The Key to Crushing Impostor Syndrome
Impostor syndrome describes the feelings of insecurity, self-doubt, or discordance that we sometimes experience when doing something that we don’t feel qualified to do. I’ve personally found myself suffering from it when engaged in random activities, regardless of how long I’ve been doing them or how skilled I might be at them.
When it comes to some things, like climbing, I feel confident after just a couple of months of engaging in the activity. For whatever reason, I quickly gain a sense of belonging despite being a total noob at the endeavor.
But then, when it comes to some other things, even if I’ve been participating in them for years, I can never seem to shake my feeling of “otherness” - that nagging self-judgment that I just don’t belong. I feel like a poser or a fraud - someone who maybe wears the right outfit, has all of the proper gear, and appears to fit in at first glance, but is still missing the mark in some fundamental way.
To provide a more concrete example of what I’m talking about, this sensation of self-doubt, of being a fraud, tends to creep up on me whenever I’m in a yoga class, even though I’ve been practicing yoga on and off since high school. Something about seeing all of the lithe people on the mats around me usually makes me feel insecure.
I’m a bit more muscular in my build and tend to be less flexible than my fellow classmates. And it sometimes seems as if I’m gracing the page of a children’s activity book, waiting to be circled and called out as the thing that doesn’t belong amongst the rest.
Whenever I feel this way, my instinct is to want to run and hide or avoid the venture altogether. But when it comes to something like yoga, an activity that I know has a positive impact on my body and generally improves the quality of my life, I can’t let my ego or my feelings of discomfort and insecurity keep me from participating. That would just be unfortunate.
And impostor syndrome become particularly problematic when we give it the power to shut us down. It’s one thing to be plagued by the feeling of being a fraud, but it’s another to start trusting and believing in that feeling so much that we stop engaging.
As Harvard Business School professor and social psychologist Amy Cuddy has shown through her research, our nonverbal actions can have a strong, measurable impact on how we think and feel about ourselves. In her famous TED talk, she explains how “our bodies change our minds, and our minds can change our behavior, and our behavior can change our outcomes”.
In other words, not only did she find that it’s indeed possible to “fake it till you make it” - she discovered that you can actually “fake it till you become it”.
So that’s what I do at yoga. I fake it. I feign confidence and flow through the moves, probably nowhere near as elegantly as I imagine.
And some days, when I can really get into the flow, nail those tricky balance maneuvers, and sink deep into the different positions, I start to feel a little relief. A little rush of belonging.
But more frequently than not, the instructor has us try poses I have no business even attempting to get into. And my knees end up near my face when they should be flush with the floor, and I feel like a total. fucking. idiot.
The thing is though, at its core, my struggle isn’t actually one of belonging at all. It’s one of self-acceptance.
Whenever you grapple with impostor syndrome, it’s a sign, yes - but not that you don’t belong. Rather, impostor syndrome is simply a signal that you need to work to get yourself to a place where you no longer feel like you’re faking it or wearing a mask. It’s a cue that, instead of succumbing to self-doubt, you should embrace being your authentic self - even if that means “far from perfect”.
So what do I do now whenever I attend a yoga class? I carefully observe and attempt to mimic the best student’s form, I try to maintain my focus, I do the best that I can, and I keep practicing.
And the funny thing is, this approach that I take to yoga - coming at it from a place of humility and acceptance of where I’m at, but with a hunger to improve - is likely a healthier and more balanced approach than I take to the things that I naturally feel more belonging around. In fact, it would probably be beneficial for me to adopt a similar approach when I engage in some of the activities around which I feel greater self-assurance, like climbing.
Because, yes, confidence can sometimes help us to take bigger risks and to push ourselves to improve beyond our previous limitations. But sometimes a certain degree of humility and consistent quiet rigor can enable us to level up even more substantially.
And sure, I’ve used yoga here as a casual example, but where ridding yourself of impostor syndrome can really be game-changing is when you suffer from it at work, in your relationship, or while attempting to pursue your mission and purpose in life.
If you feel like a fraud in any of those contexts, then it’s absolutely critical for you to discharge that emotion and work on owning who you are. Or else that feeling could end up preventing you from becoming whomever it is that you have the opportunity to be.
It would be tragic if you gave into your feelings of self-doubt and granted them the power to make you feel like you don’t belong. So please don’t allow that to happen. Instead, learn to notice these emotions whenever they arise in you and take them as a sign that you’re headed in the right direction - towards learning, growing, and improving. Impostor syndrome can’t win out so long as you give self-acceptance a seat at the table.
At times, our feelings of insecurity or our lack of experience may lead us to adopt other people’s standards or expectations as our own. But if we can take a step back and accept ourselves for who we are and where we are on our journey, it will give us the strength to forge our own path - one that’s free from that burden of judgment, one that’s self-defined, and one that’s actually worthy of embarking upon.