I overwork to prove myself. I love telling people I’m too busy to connect with them. I spend my free time finding ways to get noticed online since I can’t acknowledge my achievements enough on my own.
And… I run a successful international leadership coaching and training business.
I live with an impostor syndrome. I regularly fear I am not good enough.
Fortunately, my brain research has eased my obsessiveness. I know my fears are unfounded based on this syndrome, meaning I have a destructive pattern of thinking. Most people face these same fears when stepping out of their comfort zone. When the fears persist, they are called a syndrome.
What distorts your thinking
Your brain’s most important job is to keep you from safe. It doesn’t discern failure and ridicule from lions trying to eat you. When you feel anxious, it’s difficult for your brain to distinguish what’s real from imagined.1 You have trouble discerning the worst-case scenario from other likely possibilities.
If you fear people will discover you are not as good as your titles and successes say you are, you too will overwork to prove yourself. You cope with perfectionism, fearing any mistake will reveal your flaws. The more competitive the environment you work in, the greater your performance anxiety and fear of failure.
These patterns were imprinted when you were young and expected to excel. Your parents probably acknowledged you for what you did – schoolwork, sports, helping others – instead of who you are – courageous, smart, generous. In some cultures, parents think they must only recognize when their children get the best grades and win awards.
No matter how hard you tried, you never earned the acknowledgment you craved. You didn’t learn how to appreciate yourself. You only see what you lack.
On the positive side, this syndrome can drive success. My need for recognition helps me to prosper as a writer, teacher, and public speaker. Your brain might hold onto your syndrome because it also serves you. Are you willing to step back a little to gain peace of mind?
How to keep your fears from spinning out of control
You can’t just make impostorism vanish. You can remind yourself of your accomplishments, but this won’t suppress your feelings.
You need a mental crutch in the form of sense of purpose. You must be clear on the impact your work will make for even one person in the room. Your sense of purpose – what brings you joy in helping others – will give you the courage to rise out of the quicksand of unworthiness, rage, and doubt.
Find your sense of purpose by noticing moments you do or say something and the reaction fills your heart with gratitude and pride. Sometimes you find this moment when someone acknowledges you for your words. The pleasure you get from the compliment is a signal that you are doing purposeful work.
The late poet and activist Audre Lorde said, “When I dare to be powerful - to use my strength in the service of my vision – then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”
Three mental routines to keep your brain in check
In addition to finding what gives you a sense of purpose, these three routines will help override your fear of never being good enough:
- Ask yourself what you can do to be kind to yourself today. Self-compassion is the act of letting yourself be an imperfect human. Know your reactions come from your brain’s attempt to protect you. Recognize the love and courage you feel when you help others, finish an important project, or walk alone in nature. Do you feel full-hearted when you teach, write, sing, or cook? Get up and treat yourself to a moment of joy.
- Detach from your expectations as often as you can. When you start to spin out of control criticizing yourself for your mistakes and fearing others will see you as a fake, take three deep breaths. On the first breath, notice how you're feeling. On the second breath, remember that you aren't alone. Most people go through similar challenges when try something new, and millions live daily with the fear of failure. On the third breath, ask yourself, "What do I choose to feel instead?" Then breathe your answer into your heart and gut.
- Make the distinction between who you are and what you are doing. Look at what you have accomplished and list what personal traits and gifts helped you achieve these goals. List at least five inner powers you possess such as your determination, integrity, intelligence, kindness, passion, or grit. Stand up and read your list out loud. No one can take these traits away from you. You will never lose them no matter what happens. Remind yourself who you are every morning, whenever you get anxious, and at the end of each day.
It is normal to question the risks you take when you start something new. Whether you have a full-blown impostor syndrome or temporary jitters, remind yourself WHY you are making these choices and WHO YOU ARE at your core. Then keep going despite your fears.