Stop, Imposter! And Other Stories We Tell Ourselves
Pull up a chair, friends, and let’s take a long hard look at imposter syndrome.
I was talking to a fantastic coach last week and the topic of imposter syndrome came up — specifically, it reared its ugly head for me a few weeks ago when an older male acquaintance made a comment that more or less equated to “you’re too young, too female, and too nice to really make it”. Ow.
I’m not a stranger to scenarios like this, and early on in my career when I was frequently the youngest and/or only woman at the table, I learned to deal with it by slinging out a one-liner about myself that was so clever and well-timed that the guy sitting across the table from me wouldn’t dare to add on one of his own. There was a certain storyline that I worked out along with the armor of a solid self-deprecating joke, especially when I came to New York. “Just a girl from Ohio who got lucky, and wow, look at me now! I can’t believe I’m here!”
That story played well. It’s easier to roll with the happy-go-lucky version of things that comes off sweetly, without making me seem aggressive, or arrogant (read: confident) or threatening. The story that gives me no credit for being where I am today. It’s all just a happy accident! I’m not a threat! I’ve made fun of myself and downplayed my accomplishments before you did! But, as Hannah Gadsby said so brilliantly and succinctly in Nanette:
“You learn from the part of the story you focus on.”
And she is, unsurprisingly, right. That’s how I got to talking with this coach about how damaging it can be to put a false story out into the world, especially in the name of keeping other people comfortable. Because that’s what it really comes down to: making other people feel comfortable, whether because of a real or perceived fear that they will react poorly to the truth, and thus will like you less, or respond to you in a negative or resentful way. The biggest problem with telling your story through this comfort lens — so frequently, with such ease — is that you can start to believe it yourself. And then, like me, someone tosses a criticism at you and you head on down the road to imposter syndrome because rather than looking at what the facts of your story tell you (I’ve made it this far because I’m smart, and I’ve earned it), you look instead at the version of the story you’ve told so many times that you now believe it to be true. That you got lucky. That all of this is just happening to you, rather than being something that you made happen. And that any minute now, someone is going to figure you out and call your bluff.
But it’s a bluff you never made in the first place.
I know I’m not alone here. When I recently shared this story with a brilliant community of women, I received a chorus of “Yes, been there” and “Yup, me too” from people who have done things that are truly astonishing and world-changing. It’s a challenging topic to discuss, because even bringing it up can sometimes come along with the fear of “Wait, if I say I’m struggling with this, what if everyone really does start to think I’m a fraud?” But if we don’t talk about it, we will become exactly what we fear. Imposters. Not in the sense of faking our way through our professional lives, but in the sense of inhabiting and living out stories about ourselves that are not true.
So, in the midst of this delightful and daunting pile of self-awareness, how can we take action? Because while empathy is important in the imposter syndrome conversation, so are solutions. And it starts, quite simply, with examining the narrative. Pay attention to the words you use when you talk about your career or your path. Pay attention to how you joke about your accomplishments or situation, and how many of those jokes are actually at your own expense in the name of keeping others comfortable. Then, and this is the harder part: start to rebuild your story. Rewrite it based on the facts, and give yourself credit where credit is due. We’ve all had a lucky shot at one point or another, but you did not get to where you are because of nothing more than lucky shots and one-off chances. You are better than that.
The stories we tell ourselves are important, because they can become our reality so quickly without us even realizing it. The challenge, then, is to pay attention, and make change where change is needed. No apologies necessary.