"Who Do You Think You Are?"
The voice wasn’t loud or boisterous. It wasn’t even sinister or cruel in its tone. The message rang with a matter-of-fact intonation- as if it was making a statement more than asking a question. Its vibrato was almost--accusing.
The timing couldn’t have been worse. Poised to launch into a critical phase of a project that has taken years in creation, this relentless message wouldn’t leave me alone. It halted my thoughts. Caused me to hesitate in my actions. Pushing through was a challenge.
Or should I say… is.
Because the truth is, as I sit here today and write these words, it still requires a lot of my skillset to confront the voice and call it out for what it really is. Imposter Syndrome.
Perhaps you can relate. Or maybe you’ve heard the same (or similar) message, but were uncertain of what to call it.
If People Knew . . .
Imposter Syndrome is that sneaky destructive force that pops up, often as you’re about to do something important, something challenging. Significant. It might be that you’re stepping into a position of authority— or as the expert on a certain topic. The destructive voice of Imposter Syndrome rears its deceitful head in your direction, just long enough to plant the seeds of doubt and at times, even shame. It tries to get you to sit down and be quiet. To dim your light.
For many of us, in our present, it can spring from the sense of not having our act together the way we really should. It can be fueled by thoughts like “if people knew….” (fill in the blank: “about my past, about my failures, about my struggles, etc.) they would see me as a fraud. An imposter.”
We somehow feel like if we make a mistake now, or ever have made a mistake for that matter, then we are somehow disqualified from doing anything of value. At times, perfectionism gets wrapped up in it as well, especially if we tend to perform for a sense of approval and worth.
And for many of us, the sense of “who do you think you are” is fueled by a barrage of ideas and images thrust upon us by society and media that say we must look/talk/act/be a certain way in order to be valuable enough to have a say about anything of relevance.
But sometimes, the root of Imposter Syndrome might have a deeper message that needs to be unearthed--dug up and dealt with-- so we can become free to do the thing, be the influence, make the difference.
Imposter Syndrome Can Be an Inherited Message.
When I was growing up there was a lot of pressure to not be me. My sensitivity, mistakes, needs, and general humanness seemed to be a bother to the adults in my home. I learned at a very young age that if I had any hope of connecting to those whom I so desperately needed acceptance from, I had to figure out who they wanted me to be, and then, become that person.
Naturally, I failed. A lot. But rather than see this as a failure on their part for not giving me space to become who I was meant to be, I saw it as a failure on my part. Mind you, that didn’t stop me from trying even harder. I was resourceful and creative, so I watched for clues as to what would please them or get their attention and allow me to feel the love I so deeply needed.
As I grew older, becoming who others wanted me to be took on some dark forms. There were times when I found myself in danger in every sense of the word. But the part of me that still longed for acceptance was willing to take the risks. In the end, it cost me so much more than it gave me. Ultimately, it took me even farther from who I was meant to be.
Even in my first attempts to follow Jesus and become part of a church (this was before therapy), I quickly learned that being myself wasn’t really a safe thing to do there either. For all of their preaching about “come as you are,” what they really meant was “come as you are as long as you’re already healed and whole.” (Yes, that was the wrong Jesus-now I know.)
But during my years of therapy (and after the real Jesus stood up) I came to realize that my experience in my family of origin was actually a generational pattern. My mother worked hard to be someone other than herself. So did my grandmother. In a sense, so did my great-grandmother. Each generation failed at it. And with each generation, the wounds of pain and shame deepened. The exhaustive striving for acceptance and approval that wrapped around each generation tightened its grip more and more.
Until it wrapped around me.
What I learned (and what I hope I’m passing on) is this: conforming to who others want us to be can make it challenging for us when we want to live differently.
In their insightful and practical workbook Imposter Syndrome & Self Doubt, Amanda L. Arenas and Stephen Wallace state: “The mind is powerful thing, and it’s not easy to initiate change when it has subconsciously been focused on being an “imposter” for so long.
Conforming to the shape others want to bend us into can make stretching into who we want to be a challenge. The messages that told us to seek approval and validation from others tries to push us back into an old, ill-fitted shapes. When we stand up straight into who we really are and what we want to offer this world, we’re unsure---we feel like a fraud.
Despite the battle cry to call attention to Imposter Syndrome, it can still lurk in some unsuspecting places, waiting to pounce—usually right as we’re getting ready to stand up, step up and Do. The. Thing. So, here is some information to help you protect yourself from its destructiveness.
What the Science Says…
The research is clear. Imposter Syndrome is a very real thing and psychologists identify it by many names:
· impostor phenomenon
· fraud syndrome
· the impostor experience
What’s more, there are clear signs when it shows up in our lives.
Signs that Imposter Syndrome is Knocking at Your Door.
· Minimizing the value of your work and accomplishments
· Responding to compliments with something self-deprecating about your work/talent/skill
· Constantly defer to others
· Playing small
· Fear of being “found out” because you do not own your value and achievements
· Negative self-talk
· Feeling like a fraud or fake
· Stopping yourself from taking appropriate risks
· Excessively seeking approval of others (although you won’t likely believe them anyway)
While these signs and symptoms can be a challenge to overcome, none of them are insurmountable. Particularly if you share the journey with people you trust. And remember -- sometimes it can be helpful to include the insights of a counselor or coach, as well.
Here are some practical things we can do to overcome Imposter Syndrome:
· Share you struggles with a friend
· Take one small step at a time to accomplish your goal---then acknowledge your efforts
· Make a matter-of-fact list of your talents/skills/accomplishments (it isn’t bragging)
· State three decisions you made that turned out well
· Establish a realistic, positive mantra---then practice it (ex. “I am equipped with the skills to _____”)
· Give yourself a pep talk (No, that isn’t blowing smoke. You can tell yourself that you believe in you.)
· Get the help of a professional counselor or coach
Finally, if you are a follower of Jesus, let me leave you with some encouraging words He has to say about who you are…
· You are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14)
· You are created with a powerful purpose (Ephesians 2:10)
· You are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17)
· You are chosen (1 Peter 2:9)
So, the next time Imposter Syndrome attempts to sneak in and hijack your plan, call it out for what it is. And call in reinforcements to help you in the battle. Know that despite its attempts to stop you in your tracks, you have the power to silence it. Especially when you lock arms with others and embrace the truth of who you are created to be.
Imposter Syndrome & Self Doubt, by Amanda L. Arenas and Stephen Wallace and Perfecting Ourselves to Death by Dr. Richard Winter are resources that can help us with the fight against Imposter Syndrome. For more resources to encourage and equip your journey, check out the resources at www.itsmyoutloudvoice.com.