“Everyone loses when bright people play small.”
― Valerie Young
I never would have been the first to raise my hand and say I had imposter syndrome until I read Valerie Young’s book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of it. It made me reel back through my experience, my habits, and behaviors, and see them through this lens of what holds me back (and why). I began to see the ways in which I would hide out just shy of being in the limelight, and what that provided for me in a self-protection sort of way.
Hiding out, for me, means not taking the lead, or being direct, or sticking my neck too far out because then they will see me and have something (likely not good, maybe even cutting, or criticizing) to say about it. I rest in the place of not being “too much” or “too good” or “too [fill in the blank]” in front of too many people in order to protect myself from any potential biting comments from the peanut gallery. So, I stay one notch below uber visible. In a sense, I shut myself down before anyone else can.
Digging in a bit more, what I began to locate for myself was a set of feelings at my core that were a mixed bag of wondering if what I do matters, wondering if I got here only because of a stroke of luck if what I say really contributes to anything new for anyone else in the room. All of which boiled down to a steaming pile of shame–that everloving feeling that I’m not enough as I am, with a dusting of “is something wrong with me?”
If you’re human, you’ve likely got a pile of shame somewhere. It shows up in various ways, and we do a lot of roundabout things to cope with it and cover it up because shame feels oh-so-baaaaad.
“The co-discoverers of the impostor phenomenon, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, along with various collaborators, point to four coping and protecting mechanisms: diligence and hard work, holding back, charm, and procrastination,” Young writes. “In my own work I’ve observed three more: maintaining a low or ever-changing profile, never finishing, and self-sabotage.” Imposter syndrome is a common thread to our shared humanity. Young cites a study conducted by psychologist Gail Matthews in which a whopping 70 percent of successful people reported experiencing impostor feelings at some point in their life.
Which of these coping and protecting mechanisms are your go-to’s? How does this show up in your work?
“To be clear, none of these coping and protection behaviors do anything to actually alleviate your imposter feelings. That’s not their job,” writes Young. “Their job is to keep you safe from harm by avoiding the shame and humiliation of being unmasked as well as to relieve some of the stress that comes from feeling like a fraud.”
In other words, these actions came online as protection from some bad-feeling feelings. When your imposter syndrome rears up, it’s trying to take care of you. That is something to deeply appreciate about this mechanism. And–these ‘reactions to bad feelings’ that developed over time into patterns of behavior now keep you smaller than you need to be. Left unchecked, these behaviors will keep you small (and keep you orienting parts of your life around some core beliefs that are untrue about who you are and your inherent worth).
Understanding how you tried to manage is the first step to understanding the broader function of these imposter syndrome behaviors that show up for you. Young asks three questions to get at what these imposter syndrome behaviors are attempting to do for you: What does this behavior help me avoid? What does this behavior protect me from? What does this behavior help me get?
There’s usually a big, hairy, negative belief we have about our self that lies at the core of all of this questioning. We’ve all got one. Dr. Gerald Weinstein calls this belief ‘the Crusher and it has to do with a basic feeling of inadequacy and unworthiness. It’s worth reiterating: your imposter syndrome behaviors and patterns were developed on par with the weight of this Crusher. Ultimately, so that you wouldn’t have to face this unconscious, hidden, negative belief about yourself.
Our psyches will go to great lengths to not feel the crushingly really bad feels, but those beliefs will linger until revisited and revised. In that flavor of bad-feeling, this core negative belief goes below the “I’m a fraud” feeling and sounds more like something that makes you inherently unlovable and rejectable from the tribe. It has deeper and doomier tones that sound like “You’ll never measure up,” “You’re stupid,” “You’re not worthy,” or “You don’t deserve to be here.”
Young reminds us of the key point in this work: as important and emotional as this crusher feels to us, it is a lie. Exposing this lie can help us see how our lives have been bent and construed and twisted around it, so that our fullest potential has been, until now, kept under wraps or heavily reined in from a full-out gallop. There’s a cost of all this learned protection, and a greater cost at not changing it’s inhibiting ways.
Young asks us these questions to identify the ways the tight reins of the imposter syndrome limit not only our potential but what we’re inherently deserving of. Moving through an arc of discovery on how imposter syndrome lives in your life can help you uncover what’s holding you back so that you can move forward, in your fullest expression and full belief in your goodness, with grace and ease to claim the success that is yours.
In this week’s podcast conversation, I am joined by Ann Mehl, Heather Jassey, and Miriam Meima. We jump right into talking about the masks we feel we need to wear, how imposter syndrome grips us, and all that gets in the way of us feeling our inherent worth–what I like to call our ‘enoughness.’