Imposter Syndrome – time for a different story?

Imposter Syndrome is a term that was coined in the 1978 by clinical psychologists Dr Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. What Clance and Imes did was to name a thing they saw. They saw people who had pushed themselves outside their comfort zone. Having pushed themselves, these people felt uncomfortable. Like a trespasser in someone else’s yard they were now feeling the consequences. Like every school child who takes a risk and finds themselves beyond the officially sanctioned boundary these “imposters” are expecting some highly officious teacher to come and tell them off and to get back to where they belong.

I’ve written before about this topic but my confession to you here is that I’ve now reached a point where I’m questioning whether continuing to just call this out is still the most helpful thing we can do. I’m wondering if just naming and normalising it limits our ability to move into the next stage of dealing with it. The question I want to ask is whether we have reached a point where we would all benefit from telling ourselves an entirely different story about what this thing is.

For the past few years, I have been running “Fear Hack” workshops. The first thing I do in the workshop is to get the participants to write down a fear they have on a post-it and to stick that small note up on a wall. The breakthrough people get when they do this is not what they write down but rather what they see on the wall when they come back to look at what the group as a whole is saying. This is a nice shift to observe because although our initial focus tends to be on what we worry about, as we look at what we have all put on the wall, what we see is different. For the first time, we get to see what others are saying. Suddenly there is a brutal honesty about what we collectively fear that is written on the wall. As a group, we can then start to question and re-appraise this thing of which we so rarely speak.

As we look at the Fear Wall, I generally ask the group two simple initial questions. These are – “What do you feel?” and then “What do you see?” To the first question I get a mixed response. As they look at the collective fears of the group some people will feel some degree of sadness. This is understandable as there is a lot of bad stuff up there. Every time this is voiced there is a pause of recognition but then a much stronger, more positive, wave emerges to take over. Someone else will say something like “I see that but I also feel relief because I now know it is not just me”. Someone will usually then say “I can see my fears on this wall. That feels good. Now I know that I am not alone”. This feeling is matched by others and tends to be the dominant mood of the group. There is also a feeling in the group that it helps to name these feelings, that it is only by naming and owning them, that we get to move forward.

To the second question I get a series of observations as patterns emerge. The main thing groups tend to pick out is that there is a lot of fear of failure up on the wall. This can take many forms, from a fear of being found out to a worry that people won’t turn up to our thing, to an anxiety that we will let people down. In many groups this pattern is the prevailing theme and has been as high as two thirds or so of the fears. This fear, of not measuring up to some external measure of performance we choose to impose on ourselves or of being found out, dominates the room and our lives. We reflect on this and often I ask the group who suffers from this feeling. I find, as I raise my own arm, very few, if any, hands remain down. We are all suffering from this feeling.

I usually then ask people more questions about these fears such as “Where are they?” and “What evidence do you have for them?”. As we ponder the answers we realise a few things. This is something I cannot tell people but rather something that everyone has to slowly challenge themselves with, as more and more people see it. It is that these fears do not exist. There is no real evidence for any of them. Even the ones that feel very real, like the fear of imminent homelesnness which I’ve been challenged with by a participant now more than once, is not actually real. It is not happening now. It is a fear of something that might happen. When I ask where they are sleeping tonight, I have found out, both times, that they do have somewhere to sleep. As such, these fears, however real they might feel, are made up. There is no actual evidence now for any of them happening. It feels like they are real but in truth they exist in our minds as a construct, a story about a possible future. We have chosen to believe this narrative.

What slowly breaks in the group is a realisation that we can go beyond merely recognising and normalising this. If our fears are simply a story we carry in our minds, we have a choice. Instead of believing that the teacher is going to come and tell us off, we could start to believe a different story. We could choose to tell ourselves a hopeful story about what might go right rather than a dreadful one about what might go wrong. We could also choose to live in a narrative construct where the default presumption is that the world supports us, instead of always trying to cut us down. As we stand in this room with a bunch of other supportive people, we could together choose to start to believe in a more hopeful and supportive world. We could even choose to support each other more in making that story come true.

Just before we do this it might help to remind ourselves of what our options are. After all, a really good way to avoid these slightly uncomfortable feelings, is to remain securely within our zone of comfort. This option is always open to us. However, we see the problem with this if we ask ourselves what will happen if we simply stay put. Most of us know the answer to this conceptual question. It is like locking ourselves inside a house. What happens is that our comfort zone actually gets smaller as even the walls of the house grow their own mind-forged threats. If we are not careful, soon we won’t even be able to open the door. In short, the problem with staying in our comfort zone is that that zone doesn’t stay as it is, it gets smaller.

The only way to maintain or grow our comfort zone is, ironically, to step outside it. As we push at our boundaries of what we feel to be safe today, what feels comfortable tomorrow expands. At the same time our confidence, our willingness to experiment, with the joys of stretching and expanding ourselves in this way, increases. Confidence cannot be grown in a jar. Once we walk towards what we fear, our relationship with it and our understanding of it, improves. As we do the thing we are challenged by our confidence grows. That thing we feel is our reminder that we are stepping outside our safe comfort zone, into growth.

Its important to remember that what we are doing here is not to deny the feeling exists. To push our anxiety down or away is a sure way to make sure it comes back, like a horrible acid reflux, when we least want it. Instead what we are doing is to welcome the feeling we have as a friend, a source of information for us. What we are doing is re-framing our story about the feeling.

The truth though is that we are relying too heavily on our experience of the past to come to conclusions about the future. What we could be doing is allowing the possibility that is the future to evolve as it can.

Now, instead of being a threat to our very lives, this butterfly fluttering is something that tells us we are alive and that we are growing. The discomfort we feel results from finding ourselves in a new and challenging place. It is a good thing, an essential thing.

What is more, we actively need to put ourselves in that place in order to grow. Growth is a natural part of living.

The difference here is that instead of thinking that it is us that are wrong, we are now saying that the narrative structures we had chosen were wrong. Instead, we now have new ones.

We can chose – yes, chose – to tell ourselves a different story.

Instead of a negative story about being found out we now have a positive one about growth.

In that story we would accept these feelings as what they are.

That they are growing pains,

that we have them because we are growing

and that growth is normal.


Read more about Fear Hack Workshops and the Fear Hack Book here.