Impostor Syndrome

Most of my clients are high achievers. For some, their high achievement is not the product of a personal value of excellence or success, but rather one of Impostor Syndrome. They’re trying to out-work the belief that they are a fraud – to prove they aren’t. On some level, they think their accomplishments are not enough, or they tricked someone to be where they are. Yet, if only they achieved more, that inner voice will go away. Sound familiar?

Impostor syndrome, impacts about 70% of the population and unfortunately, it doesn’t go away as you progress in your career. It happens when the brain assesses it doesn’t have the knowledge, skills, abilities or behaviors to be successful (safe) in a situation, especially if it perceives a threat  or anything out of the ordinary. If you’re a high achiever, you will likely continue to push yourself into areas of growth and discomfort, which is why the feeling is unlikely to go away.

This catch 22 happens because the impostor feeling compels you to achieve, to learn more and more in order to prove you’re not a fraud. However, the very act of doing that lends itself to trigger the impostor syndrome response as you’ll find yourself in uncharted territory more frequently.

When the brain determines a potential threat, the amygdala, which is responsible for the fight or flight response activates. Once activated, the brain looks for tools to shut you down to keep you safe. Most commonly, in situations that are not actually life threatening, the brain’s tactic is to use the voice of your inner critic.

The voice of your inner critic manifests in some form of “I’m not _____ enough”. This voice often forms early in life and most likely supported your growth and development.

The brain loves to be efficient – reusing the same tools out of habit in several circumstances. Where it may have used e.g. “I’m not worthy enough” to push you as a young person to get the love and support of a parent; the brain likely began to use the same voice as a shutdown mechanism when say, you landed a stretch assignment 10 years into your professional career.

It may seem like the brain is being a real jerk, telling you that you’re not worthy, but it’s actually just designed to keep you alive – it’s doing its job. I like to say, “Thank you brain for keeping me safe” and then push through the feeling of Impostor Syndrome.

When it comes to Impostor Syndrome, here are my recommendations:

  1. Recognize it’s totally normal – it’s the brain’s way of keeping you safe.
  2. Understand it likely won’t go away when you reach a particular level in your career, and could become more prominent on your path to CEO.
  3. Get to know the voice of your inner critic and the fear behind it. Ask yourself how the story may have served you well in the past but is likely getting in your way now.
  4. Get curious about the situations when Impostor Syndrome arises so you can reframe the limiting belief, shifting to thoughts that better support your development.
  5. Get comfortable being uncomfortable and forge ahead.

Remember, growth happens after periods of stress or challenge, not when you’re playing it safe.