I first came across the idea of feeling like a fraud in an article by Peggy McIntosh back in 1985. Over 30 years later, the idea is still relevant. Now, this feeling is often referred to as Imposter Syndrome. It happens when, despite past successes, we second guess our own capabilities and accomplishments. When we are working in this mode, we are self-conscious and insecure, worried about being “found out” as less capable than people perceive us to be.
Once we start down the rabbit hole of doubting ourselves, the feeling of not being good enough becomes a distraction. It infects our willingness to take risks, and even threatens our confidence with things we’re already comfortable doing. Bottom line: It keeps us stuck, small, and scared to take next steps.
Compounding the problem is the fact that the experience now has a label, Imposter Syndrome. Now we have the doubts and insecurities AND a label that we can use to further denigrate ourselves – further evidence that we are unworthy of the opportunities in front of us.
Our doubtful voice says something like: “I can’t handle this. I don’t know enough. I don’t think I have what it takes. I’m in over my head!”
Our rational voice says something like: “Wait a minute. I’m fully capable. I can’t believe I doubt myself so much.”
To which the doubtful voice responds, “What’s wrong with me? With this serious case of Imposter Syndrome, I’ll never get ahead.”
Since we experience it as noise in our heads, we tend to think we’re completely alone in that experience, but it’s actually more common than you might think. This train of thought often crops up just as someone is facing a new challenge or opportunity. It serves as a distraction that keeps us stuck, procrastinating our work and spiraling into negativity. Our confidence wanes and that further impacts our work. The cycle can be brutal.
There is an alternative.
DOUBTS AS DATA
When we’re brave enough to move past the fear and look more deeply at the doubts, there’s priceless information to be discovered and leveraged.
Assessing the doubts: Doubts show us where we need to do the work. If there’s a gap between us and a successful goal, we can look at that honestly without making ourselves wrong. We’re free and clear to evaluate what steps are needed to close the gap without fear. We can then use that approach to lean into new challenges with more confidence moving forward.
Acknowledging our successes: If we only see the part of us that’s not ready (the fraudulent part), we miss the valuable skills and experience we bring to the table, selling ourselves and others short.
For example: A client of mine saw an opportunity to grow her 10-person division to a 40-person one to help solve an ongoing company problem. At first, she was excited but once she really considered it, doubt crept in. She got caught in the thought, “I’m not experienced enough to lead this new organization.”
We looked at what was underneath that doubt. What we discovered is that she had a concern about having people on the team in a functional area that she hadn’t led before. There was data underneath her doubt! Up to this point, she had always led teams of people whose jobs she could do. This new organization would require her to take the next step in her leadership, to lead people whose specialized skills weren’t in her wheelhouse. She would need an approach for managing them. With this information in the open, we were able to explore potential solutions.
More importantly, she now has a new way of relating to her doubts. Rather than seeing them as shameful, evidence of “Imposter Syndrome,” she could see them as a signal that there was some aspect of the situation that needed attention.
The same things happen with teams. Doubts and resistance are a natural part of team work. When we live in the doubts, they become an excuse to stay stuck. At the other extreme, if we dismiss the doubts and blame the doubters, we risk missing out on the valuable information they hold. If we look more closely at what’s behind those doubts, there’s a lot to be learned.
Anytime we’re doing something new or taking a big step, our natural cautiousness comes up. Once you cultivate awareness you’ll start to notice it as a thought pattern as opposed to “it’s an inherent part of me” or “something’s wrong.”
When that cautious voice sounds critical, check the context of your internal dialogue to separate facts from fiction. In what ways are you ready? For any ways you’re not, what steps can you take to get ready? Know that you’re not alone and you don’t have to have all the answers. The gold is in the growth we experience as we discover the things we don’t yet know.