There are those rare times in life when we are fortunate enough to experience moments of connection and meaning so deep that we get goosebumps. Those times stop us in our tracks, and we stand in awe of this human experience and what it means to share that with one another. Those moments when we hear something that immediately reminds us of how connected we really are and what is truly important in life.
I was lucky enough to have one of those experiences when I presented at the Take the Lead Power Up conference in August 2022. Take the Lead is an organization aiming to advance women's equity in the workplace. I’ve been a huge fan since I attended my first conference of theirs in February 2020 - just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
When I saw an email announcing a 2022 conference and a call for presenters, I knew two things: I can’t wait to attend; this time, I would love to be a speaker.
When considering potential topics for a presentation, I decided to focus on my experience taking on a stretch assignment at work during the pandemic. More specifically, I wanted to share my experience with Imposter Syndrome in accepting that assignment in hopes of encouraging others to overcome similar challenges of feeling underqualified or “not good enough” when taking on these types of roles (which often carry a huge potential for career growth!). This assignment turned out to be hands-down the highlight of my career and a catalyst for so many new friendships and connections – and to think that Imposter Syndrome almost got in the way of that!
"Imposter Syndrome" refers to a phenomenon where knowledgeable and successful people somehow feel unworthy or undeserving of their success or like an "imposter." Research shows that most of us, about 70% of the population, deal with Imposter Syndrome at some point in our lives. Within that 70% is a high percentage of women, minorities, and LGBTQ+ individuals who are disproportionately affected.
I’ve struggled with Imposter Syndrome most of my adult life and career- however, I’ve had some major breakthroughs in recent years thanks to some key strategies (I’ll share those shortly!).
Ok, so back to the conference…
I prepared my speaker application and hit the “submit” button, excited about all the possibilities that could result. Almost immediately, and with cruel irony, Impostor Syndrome started to set in. My internal thoughts sounded something like this:
“There is a ton of research on Imposter Syndrome out there. What makes you think your presentation will be valuable or helpful to the participants? They can find this all online.”
“There are really high-powered, successful, professional women presenting at this conference. They have written books and look like they’ve stepped out of a magazine. What makes you think you belong in that line-up?”
“What if you don’t actually know what you’re talking about? You’re not a legitimate expert on this topic, and everyone will see that.”
Suffice it to say, Imposter Syndrome thoughts are typically mean, unhelpful, and, most importantly, not true. Why do we talk to ourselves this way when we would never dream of saying these things to anyone else? I dug into my mental toolkit from my mentors and teachers; I started a process of moving through this experience more skillfully than I ever had before, jotting the techniques down as I went:
Feel The Fear | I acknowledged the presence of the fear and tried to allow those thoughts to be there without changing them (this is hard!). The thoughts are mean and they hurt, and I feel them mostly in a tight ball in my stomach. My instinct is to fight those feelings and make them go away ASAP. Instead, I tried to watch, observe, and feel the burn (even though it’s incredibly uncomfortable).
Observe the Story | I asked myself, “what is the story I’m telling myself right now?” Turns out, the stories I made up about not adding value and being out of place were pretty ridiculous. However, “watching” the stories in my head helped to disempower my thoughts as truth and helped me see them just for what they are: thoughts. Sometimes the metaphorical “lights and camera crew,” “producers,” and “narrators” in my head love to show up and create a full-on production to make these kinds of thoughts seem really real. So, I tried to see those, too, just for what they were, and even have a laugh at how real my mind was trying to make this story- with special effects and all! When I looked at it this way, it became like a comical circus. The human brain is incredibly creative, isn’t it?
Take Back Control | I remembered the structure of thoughts and emotions: our thoughts inform our feelings, which then inform our actions. So, if we slow down, we actually can choose how we feel by choosing our thoughts. Wait, so I can choose to not feel these feelings of fear and inadequacy?! Even though the process happens so quickly that it seems automatic, meditation and mindfulness can help slow things down enough to regain power of choice and control over our thoughts. I’m still far from an expert on this work, but am practicing constantly. There’s something empowering about remembering that we can control our thoughts, and that we can choose to disagree with an unhelpful Imposter Syndrome narrative and choose something more positive instead, like a favorite affirmation (e.g., “I am capable,” or “I am enough.”).
Flip the Script | While step 3 is a helpful one, sometimes choosing better feelings and thoughts can seem out of reach when Imposter Syndrome strikes hard. So I pulled out another trick that someone shared with me a while back: flip the script and narrate the opposite of your negative thought. Then assess- which one is most likely true? Why? For example, one of my original thoughts was: “I don’t have anything unique to share about Imposter Syndrome – everyone can read everything they need to know about it online.” My opposite thought (which felt strange to say to myself) was: “I have a lot of unique personal experiences with Imposter Syndrome that people may identify with, which could result in some really interesting conversations.” Now, which one is most likely true and why? The latter thought proved to be true, and being vulnerable enough to share these experiences created some amazing connections at the conference! Doing this “flip the script” exercise helped me get into a much more objective mental space and to consider my qualifications and previous successes. In doing this, I saw that I was, in fact, well-positioned to share my story and learnings with others and to add value to their experience.
Take Action | I’m very fortunate to have a great support team I can lean on when I’m doubting myself. These are the people who know me best- both personally and career-wise, and who know my accomplishments and strengths as well as my weaknesses. Having those people in my life to give an honest assessment as well as encourage me to the next level is priceless. Once you decide to move forward with a challenge despite what your Imposter Syndrome thoughts are telling you, it’s time to start focusing on how to proceed with confidence, and that’s where this step comes in. Sometimes it involves mentoring, training, or learning a new skill – but often it’s as simple as an ear to listen and help you see that you’re likely to succeed in spite of your mind’s worst-case scenarios. In this case, I had one particular person who brought up many of my past accomplishments and asked me why I was fearing failure with this particular task. The objectivity of that person’s assessment (and their support) helped propel me forward into action.
This entire process led me to create my 5 Steps to Overcome Imposter Syndrome and Step Into Your Power, which I presented at the Take the Lead conference. Women shared their heartbreaking experiences with Imposter Syndrome, from not believing they had won hard-earned awards to internalizing toxic criticism from co-workers and bosses. The audience nodded in support and self-reflection as personal stories were shared. I looked around the room in awe as I quickly realized how utterly common these feelings of inadequacy and fear are, even among spectacularly bright and successful professionals.
In my roundtable session, we discussed how unhelpful Imposter Syndrome thoughts can stem from many different places: work, childhood, society, and others- but that ultimately, we have the power to stop giving in to those messages and to choose more supportive thoughts. We talked about how flipping the script and narrating the opposite of our unhelpful thoughts can feel incredibly silly and weird, but oddly, this often ends up being the true “story.” It turns out that most of us just aren’t used to showering ourselves with the same kind of accolades and positivity that we give to others.
My heart and mind were full from these conversations at the conference roundtable sessions. And then, as one of the roundtable sessions ended and another was about to begin, I met Hailey (name changed to protect privacy). A tall woman with dark hair and soulful eyes came up to me and introduced herself, letting me know how much she appreciated my presentation. I shared my thanks with her as well, and that I was so glad it was helpful to her.
It was then that she said, “You know, I was diagnosed with cancer a couple weeks ago- and my thoughts were telling me that it would be easier to just die. I now know after this session that those thoughts aren’t true. Thank you.”
I froze in awe at what she had shared and felt goosebumps on my arms. Thanking her for sharing that part of herself and her journey with me was something words just could not do justice, but I tried anyway. I relished this moment of vulnerability and serendipitous connection as I hugged her. To do life with one another, to find meaning from our struggles, to connect at that soul level, is everything. I’ve been privileged to keep in touch with Hailey since the conference, and I’m happy to say that her treatments are going well, and she seems to be in good spirits overall. I think of her often.
Had I let my Imposter Syndrome convince me not to submit this proposal to speak at the conference, how might Hailey’s path and mine have been different? A key learning from my journey with Imposter Syndrome is that when we shrink away from our potential, we deny others an opportunity for learning and reflection by not sharing our experiences. We never know how sharing our experience may resonate with someone or spark a connection with something inside them. Being vulnerable enough to share our experience and truth is not just for us; it’s also for others.
Imposter Syndrome is often framed in a way that the impetus to overcome it is to advance ourselves in our careers, status, or conversations. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, I realized that there’s so much more to it: overcoming Imposter Syndrome is actually about getting out of our own way so that we can pursue an authentic connection with one another.
When we can overcome Imposter Syndrome and show up as our true selves, we open the door for authentic connection. (Note: I love Brené Brown’s work on courage and vulnerability- I highly recommend it!) Imposter Syndrome prevents us not only from being our best and authentic selves but also from sharing our brilliance with others. We must step out of our Imposter Syndrome fear and into that brilliance. We must stand firm in the wholeness of being 100% ourselves with no shield. It’s time to let go of the fear and doubt that holds us back from connection with ourselves and each other, lean into temporary discomfort, and give ourselves the love and encouragement we deserve. Because when Imposter Syndrome loses, we all win.