Imagine you’re the head of a $250 million company. Sounds great, right? Except you’re challenged with your level of success. In fact, your anxiety is so overwhelming that you walk out of an exclusive CEO event to talk to your executive coach. Without that support, you wouldn’t be able to return to a room filled with other leaders — most of whom aren’t running businesses worth nearly as much as yours.
This is one of many examples of impostor syndrome. It’s also a true story shared by a dear friend of mine. Today, the company she led is valued at more than $1 billion. But she’s still working on overcoming the impostor syndrome she felt at that event.
Impostor syndrome is a never-ending conversation affecting up to 82% of professionals, according to research published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine. But we can learn to appreciate that inner voice that says we don’t know what we’re doing without being defined by it.
How to Live With Impostor Syndrome
Impostor syndrome attempts to convince us that we’re not capable of meeting the next moments — despite our training or experience that proves otherwise. Often, it comes from something negative we were told or heard about ourselves from a parent, bully, teacher, frenemy, partner, or boss. Our minds hold onto the words that we perceive to be judgment levied against us, and we repeat those words over and over, particularly when we’re in challenging situations.
Impostor syndrome is common. But most of us hear this toxic, demanding voice louder than other more rational voices. I’ve had to work hard to live with my own impostor syndrome. And what I’ve come to realize is that there are upsides to that voice because it tells me exactly what I care about most.
Before you can discover the meaning behind your impostor syndrome, you have to learn to live with and listen to it. Here are three ways to leverage your impostor syndrome and turn it into a secret weapon:
1. Pinpoint the origin of your impostor syndrome.
Zero in on the voice of your impostor syndrome to determine who’s speaking. Often, your impostor syndrome is not your voice, but that of someone more critical when you were younger.
Next, consider the motivation behind the voice. What does it want to divert you from? If you understand its motivation, you can step back and question the voice. When you feel your impostor syndrome kicking in, recognize it for what it is — the voice of your fear — rather than allowing it to step into the driver’s seat, where it can run you off the road.
One of my favorite executive coaches, Bert Parlee, once described framing impostor syndrome voices as a “board of directors,” but to remember that you make the final call as chairperson. In other words, you get to listen to the voices around the table and then decide whose voice will influence your decision and whose concerns you’ll set aside.
Yes, it can be tough to push back against intense voices in your mind that want to hold your attention. Plus, it can be easy to confuse your impostor syndrome with “gut instinct.” However, the more you get to know your inner voices, the less power they have over you.
“The greatest obstacle for me has been the voice in my head that I call my obnoxious roommate. I wish someone would invent a tape recorder that we could attach to our brains to record everything we tell ourselves. We would realize how important it is to stop this negative self-talk. It means pushing back against our obnoxious roommate with a dose of wisdom.” – Arianna huffington
2. Identify situations that trigger your impostor syndrome.
Everyone has situations that wake their impostor syndrome. For some, it’s public speaking. For others, it’s meeting with a certain supervisor or client. For others, it’s a new opportunity. As you start to analyze the triggers of your impostor syndrome, you’ll uncover patterns that will help you predict when it might arise so you aren’t caught off guard when it does.
Anticipating the arrival of your impostor syndrome allows you to bypass the psychological blow of your sometimes cynical board of directors. That doesn’t mean you need to afford them too much of your time, though. Nevertheless, when you know your triggers, you can keep impostor syndrome from burrowing under your skin.
How important is it to learn to live with impostor syndrome rather than expending tons of energy resisting it? I’ve seen the resistance to impostor syndrome blow up partnerships, cause significant corporate revenue loss, and even destroy marriages — often without people ever realizing that impostor syndrome was the culprit of their downfall. So use discernment moving forward. You decide who and what is driving you to make decisions. When you have that awareness of your impostor syndrome, you’re less at the mercy of your own self-sabotage.
3. Reframe the story you tell yourself.
A huge reason impostor syndrome is so effective in bringing people down is that we don’t intuitively balance negative voices with positive, rational ones. We might understand where the voice comes from and argue with it, but we want to take the next step of adding positive “voices” to our board of directors. Those new voices can remind us of our talents, superpowers, and achievements.
Spend time listing the three most painful experiences of your early life. These might range from abuse you endured at home to the loss of someone close to you or missing out on an opportunity.
Next, consider each experience and zero in on the ways you helped yourself feel safe. I guarantee you did something creative to gain back some control over the situation. For example, if you had an abusive parent, you might have learned to become invisible to make yourself less of a target. Your early creative solutions became your superpowers. Consider how you adapted to each painful situation and what superpower you developed to feel safe again. Write down as much as you can about your creative approaches.
Lastly, list how you still use each superpower today. If you developed the power of invisibility, for example, you might have found it’s powerful to remain unnoticed in certain situations. Everyone’s faced adversity and leaned into some form of creativity to survive. By taking the time to connect the dots between your painful moments and resulting superpowers, you’ll be able to share the origin story of the work you do today in the world and why you were destined to do it. When you understand the root of your gifts, the voice of your impostor syndrome cannot help but quiet down.
You might be surprised at how this exercise both frees you and makes you a better resource for others. If you take the time to reroute your impostor syndrome voice, you’ll become better able to manage challenging situations. As a result, people will experience you as responsible, trustful, and graceful — and that will only help your professional relationships flourish.
You can live with and overcome impostor syndrome. No matter how many times it has thwarted your contentment and success, you can tame it for good. Like so many monsters and bullies, when you confront impostor syndrome face to face, it starts to lose its force — and you start to gain yours.