February 19th, 2018
“I have written 11 books but each time I think ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.”– Maya Angelou
It was still dark out. It was December, and it was 6:45 in the morning. My Uber driver was helping me try to figure out where to deliver me as we drove in circles around the new and impressive Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA.
I had been hired to give my “Epic Lessons Learned in the Field” keynote presentation to women leaders who work for the Arthur M Blank family of businesses. I snapped a few photos of the new stadium as we drove around it, and texted them to my sons, who were likely still asleep in their beds in our Wyoming home. As far as my sons were concerned, this gig was my coolest yet, and they had requested I get photos.
As we drove circles around the stadium, with a few more minutes available to kill before I’d have to choose a place to get out, I worried about what I had chosen to wear. I had on what I usually wear for these keynote presentations – jeans, a nice blouse and boots. I don’t own any pantsuits, and would feel awkward wearing one. I will wear a dress, but usually only for special occasions like weddings, etc. (One time, when our youngest son was 4, and I came downstairs in the morning with a dress on, he remarked, lovingly, “I like your costume, Mommy.”)
I wondered about the women leaders I would soon meet – “corporate” women who live in a city and work for a prestigious organization, and who probably earn considerably more money than I do. I wondered if they would expect me to be more dressed up? I felt honored to have this opportunity, and I didn’t want them to view my being “not very dressed up” as indicative of the amount of respect I had for them, their time, and their hiring me as a keynote presenter. I know, such thinking is foolishness, but when we’re feeling nervous, the stories that play in our head can be quite compelling. Our insecurities come out in full force and I’m no exception.
Luckily, amidst the worries about my outfit, I remembered a bit from Brené Brown’s most recent book, Braving the Wilderness, which I had recently read. I recalled specifically Brown’s sharing about a time she was about to give a big presentation and changed from the outfit she thought she should wear to the outfit she was meant to wear. Thank you Brené! I thought to myself. (I am so familiar with, and aligned with Brené’s work that I refer to her on a first-name basis. She is one of my friends, even if we’ve never met.)
As my driver and I agreed about where to drop me off, I requested that he return in two hours to take me to my next place of work – Turner Networks.
Turner Networks. As I said it out loud, I sensed the familiar rush of panic I had experienced off and on in recent days. The feeling was one of paranoia. The fear that I was going to be “found out,” that I was claiming to have particular abilities or qualities that I didn’t really have, was palpable. All at once, I was panicking about, and wondering how it was that I was here, about to present at the Mercedes Benz Stadium, and then at Turner Networks. These two opportunities felt like big breaks for me, and I was wondering if it were a mistake that I had been hired.
By the way, every single speaking engagement I’m hired for feels like a big break for me. I struggle with these doubts when presenting during various conferences in my home state of Wyoming, to leaders at SapientRazorfish, or Johnson & Johnson, and even when presenting to middle schoolers in my small hometown. It’s just that somehow these bigger-name opportunities felt like the ultimate opportunity for me to see if my inner critic was not correct, if I was really not a fraud.
I wasn’t a fraud. I’m not a fraud. I am, however, human, and the experience I describe above is something most of us experience from time to time, especially when we’re stretching and daring to fail. We experience it whenever we’re leveling up and daring to do something that’s bigger, or more high level, than we’ve done before.
There’s a name for this experience. It’s called the “Impostor Syndrome.”
Impostor Syndrome is a concept describing individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. The term was coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes. Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is often dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. While early research focused on the prevalence among high-achieving women,impostor syndrome has been found to affect both men and women, in roughly equal numbers. (Wikipedia)
Amanda Palmer is an artist, singer-songwriter and author of a great book, The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help. In her commencement speech to The New England Institute of Art class of 2011, Palmer refers to the Impostor Syndrome as a visit by “the fraud police.”
Explains Palmer: “The fraud police are this imaginary, terrifying force of experts and real grownups who don’t exist, and who come knocking on your door at 3am when you least expect it, saying, Fraud Police: We’ve been watching you, and we have evidence that you have no idea what you are doing, and you stand accused of committing the crime of completely making shit up as you go along. You do not actually deserve your job and we’re taking everything away, and we’re telling everybody.
“People working in the arts especially have to combat the inner fraud police on a daily basis. And even if you’re a very happy, healthy, confident person, the fear of the fraud police is ever lurking. And it really doesn’t matter who you are. I have friends who are teachers, and writers and psychologists and scientists and pretty much every profession under the sun, and everybody, every so-called adult I know has had this feeling about their job and themselves at some level.”
But now let’s return to my story, at the Mercedes Benz Stadium on Dec. 14. It didn’t matter that I had been hired to give my presentation several times before at conferences and for organizations in Atlanta, Miami, Toronto, Los Angeles, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Boston, London, and in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and other places. It didn’t matter that I had received favorable feedback and numerous “testimonials” validating my presentation abilities. It didn’t matter that all of the content I share is mine, or that I’ve worked very hard to create it, or that I’ve spent hours in preparation so I could present it to the best of my abilities, or that I believe strongly in the message I am hired to share. In the moments of doubt, when the “fraud police” are doing their investigating, all of this is forgotten, and my being here is chalked up to luck and my apparent skill for pulling the wool over people’s eyes.
Regardless of my credentials and “proof” that I am not a fraud, I have been trying to avoid the fraud police for as long as I can remember.
When a group of six people fly from their comparatively big cities into Wyoming to go on unplugged treks into the Wilderness with me, I have moments of panic and self doubt, as I am reminded of the weight of responsibility that comes with leading people into the rugged and remote wilderness. In those moments of self doubt, my experience, expertise and competence are forgotten or significantly downplayed.
Sometimes before a coaching call, I doubt myself and my abilities. Sometimes, before I hit “send” on an email I’ve drafted for someone I admire and respect and want to connect with, the fraud police show up and question my value and worthiness. They demand, Who do you think you are? Why would they want to hear from, or connect with you? If I want to deepen a friendship and do something extra thoughtful, I might hesitate due to the fraud police, who show up right before and question my ability to be a good friend. As a mother, I feel like an impostor all the time. As hard as I try to be the mother I want to be to my three sons, I often doubt my abilities and qualifications.
I have endless examples of experiencing the Impostor Syndrome, but I’m thinking particularly of one from seven years ago, when I was first developing my keynote presentation.
A dear friend and “champion” of mine, Debbie, offered to host a brunch for women leaders at her home in San Francisco, during which I could “test drive” my Epic presentation. At the time, Debbie was chief of people at Mozilla, and she was –is– networked. Her offer was generous. For this Wyoming country bumpkin to get the opportunity to present her message to corporate women leaders… Well, it seemed too good to be true, and yet it was true.
I would have been nuts to say No, so I said Yes. But as the event drew closer, I started negotiating with myself, and looking for a way out. It was all too much. It was too big. What was I thinking? Fortunately, despite the second-guessing, the value I place on commitment is so high that I honored my plans and traveled to San Francisco.
On the morning of the presentation, as women starting arriving at Debbie’s, with just minutes to go before my presentation was to begin, I retreated to a guest room and became what can only be described as paralyzed in fear. I was hunched in a chair trying to get myself together, to get “in state.” But instead I was freaking out, nervous and sweating. The fraud police were relentless. What if these women don’t find what I have to say compelling? What if they’ve heard it before? What if nobody but me cares about what I am here to say? What if they gave up their Saturday morning to hear something that’s a waste of their time?
Finally, it was time to present, and so I left my hiding place and entered the living room to give my presentation. Thank God the presentation went well, and my feeling like a fraud, at least on that day, was short-lived, and I wasn’t arrested.
But this is an ongoing struggle. The fraud police visit me often, and I’m guessing they also visit you once in a while?
All of the leaders I’ve worked with and coached, and – for that matter – all of the people I know well, have themselves, at times, struggled with the Impostor Syndrome.
Thankfully, we have people like Amy Cuddy to help us. Cuddy is a social psychologist, a professor of the Harvard Business School, and author of Presence, a book I highly recommend.
Cuddy explains, “Impostorism causes us to overthink and second-guess. It makes us fixate on how we think others are judging us (in these fixations, we’re usually wrong), then fixate some more on how those judgments might poison our interactions. We’re scattered—worrying that we underprepared, obsessing about what we should be doing, mentally reviewing what we said five seconds earlier, fretting about what people think of us and what that will mean for us tomorrow.
“The general feeling that we don’t belong—that we’ve fooled people into thinking we’re more competent and talented than we actually are—is not so unusual. Most of us have experienced it, at least to some degree. It’s not simple stage fright or performance anxiety; rather, it’s the deep and sometimes paralyzing belief that we have been given something we didn’t earn and don’t deserve and that at some point we’ll be exposed.”
Cuddy says we’ll likely never completely shed our fears of being fraudulent. “New situations may stoke old fears; future sensations of inadequacy might reawaken long-forgotten insecurities. But the more we are aware of our anxieties, the more we communicate about them, and the smarter we are about how they operate, the easier they’ll be to shrug off the next time they pop up. It’s a game of whack-a-mole we can win.” (By the way, after reading this post, be sure to check out Cuddy’s Ted Talk. There’s a reason it’s been viewed 47 million times.)
I’m including some statements below from a wide range of people who are far more accomplished and famous than I am – people most of us think of as incredibly talented and maybe even as fearless.
“The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh God, they’re on to me! I’m a fraud!’ . . . just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud.” –Tina Fey, actress, comedian, writer, and producer.
“I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.” —the late John Steinbeck, an American author who won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature.
“You think, ‘Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?’” – Meryl Streep (recipient of 21 Oscar nominations)
“Every time I was called on in class, I was sure that I was about to embarrass myself. Every time I took a test, I was sure that it had gone badly. And every time I didn’t embarrass myself — or even excelled — I believed that I had fooled everyone yet again. One day soon, the jig would be up … This phenomenon of capable people being plagued by self-doubt has a name — the impostor syndrome. Both men and women are susceptible to the impostor syndrome, but women tend to experience it more intensely and be more limited by it.” —Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, and author of Lean In, and founder of LeanIn.Org.
“Some years ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And I felt that at any moment they would realize that I didn’t qualify to be there… I was standing at the back of the hall, while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, ‘I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.’ And I said, ‘Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.’ And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.” —Neil Gaiman, author of short fiction, novels, comic books, graphic novels, audio theatre, and films.
Well, okay, then, people who live in Wyoming, and also famous people occasionally experience, and must contend with the Impostor Syndrome, and feeling like a fraud.
Yay for none of us being alone in our struggles with self doubt.
But what can we do about it? How can we better manage it so we don’t feel paralyzed and rattled, right before we step up to the plate?
One thing I like to do, and promote, is to view the arrival of the fraud police, the experience of Impostor Syndrome as something positive. I know, this is easier to preach than to practice, but when the fraud police show up, their very presence is an indicator that we’re pushing our limits, and daring to level up. For people like me, someone who wants to always be self actualizing and learning, it is good news, then, when the fraud police stop by.
By the way, in my humble opinion, no one is fearless. I always cringe a little when I see advertisements or articles encouraging us to be “fearless.” I think if we’re going to push our limits and dare to fail, it’s impossible to be without at least some fear. However, I do know that we can get better trained, and more experienced, at being with fear. We can almost always be more daring and courageous.
So, the strategy I’ve come up with to help me when I’m experiencing the Imposter Syndrome is this: I try first to notice the sensation – the feeling –of the Impostor Syndrome. For me, if I’m attuned, I feel a rush of heat and a shortness of breath, along with thoughts of panic and paranoia. I hear the voice of my inner critic telling me I’m in over my head, that I don’t know what I’m doing etc. I notice and feel all of this, and then, I acknowledge the IP, respectfully even, and I say to it, “Thank you for stopping by. I appreciate your concern. You’re right, the stakes are high. I better focus and pay close attention.” You could say that I put them “in the backseat.” The fraud police are still trying to tell me how to drive, but I’ve put them in their right place. I’ve taken them out of the driver’s seat, and quieted their voices some. Then, I hopefully will dare to proceed to the best of my abilities.
Valerie Young has spent decades studying research that looks at fraudulent feelings among high achievers. (Young is the author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, and her website is ImpostorSyndrome.com,)
Drawing on the work of psychologists Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, and Suzanne Imes, PhD, Young uncovered several “competence types” that people who struggle with the IP generally follow.
The competence types are, The Perfectionist, the Superwoman/man, the Natural Genius, the Rugged Individualist, and the Expert. To learn more about how to identify the various types of Impostor Syndrome, see this Fast Company article by Melody Wilding.
In closing, I almost didn’t hit Publish on this blog post because my inner critic is telling me nobody will read it, and that what I have to say is not valuable, “and besides, you’re an impostor.”
But then I remember that I want to be someone who is brave, and in order to be brave, I must be willing to do things that make me uncomfortable. I must be vulnerable.
This makes me think of a favorite line from slam poet Andrea Gibson’s poem, Elbows: “Brave is a hand-me-down suit from Terrified As Hell.”
As you know, I hit Publish, even though I sorta felt “terrified as hell” and like throwing up as I did so.
Thank you for reading, and cheers to leveling up, to being with the experience of the Imposter Syndrome, and knowing you’re not alone.