Imposter syndrome

Several times over the past few months, I’ve been in conversation with other high-achieving women and this concept of imposter syndrome has come up. Most of the time, the subject was raised in the context of someone in the conversation worrying about how our efforts would be perceived. Each time, I was taken aback. Each person who brought it up was someone I wouldn’t have thought would have this idea percolating in the front or back of their minds and yet each of them affirmed that it was a consistent struggle and the nods in the room (real or virtual) were nearly universal. As I reflected and tried to do so as honestly as possible, while imposter syndrome isn’t something that rears its ugly head in my life very often, there are still patterns I fall into that often baffle me when reviewed carefully or in hindsight.

As I often do, let’s start with looking at the formal definition of “Imposter Syndrome.” The Merriam Webster dictionary defines imposter syndrome as …

“a psychological condition that is characterized by persistent doubt concerning one’s abilities or accomplishments accompanied by the fear of being exposed as a fraud despite evidence of one’s ongoing success”

I suppose we’d have to examine what a person perceives success to be in order to fully delve into the subject (perhaps a topic of another blog post), but the bottom line of this struggle, to me, is having a perception of oneself that is not rooted in facts. Yes, I know, my tendency towards logical evaluation versus the emotional perception of the world around me is showing itself here. As I get older, I am seeing more and more how nothing is truly black and white (as much as I’d like it to be at times), that the emotional layers of our perceptions give color and depth and perspective and messiness.

That emotional layer, though, it also lies to us and perpetuates perceptions that aren’t fully accurate, for better or worse.

Many of the articles that came up when I googled imposter syndrome talked about how women struggle with this more than men (or maybe they just admit it more often). And many of the examples just break my heart because it always seems to be the people who are truly successful that struggle with this perception that someone will “find out” that they aren’t who they seem to be. I also wonder if the skills like empathy and connection are simply not prized or celebrated as much as making money or other societal measures of “success,” leading to a perception that a person skilled in these areas doesn’t warrant the label of successful. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

I wonder too … Is it socialization? Is it societal expectations? The ways we were raised perhaps? Is it not having trusted people to show us, reflect to us, who we really are? Is it really how others perceive us or how we perceive ourselves? Is it that we base our perceptions of ourselves by the rubric of others? Is it that we don’t trust our perceptions? What is it that makes us think we aren’t enough?

These questions have been keeping me up at night for a bit.

As Mother’s Day approaches here in the US and I have started to see lots of posts (and ads) on social media and elsewhere, I’m reminded of how important how we were raised is when we look at how we perceive ourselves. Communication to and about us from when we are young becomes, at times, that inner voice and perhaps those gut reactions that feel normal. Certainly how we are raised and those who have raised us continues to affect us in various ways as we age. Role models at various points as we grow and develop can have a significant impact on so much.

As I’ve often shared on this platform, I am the eldest of six children and was raised in a midwestern Judeo-Christian tradition where women weren’t usually in leadership. From a very young age, I felt out of step with much of what I saw around me. My mom was an aberration amongst many of the families I was exposed to when I was growing up in that she took care of the household, homeschooled all of us and worked. Yes, she was and is a super mom and while I respect and admire her for all that she handled and carried for so many years, I have also struggled with the fact that we’re very different. I often felt out of step with her as well since my own personality and gifting is so very different from hers. I tried for years to fit myself into the box I thought I should be in versus learning and understanding more deeply why that box didn’t feel right to me.

As I’ve mused on this topic far longer than I expected, I’ve come to a few conclusion that I want to share with all of you and I’d be so interested to hear what you think as well …

First, I think it is so vital to have trusted people in your life who tell you the unvarnished truth. For those of us who tend to project confidence, it can be hard for others to feel comfortable speaking the truth about how we are perceived. I’m so very thankful for those people in my life who fulfill this important role, even if I don’t make it easy for them. I believe it is these important people in our lives who can reflect back to us what and who they see, even if that doesn’t match what we might see in the mirror. And don’t forget sometimes this might be a therapist or some other professional rather than a peer.

Second, I think it is important to know ourselves well. As some of you know, I’ve been rather obsessed with personality tests for years and utilizing various tools to help me understand some of the whys and wherefores. Knowing ourselves, understanding core wounds or motivations can be extremely helpful in accepting who we are; accepting that what we might do or how we might view the world just might be a little out of step with the “norm” (whatever that is!). I’ve had so many ah-ha moments in reading and discussing the various ways different people view the world and how we can be misunderstood and why.

Third, I think having the mindset of ongoing learning/growth can avoid a lot of pitfalls. The most amazing, brilliant people I’ve ever met have expressed to me that they never feel as though they have arrived, that they are always aware of and reaching for more. More learning, more experiences, more perspectives, just more. Maybe one day we will have each arrived somewhere, but for now, having the attitude of being open to learning more about ourselves and the world is key, I think.

Fourth, I think it is important to surround yourself with people who show you more. I think it’s easy sometimes to surround ourselves with people who look up to you, who think you are amazing; at the same time, being around those people who show you how to do something more/different/better, etc., those are the people who challenge you to keep growing and learning. Find those people who are doing more and stick around to see how they do that. People who think you are amazing are good to keep around too — it’s likely you who are showing them more.

Fifth and finally, I think imposter syndrome perpetuates when we don’t talk about it. Anything we avoid talking about gains power. When we don’t shine the light on areas of struggle or weakness, those things just get bigger and more complicated. Speaking up helps us to know that we aren’t alone and it also ensures that we get more perspectives. Those conversations I started this post with? Each of us in the room were able to assure the person sharing vulnerably that we saw more than they did, that we saw how amazing they are, and that they are not alone.

At no point do I want to communicate that dealing with imposter syndrome is easy. It’s not. Imposter syndrome affects so many people and I think it needs to become the topic of conversation more often. I’ll leave you with a quote that a new friend shared with a group of us who are working to meet needs within the MBC Community together because I think it helps to reframe some of what I’ve been talking about in terms of how we view ourselves. And, of course, I would love to hear more from all of you about this idea or any of the suggestions I’ve included above.

12 thoughts on “Imposter syndrome

  1. This post was fabulous!! It really resonated with me. And what concerns me is that we’re all, humans, so protective that we are reluctant to ask questions, afk for help, get advice, find a mentor. Things that make everyone better and need to happen at every level. When we try control others’ perceptions of us we lose out on growth opportunities, we miss out on being vulnerable, which allows others to be vulnerable. When we seek to become better at whatever it is we are doing, we need to take risks, fail forward, and rise again and again. Thanks for shining light on something so many of us struggle with.

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  2. I don’t know if I understand completely – but toward the end of my career as a teacher I was often confronted by young teachers who had twice as many degrees as I had, and Principals who thought they were the top of whatever pile they were on and I, with a simple years old degree had nothing to offer except years of experience and a love for the most unloved students and my ideas were listened to and then dismissed with a ‘Yes John. those were the days. It’s different now.”
    And you can probably understand why after thirty years in this town I have zero contact with my ex-colleagues but regular smiles and hellos from ex-students.

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  3. Really interesting post Abigail. I don’t think I’ve experienced imposter syndrome often at all. I agree with you that honest feedback from others who have your best interests at heart is essential and being able to accept it requires openness and vulnerability. Growth and learning are also so important as we go through our lives. I love to look out for how I can learn from every other person I get to know from the youngest to the oldest and it’s a joy x

    Liked by 1 person

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