the other techniques mentioned here with them and see if they have new insights for you.
These supportive friends are what Charlie calles your “success pack.” Each individual can be called on for encouragement or a reminder of your initial why. Remember each role as you reach out and frame your conversation around their area of expertise, but know that your “success pack” can help in moments like these.
Guides are people you look up to who have walked the road a little longer than you.
Peers are people at your approximate level of accomplishment or skill who can and will regularly contribute to your project.
Supporters are the people who are doing work with and for you to help you get the project done.
Beneficiaries are the specific people who will benefit from the completion of your work.
Practice: Make a list of five people you can reach out to for insight and guidance when Impostor Syndrome strikes. Assign an area of your life to each person, based on your relationship with them. For example:
My sister – parenting
Charlie – entrepreneurship
Elaine – consulting
Kevin – sales
In my mentoring practice, I’m most proud of those moments when my clients start to see the extent of their brilliance/artistry/impact/talent for the first time. They call me up to say, “I aced the interview!” or “Not only did I land the contract, but I got an exclusive!” These high points are achieved because they asked the right questions and faced down Impostor Syndrome.
5. Keep Going
The last item in a list is usually reserved for “when all else fails.…” Well, not this time! This last technique — keep going no matter what — is something you should do in combination with all of the other methods. Never let Impostor Syndrome undermine your work, never let it tell you not to ship your work, and never let it dictate what you try to accomplish. No matter where it comes from, Impostor Syndrome is normal and can be overcome. You must ship. You will do your best work. You have to finish the right things. Everything will turn out fine. Face down Impostor Syndrome and do your best work in spite of it. Either you will accomplish everything you set out to do today, or you will learn from your experiences and be more capable tomorrow. (Tweet this!)
Charlie named his book for this very reason — so we could Start Finishing. Keep building the momentum. Celebrate each win along the way. Run the victory lap.
The Impostor Syndrome May Always Be with You
If you're waiting until Impostor Syndrome goes away to do your best work, I have good and bad news for you. The bad news is that it probably won't go away - there'll always be someone who knows more, something you haven't done, more you could've prepared, and so on. The good news is that you don't need anything more than what you have to doing what matters most to you. The five tips above can help you if you're stuck and you'll probably come up with your own ways to work through Impostor Syndrome. Which makes me wonder: where did Impostor Syndrome show up for you? How did you work through it?
You can also hear Charlie and Dan Pickett discuss Impostor Syndrome in Episode 59 of the Creative Giant Show. And learn more tips on defeating Impostor Syndrome in Charlie’s new book, Start Finishing.