An honest, open and forthright letter written by me, to me, with the hope it will help you.
Dear Impostor Syndrome,
We’ve known each other for a long time, and it’s been a problematic relationship, these conversations are never easy. I want to be honest and open about how I’m feeling about you.
For many years you’ve been there, whispering, or at times shouting, in my ear, making me question myself, making me doubt my abilities. You’ve made me retract when I should have pushed forward.
I want to address some of the aspects of our relationship that I find to be negative;
“You’re not good enough.” This has been one of your favourite phrases over the years. “You’re not good enough to be a husband.” “You’re not good enough to run a company.” “You’re not good enough to hire people.” “You’re not good enough to run a meetup.” Well, I’m here today to say I am good enough. I’m not perfect as you’d like me to think I need to be, but that’s OK. I’m learning that perfect is imperfect. If I strive to be perfect at everything I do, I do nothing.
That blog post on impostor syndrome I’ve been writing but haven’t published because you kept telling me “you’re not qualified enough to write about that”, well I’ve hit publish. I may not be the most qualified person on the planet to write about it, but I have experience. And If I have an opportunity to share some of my experiences with others, then I’m going to do just that.
Thomas Edison said “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” So guess what; I’m going to keep trying one more time because I am good enough.
“You should know that.” Another one of your go-to phrases. You’ve prevented me from growing, from learning, from pressing forward with this one. So many times I’ve had questions, questions that I’ve thought to myself; “I’ll ask the community.” I’ll put a post on the forum, or I’ll ask in Slack. Then you creep up and drop those four little words… “You should know that” and I come to a grinding halt.
I start to question myself; should I know this? If I ask this, will I look foolish? Does everyone already know this? Why don’t I know this? It stops now. No, I shouldn’t know that, how can I? Without asking questions, without being inquisitive, we can’t grow and develop. I tell my team on almost a daily basis “there are no silly questions”. Time for me to take my own advice.
To learn is to grow, and growth is at the core of living. To humble myself into the belief that I will never know everything is to succeed.
“You’re going to fail.” Well, this one’s always fun; ‘the fear of failure’. And this one doesn’t only come from you, Impostor Syndrome; good old Self Doubt is usually lurking in the corner ready to tag team this one with you! I’ve noticed you do like to sow the seed and watch the chaos unwrap. How many times have I had that life-changing idea and then heard “You’re going to fail.” Too many times. It stops now.
Failure isn’t something to fear; it’s to be embraced. We learn from failure, without failure, how can we know success? Again I’ll quote Thomas Edison “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” There is an incredible success in understanding failure. Over the years you’ve held me back, you’ve made me question myself and my intentions. I’ve seen my ideas become a reality for other people because I’ve listened to you.
Without exception, from this day forward, when I hear you whisper “You’re going to fail”, my response will be; If I do, I will learn from it. Failure is just another step forward to success.
“What will others think?” I’ve noticed you frame this one slightly differently. It’s a question rather than a statement. I see what you’re doing there; you’re making me question myself and see if I’ll invite your friend Self Doubt back in, clever!
You know I don’t want to look foolish in front of my friends, colleagues and peers, so you play on this. It’s perfectly natural for me to wonder what others will think, but you take it to another level. A level that prevents me from progressing and prevents me from taking the steps forward that I need. So I’m going to unpick that statement a little; “what will others think?” well some will think “wow, that’s incredible”, some may think “what is he doing”, others might be thinking “if only I’d thought of that!” The point my friend is that we don’t know what others are thinking and focusing only on the potential negative outcome will never benefit me.
My mission from now on; to remove negative responses to this question and aim to focus on the positives. “What will others think?” I think they’ll like it, I think they’ll give me feedback, and if it’s negative, I’ll iterate, evolve and become more.
“You are a fake.” Thanks for that, we’ve gotten to outright insults now. You throw this one at me more than I care to remember. You make me question all that I’m doing and all that I am with this one. The fear of “I’m going to be found out” lies at the core of this statement and it’s one of your most destructive.
So I’m going to spend some time working through this. Why am I a fake? Why should I feel like I’m fake? Is it because I’ve not “made it”? What does “made it” even look like? I know I’m meant to enjoy the journey, not the destination here, but you keep poking this statement at me. “Fake it, ’till you make it” I hear, but no. I’m no fake; I’m not going to degrade myself and fall to your desires by becoming fake. I’ll make it while being true to myself and what I believe in. People see right through fake. It’s flimsy and worthless, my family, friends, colleagues, clients and even me all deserve better.
A true me. I’m not a fake.
I want you to know that I understand why you’re there. I know that we may never be entirely apart and to be honest, I’m not sure I want that. As much as you’ve negatively impacted me, I want to say thank you. I’m thanking you because you’ve forced me to grow more significant than you. You’ve made me look at myself and question what I’m doing. Without that introspection, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now.
Through your actions Impostor Syndrome, I’ve been able to take your negative questions and turn them around. I’m stronger for recognising you and working to understand you. I know you will never go away; I fully appreciate that we’re one. It’s not a bad thing; I have to remember to work with you when you show up. I’m not going to waste time and energy listening to you. I’ll have to try to put you back to sleep when you do appear.
Every question you’ve asked me above is four words long, so I have four little words for you; sleep well impostor syndrome.
Dear Impostor Syndrome Slides
Breaking Impostor Syndrome Down
Let’s break some of this letter down a little, and we can start to get an insight into Impostor Syndrome. The five lies that my impostor syndrome has insisted on telling me over the years are based on recognised psychological statements.
- “You’re not good enough” = Perfectionism
- “You should know that” = Judgementalism
- “You’re going to fail” = Catastrophising
- “What will others think” = Embarrassment
- “You are a fake” = Unworthiness
Tackling these individual feelings
Perfectionism – Try going for good enough. When we aim for perfection, we usually wind up with a project or tasks never being finished. So go for good enough instead. Applying the 80/20 rule is often my go-to here.
Judgementalism – Accept yourself. Learn to understand and accept yourself for who you are. You wouldn’t be judgemental of others, so why do it to yourself?
Catastrophising – When we catastrophize, we do two things: first, we predict the worst possible outcome; second, we assume that if this outcome occurs, we won’t be able to cope and it will be an outright disaster. The first step to tackling it is recognition, never forget; these are just thoughts at this stage.
Embarrassment – Not one of us is immune to moments of embarrassment, but some are more prone to focus on the ‘what if’ aspect of embarrassment. If this is you, try to make a concerted effort to subdue your critical voice.
Unworthiness – Know that it’s not all that uncommon to experience a feeling of unworthiness on occasion. Unrealistic expectations are a common trigger but not an exclusive one. Before you can tackle the problem, you need to give it a name. Understand that what you feel, this sometimes-crippling emotion is unworthiness.
Tackling Impostor Syndrome
1. Acknowledge Your Feelings – The initial step in overcoming Impostor Syndrome is the acknowledgement of how you are feeling. Remember, though, that acknowledging an emotion isn’t giving in to it.
2. Talk to Others – Find a safe person or group of people to open up to, in a trusted environment. You might be surprised by how many of your friends and colleagues can relate to how you feel.
3. Understand Your Strengths and Weaknesses – Build up your confidence by becoming more aware of your strengths and weaknesses. Once you have a deeper understanding of yourself, you won’t have to spend so much time worrying that you’re not “qualified” for a particular task, project or role.
4. Overcome Perfectionism – Set yourself the assignment to learn how to set yourself realistic, challenging and achievable goals. Embrace failure as a learning tool.
5. Own Your Successes – Take responsibility for your achievements. When you meet a goal or finish an important project, acknowledge that it was your skill and talent that made it happen.
Ultimately, impostor syndrome can become a cycle. Afraid of being discovered as a fake, people with impostor feelings go through contortions to undertake tasks and projects perfectly. When we succeed, we begin to believe all that anxiety and effort paid off. Eventually, they can develop into almost superstitious beliefs. Unconsciously, we think our successes must be due to that self-torture.
As I wrap up, I would like you to understand that you’re not alone if you struggle with impostor syndrome. You’re in excellent company:
- Michelle Obama
- Howard Schultz
- Sheryl Sandberg
- David Bowie
- Jodie Foster
- Tom Hanks
- Meryl Streep
- Albert Einstein