We have heard the term “imposter syndrome” and for most of us it sounds like an academic term, or one that we intellectualize and attempt to figure out how it applies to us. In my work, I hear, see and feel it all around me with almost everyone, especially high performers who continue to rise to bigger jobs.
Have you ever felt like you’re underqualified when everyone around you says you’re the perfect candidate?
Have you been asked to take on a new task that you don’t feel you can do and then you do it, hit it out of the park and focus mainly on what you could have done better?
Have you landed a dream role or gotten accepted to a program and wondered how long you can keep your secret truth away from others that you’re underqualified?
These are examples of Imposter Syndrome, what the International Journal of Behavioral Science defines as persistent feelings of inadequacy despite evident success, and estimates approximately 70% of the population experience. I believe it’s a higher percentage among high performing leaders and involves both women and men.
Even Masters Experience Imposter Syndrome
Luciano Pavarotti, the Italian operatic tenor, managed his Imposter Syndrome early in his career when he was getting ready to perform in a recital (basically singing alone next to a piano).
He was nervous and unsure if he could do it because he didn’t have his usual “crutch” that kept him in his comfort zone: being fully made up in costume, singing with others and “acting” out scenes in an opera.
His manager reminded him he could do it. (How often do you hear someone remind you of that?) Pavarotti zeroed in on the tactical detail of what he was most nervous about: “What will I do with my hands?” To which his manager replied, “hold the handkerchief in your hand, and you’ll be fine.”
For the rest of his career, the white handkerchief (i.e. what I call his “Linus blanky” from the Peanuts cartoon) became part of his signature brand.
Taming Our Inner Imposter
One of the most frequent comments clients share during our interactive sessions on Challenges Women Leaders Face is “Wow, it’s not just me, I am not alone in my feelings of being an imposter!”
Our imposter voices crop up and get loud when we step out of our comfort zones, take risks or start something new. They get loud in everyone else’s heads too. None of us is alone.
In Rocket Man, there is a scene of Elton John refusing to leave the bathroom in the Troubadour before his first “big break” concert until his manager dishes out some tough love.
Similarly, I heard veteran Paul Taylor dancer Michelle, describe the first times she danced the lead in the infamous Oriole, many years ago. She said she was “terrified because she knew how important a dance it was.” She literally said she was terrified 9 times as she recollected the first time she took on this challenge.
The part she found the most terrifying was when she was focusing on doing it as well as her predecessor, “stepping into her shoes.” Paul’s response to her was “remember, it’s only dancing. Have fun and be present.”
Michelle talked about her shift to embodying confidence when “I learned to relax and breathe, dropped trying to be someone else, and just danced.”
When the voices in our minds get loudest, that means we’re up to something big, which is precisely when we need to listen to them the least. While yes, we need to be smart and rational, we also need to just do it, to override the overactive fear that is designed to keep us safe and mostly prevents us from growing, doing and becoming what we most want.
Imagine if Elton John hadn’t come out of the restroom that night, if Pavarotti had decided to only perform in full operas, or if Michelle’s fear had kept her attempting to copy her predecessor’s shadow.
Practical Tips for What You Can Do
To tame your Inner Imposter, remember to practice these 3 steps:
- G-et present. Your body is the indicator of what your mind is thinking. When you notice the quick breathing, heart palpitations, slight nausea, sweaty palms or any other symptoms or indicators you experience (we tend to experience the same ones strongly and consistently), use them as data to realize your inner imposter is only getting noisy to keep you safe. Become aware, and thank them for their concern and care. Take deep breaths and allow yourself to realize what’s happening.
- G-ather evidence. Breathing allows you to access the rational part of your brain that can think clearly and objectively. Otherwise, when you are scared you are literally only thinking with what scientists call your “lizard brain” and you are not able to make smart choices. It’s why when you’re nervous in a meeting you walk out and say “why didn’t I remember to say x?”
- G-o for It. Give yourself a pep talk. Speak to yourself in the second person – such as, “you’ve rocked this kind of meeting before and you are the most qualified to do this!” (No kidding – this comes straight from neuroscience even though it sounds woo woo). It never gets less scary until you’ve done it the first time. The more you practice getting comfortable feeling uncomfortable, the easier it gets. Think about something you did in the past that you were scared to do, and now that you’ve done before, it becomes natural. I think of the first time driving in New York City, or the first time I lead my first big meeting, or the first holiday I hosted. The more you practice, the easier it gets.
- When is my imposter voice the loudest?
- What evidence do I have that my fears are real? If my best friend or child were in the same situation, what would I advise?
- What practical next step can I take to go for one thing in my life TODAY?
I am excited to invite you to a 60-minute webinar on Friday, November 8 at 1 PM EST where I will explore takeaways from my research on women in leadership while facilitating a panel discussion with Randy Tosch, VP, Talent from Grainger, Jenn Garbach, VP, Small Business Card Brand and Customer Marketing from Capital One, and Stace Williams, Leadership Development Consultant and Coach about their challenges being a woman in leadership or what they see leading and developing women leaders. http://bit.ly/playingbold
I hope you can join us on November 8. I would love to hear how you are taming your inner imposter. Please drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and share your story.
Yours in practice,
If you are interested in exploring how to unlock the potential of yourself, your team or the women in your organization , contact us for a complimentary discovery conversation.
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