Overcoming Impostor Syndrome
“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.'”
In different stages of life, we all have holes in our game that we hope others don’t see. “Impostor syndrome” is the belief that we are riddled with deficiencies. That we are fundamentally lacking in something (i.e. reliable skills) that makes us the useful, valuable human we are somehow obligated to be – and we’re just around the corner from being found out. The most successful people on the planet continue to get struck by this feeling every time they put themselves out there in a big way. But, everyday, even the smallest interactions can trigger it.
You put yourself out there, you get a positive response, then you become prone to thinking “I’m not as good as they think I am.” Where does that come from?
We build a picture of ourselves from the work we put out into the world (the kind of work that tends to get evaluated or where there is at least something at stake in the results). For example, “I am a novelist, these are all the things a good novelist does. The integrity of my work depends on it.” Yet we are ever-changing and more complex and dynamic than this simplified picture. So things are going to arise in our thoughts or behaviors that contradict this very simplified idea of ourselves. Here I will talk about how to kill this evil impostor (not the person that the persecuting voice within you is accusing of fraudulence, but the voice itself).
Tales From Life As A “Professional & Spiritual Imposter”.
I’ve had this fear of being found out in various forms over the years: as a bartender, server or bar/restaurant manager I feared that it would somehow be discovered that I’m a hack or knew nothing or was otherwise incompetent. Every spill or unfavorably-received drink put me in an emotional karate stance. Anyone speaking to me in a less than reverent tone made me aggressive, causing me to demand respect in counterproductive ways (even if you intimidate people, they can subconsciously detect defensiveness).
Learning meditation helped with that. It gave me two things that may seems at first like opposites: 1) feeling connected to who I authentically was and 2) knowing that I am always becoming something new. I learned about the Indian greeting “Namaste”, which means “the true self in me acknowledges the true self in you.” Its use is to inspire both parties to bypass the bullshit decorum and connect from a place of authenticity – that place beyond our perceived strengths and flaws. That place that refuses measurement by all those industrial standards of efficiency, productivity, cleverness, coolness, sexiness, etc. Superficial features of our personalities come and go, but there is a true self within that remains stable, quiet, observant, wise, and beyond definition. The hope is to remain connected to our deeper unchanging self, observant of our ever-changing superficial self, and at peace with the play of the two. Being at peace with the two and allowing the full expression of both, without inner conflict, is the authenticity I was taught to cultivate as a meditator.
Despite connecting more with my deeper self, the superficial personality is much louder and more prone to protest. It brought its own worries to my life with meditation. I feared showing any sort of human flaw, worried that people would see me and think meditation doesn’t work because I was so obviously fucked up despite daily practice. Or maybe they would think I was delusional, drunk on snake oil.
When I became a meditation teacher, those fears got more sophisticated. I sometimes felt comfortable and authentic and other times conflicted and uncertain of myself. For protection, I ended up defaulting to false ideas of having this special status as a “spiritual teacher”. I felt obligated to maintain a certain manner that “highly-conscious people” are supposed to project – calm, even-tempered, glowy, overly sweet, use of high language and a broad non-partisan perspective on everything…and other such bullshit. Failure at displaying these things worried me that I would be viewed as a hypocrite, professing to teach something that I was not an example of (and therefore doesn’t work, making my teaching practice even more fraudulent). Everyone would know I wasn’t whatever the hell enlightenment is.
But the hypocrisy was in my inauthenticity. The whole point of meditating and teaching it, was sharing the freedom such paranoia. Truly having the self-knowledge meditation was supposed to encourage meant that there would be no gap between who I knew I was inside, and what was exported into the world. Impostor syndrome means not feeling worthy of whatever positive report the world reflects back. This happens when we start to get competitive with ourselves.
So I soon let go of my stranglehold on my personality and just let the raw sinew of my personality percolate in my teaching. It not only made me a better teacher, but a better person to be around. I was first worried about seeming immature, but I actually matured faster. Aspects of me that don’t work were put on the table, and I was able remedy them rather than let them ferment in a closed jar. I now connect better to others, help them with real problems and, most importantly, just seem like a normal dude (to those that don’t think I’m a weirdo that is – at least some people should think you’re a weirdo). Because most people don’t give a shit about meditation or whatever I can potentially “teach” them. For those people, the only thing I need to be is a ground-level human being that can have agenda-free conversations about anything…because, y’know, it’s what humans do.
The Ultimate Arena To Battle Impostor Syndrome…Service
With service, you are constantly putting yourself out there and getting ready-to-use feedback (whether explicit or implicit). You put yourself into the moment in a setting that’s vulnerable to evaluation. Here we can witness the poorly-founded doubt that we don’t actually have value even if the world is reflecting it back to us. If we get positive results, then rather than honoring that, we create other vaguely-defined, random or even immeasurable criteria for ourselves that we are somehow failing to live up to. We get good results and we say, “If only they knew that I have limited knowledge of cheese.” In this moment you need to change your thinking. You need to say, “I got good results because I do _______ well.” The same thing you would do if you got bad results.
Now that I am back in the restaurant industry I am working really hard to serve and work with others mindfully (working well with others is also serving…it doesn’t end with customers/clients). There are certain behaviors that promote that result: being kind, gracious, helpful, accommodating, etc. Once I start doing things that get a good response, I build my identity around those results and start to expect myself to always exhibit those behaviors and thought processes. Anything that arises in me that contradicts this expectation of myself gets rejected, and the paranoia arises that I am “not what I led them to believe I am” begins.
I sometimes fear being found out that I occasionally have judgmental thoughts or speak impatiently to others. Sometimes I speak to my wife in a frustrated tone and say critical things. This pointless process of scouring our narrative for faults gets us nowhere on the track of self-improvement (actually addressing how I speak to my wife the moment I am not communicating skillfully would be the time to assess that). It just invites paranoia: “What if these people that find me amenable and pleasant knew that I was such an asshole in real life?” That is not the full picture. You are many things in response to many situations. This fixed sense of what we’re “supposed to be” is what will make us think we are failing when life throws something at us that we wear a different hat in response to.
Being dynamic is far more powerful, interesting and full of possibility than trying to maintain one polished persona. We can’t reject different sides of ourselves as “inauthentic”. The only inauthenticity there is the non-acceptance. If it contradicts who you want to be in that moment, then the authentic thing to do is accept that you sometimes get conflicting signals.
Why The Fear of Others Destroying You Is Generally Inaccurate.
Life is a process of trying to be exactly what we need to be in the moment. The problem is when we think the world is going to test us on it. I used to think everyone was trying to prove my incompetence – from co-workers to customers. As a bartender, I “felt their eyes on me”, waiting for a screw up so they can tell me I suck. That sounds like low self-confidence, but there is also something narcissistic about it – as though people had time or attention to obsess over evaluating me.
We need to drop this Game of Thrones idea that people are searching for our weaknesses so they can engineer our undoing. Most people are too preoccupied with their own neuroses to worry about you. And if you are respectful and appreciative of who they are, they are more likely to want to perpetuate an idea that you are awesome – even if you bumble something. If you disrespect them, then they are more likely to search for weaknesses. As a means of preserving their sense of self, they will seek to invalidate the person that doesn’t approve of them. Then the Game of Thrones shit begins.
How Bumbling Makes People Love You.
A key to avoiding impostor syndrome is being fine with mistakes. If you fear making mistakes because you’ll be viewed as incompetent, then just remember that people are more likely to be alienated by perfection (and especially the need for perfection) since they, and all their inner turmoil, consider themselves the furthest thing from perfection. They are more likely to appreciate someone who is vulnerable and flawed (especially someone who is willing to be and comfortable with it). Perhaps your bumble is another’s comfort (though they shouldn’t need this, that’s their own journey).
On the job, errors with customers may occur, and comfort with being imperfect is important, since people having to process your frustration with yourself only adds to the issue. It’s important to be sincere in apologizing, acknowledging the issue and wanting to rectify things, but a lighter approach to doing so is actually better. It shows you have their interests in mind more so than if you were obviously devastated with yourself. Excessive remorse can suggest that your competition with yourself is more important than their own needs and experience. Self-hatred might not feel like it gets in the way of good service, since service is about the other and not us. Firstly, that’s not true, since it’s about the play of self and other. And secondly, self-hatred is actually a state of self-absorption so it actually disrupts your ability to consider the other.
Just remember that an opportunity to recover well is an opportunity to show how awesome you are in a way that is more memorable (and impressive!) than simply a textbook performance. Relationships are strengthened when you respond to the unexpected and turn a situation around – sometimes more so than business-as-usual smoothness.
Zen & Other Great Ways To Smack You Into Self-Realization.
Making this a clean and simple process always calls for Zen. Everyone thinks Zen is synonymous with calm, but it’s actually a sensibility that is often quite abrupt, confrontational and irreverent. Greater calm and contentment results…but not without disrupting the default settings, since those are what brings all the obstacles to calm.
Any time you get too wrapped up in your own idea of who you are or what you are supposed to project to the world, you need a whack from the Zen stick. One aspect of Zen involves continually filing down these imagined self-perceptions. Things that hold you back from an authentic experience of reality, and an authentic offering of yourself.
And, really, Zen is about being present. It’s about paying attention to what is happening without worrying whether you are really the person (you think) everyone expects you to be. That is authentic. Paying attention is the most authentic thing we can do and is truly what will be appreciated over whether we demonstrated the expertise that we claim we have.
Techniques To Slay The Inner Impostor.
The Portable Zen Stick (AKA: Elastic Band)
Snap your wrist every time you hear yourself trying to prove something (some constructed idea of yourself) to others. Then ask yourself the question: How much would I care if this person was trying to prove this to me? (spoiler: the answer is almost always “not at all”). People respond best to ease, authenticity, and just being rather than impressing.
Think of the word “impress”. It means to stamp an impression into something. Firstly, an impression strains the person, demanding something of them. Secondly, people don’t want you to try and construct their idea about you, and they will likely detect your efforts to do so. They want to be the author of the impression, deciding who you are for themselves You just need to make the connection. And the best, most impressive way to connect, is ask them about themselves. And if you respond by expressing ways that you are unified with how they are (i.e. “yes, food is delicious isn’t it?”) then that will make an impression. People are more likely to be impressed by aspects of yourself that are reflections of who they are (people are self-absorbed, remember). Plus this whole exercise pulls you out of your paranoia about yourself – which is a fundamentally self-absorbed neurosis.
You can’t feel like an imposter when you know who you are. You can’t be worried about what slips through the cracks when you can see how every unique aspect of who you are fits together. Self-knowledge is not some mystical thing. It happens naturally once the noise clears. See the meditation guide for more.
Catch & Release
When you catch yourself thinking thoughts with the flavor of “you’re such a poser!” or “I hope no one knows I suck”, let the thought pass and return to one that confirms who you are rather than who you are not. This takes practice, thoughts are powerful. And it takes preparation. You will need to start observing how you think and what results from the thinking. Then you’ll need an arsenal of thoughts that serve as the antidote and bring you better results.
For example: “You don’t know enough about wine” becomes “no one knows or communicates about wine like you do” or “you’re learning and growing” or “people like to learn along with someone rather than being lectured by a know-it-all.”