Guest Blog by: Louisa Balch Liska
I was recently speaking to a friend who was describing her first year of graduate school. She shared that while she liked the program she had really struggled. She felt like everyone else had so much more experience and that she didn’t really belong there. While the course load itself was hard, this feeling of being behind everyone else caused the most stress and discomfort for her.
I found myself empathizing with her because I knew that feeling quite well. The feeling of trying your best and always feeling behind. Like if only you knew a little more, had a little more time, you could be doing your very best work, but instead, you were stuck in the discomfort of not being able to deliver 100%. This feeling is not unique and is so common in fact that it even has a name, Imposter Syndrome. It is something that many successful people experience, and it can feel very painful and paralyzing. When you are experiencing Imposter Syndrome, the fact that you are not good enough feels like a simple fact. You don’t have as much experience as someone else, you aren’t doing as well as you think you should be, you haven’t been in your position for as many years as other people. The list goes on and on.
I’ve certainly thought these thoughts myself before. And yet, when I heard about this experience from my friend, I realized how limiting and detrimental this mindset was. Instead of just the burden of a difficult course load, she also had to carry this self-imposed stress of not being good enough. I realized in that moment how completely useless these feelings of insecurity are. They don’t encourage you to do better work, they don’t make you feel more confident. They just make you spend unnecessary energy on wondering if you are good enough.
And while I could see how they felt like simple facts to her, from an outside perspective, it became clear to me that they were a form of distorted thinking. Yes, objectively she didn’t have as much experience as someone else in a specific area, but she clearly had more experience in another area. Any areas of deficit and lack were being over-exaggerated and any areas of strength were being ignored.
This type of thinking is exactly what happens when we experience Imposter Syndrome. We see the evidence that supports our thoughts that we are not good enough and ignore everything else that might present a contrary view. This evidence confirms our original thought until we believe it so strongly that it feels like an irrefutable truth. The fact that we aren’t able to execute on something completely perfectly becomes evidence that we just aren’t good enough and never will be.
But the thing is, whenever you are learning something new, the simple truth is that you won’t be good enough at first. And even when you become a master in one area, there will always be new opportunities for learning and growth. Imposter Syndrome is sneaky because we think, “Well once I know how to do this, I will be able to feel better about myself.” But what happens, in reality, is that once you learn how to do one thing, your brain immediately is on the lookout for the next thing that you are “not good enough at”. And so, the cycle continues, and more and more energy goes into worrying about if you are good enough, instead of just learning and doing the work.
Just recognizing how the Imposter Syndrome can show up in your life is a good first step. But it can be hard to break out of this kind of thinking, so here are some tangible steps to follow if you start noticing yourself experiencing Imposter Syndrome in your life:
1. Observe Your Thoughts
If you find yourself thinking thoughts like “I’m so behind everyone else”, or “I have no idea what I’m doing”, that is a sign that Imposter Syndrome is showing up. Pay attention to what is triggering these thoughts and the specific areas of your life that they show up.
2. Find Counter Evidence
Once you’ve recognized your Imposter Syndrome thoughts, make a list of all of the ways those thoughts might not be true. This might feel difficult in the moment but push yourself to brainstorm a list. Sometimes it can be helpful to imagine that you are a friend that is giving you advice.
3. Embrace Your Imposter Syndrome
Recognize that your Imposter Syndrome is likely just trying to keep you safe. When you are growing and learning, there is change. And change can feel scary and like a threat. Imposter Syndrome tries to keep you from changing by making you doubt yourself when taking action. Especially if you have experienced it before, it usually shows up in a very predictable pattern whenever you are stretching yourself and trying something new. When you see this pattern, instead of letting it control your thoughts and actions, you can recognize that fear and doubt are totally normal feelings. You get to choose if you want to act on them.
4. Redirect your energy
The beauty of recognizing how Imposter Syndrome is showing up in your life, is that if you can work through these steps, the self-imposed stress and anxiety starts to fall away. When that happens, instead of fighting with yourself, you are able to use all of that energy towards taking major action that will actually help you move forward with your goals.
Unlike positive stress that leads to a breakthrough, stress from Imposter Syndrome rarely leads to great work. Instead, it usually holds you back from feeling confident and really going for your goals. My friend already was facing so many challenges in graduate school. As she went into her second year, she started to realize that she did have experience and value to offer. So instead of getting stuck in feeling inadequate, she was able to face the challenges of school head-on, providing an overall more rewarding experience. Imposter Syndrome is not a truth, but ultimately a choice. Next time you feel it, know that you are not alone, but you alone get to decide what to do about it.
About the Author
Louisa Balch Liska helps people who are passionate about their careers manage their productivity and mindset in order to avoid burnout. Visit her at theactually.com for her free guide to creating an organization system to get things done while keeping a peaceful mind. Louisa is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama and the General Manager of a major regional theater.
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