7 Ways to Stop Impostor Syndrome in its Tracks

It happens to everybody, including the most experienced and successful people. One minute you’re a player, and the next you’re an impostor. A pretend expert. An embarrassing excuse for a professional.

It’s called impostor syndrome, and it can throw you and your business for a loop. And as long as you are in the impostor story, your work does suffer. You do attract fewer clients. And you may put off getting back to the people that ask about your work because you’re pretty sure you have nothing legitimate to offer.

Impostor syndrome persists until it’s interrupted, often by external circumstances. You get a rave review from a client. An unexpected check arrives in the mail. The thing is, you can wait a long time for the right thing to happen. Besides, boosts to your confidence that depend on outside sources are always temporary.

The real roots of impostor syndrome

Impostor syndrome comes from a few predictable sources:

  • Comparing yourself with others.
  • Obsessing about what you don’t know or haven’t done.
  • Perfectionism.
  • Freaking out when your energy takes a dip.

But the real roots of impostor syndrome are deeper, and they are also the roots of some of your strengths. Understanding the relationship between impostor commitment and your strengths shifts the entire problem and opens the way to healing.

So let’s look at those real roots.

Comparison is a social activity

While it can be damaging to your confidence, comparing yourself with others isn’t just a neurotic pattern. It’s actually a natural and useful part of claiming your just-right place so your just-right clients can find you.

When you compare yourself to others in your field, you are assessing not just strengths and weaknesses, but also the characteristics that make you unique. You’re charting your way in a community of practice. And rightly understood, all of this is essential to marketing and selling your work.

(Can you say “niche”?)

What this boils down to: The root of comparison is the natural and beneficial instinct to find your tribe. It’s only when comparison is taken out of context that it gives rise to impostor syndrome.

Knowing that you don’t know is a hallmark of wisdom

If you suffer from impostor syndrome, odds are that you have a commendable commitment to learning. As a consequence, you are continually presented with evidence that there is something valuable that you don’t know yet. And the more you learn, the more you realize that you don’t know.

When your commitment to learning becomes distorted, it shows up as impostor syndrome. But the root is not, in itself, toxic. The ability to know that you don’t know is actually a sign of wisdom.

Perfectionism can come from a commitment to service

Perfectionism doesn’t come out of nowhere, and it’s not just about fear of inadequacy. A concern with doing excellent work is also a concern about being of real service. Yes, when this concern is distorted it leads to perfectionism and impostor syndrome. But the root is something honorable, even beautiful.

Why good roots turn bad

If these roots of impostor syndrome are so benign, why do they lead to something so nasty? The answer has everything to do with energy.

Some days you have oodles of energy. You’re lit up from within. Motivated. Focused. Productive. This is not when impostor syndrome strikes.

Impostor syndrome strikes when your energy drops. When you lose the creative spark. Thinking gets fuzzy. Physically, you feel dull, disoriented. That’s when the otherwise beneficial roots of impostor syndrome become distorted.

In other words, when life happens.

Two things to understand about energy

If drops in energy are the problem, managing energy is the solution. And that means understanding two things.

  1. Energy fluctuates, and it’s not personal. Everything in nature follows certain rhythms. Energy increases in the morning, decreases at bed time. Energy increases when you are nourished and decreases when you are depleted.It’s not rocket science. But it is complicated by the fact that, as a human being, you place interpretations on these fluctuations. If your energy is low when you think it should be high, you may interpret this as inadequacy.It’s not the energy fluctuation itself that causes the problem, it’s what you believe it means.
  2. The second thing to understand about energy is that you can work with or against natural rhythms. You don’t need to be their victim. If you choose, you can work with your natural rhythms to experience more flow. And impostor syndrome doesn’t strike when you’re in flow.

Voila! Strategies for dissolving Impostor syndrome

Understanding these things won’t, in my experience, prevent impostor syndrome. But it will reduce the frequency, severity, and length of the attacks. And understanding these distinctions leads to the following seven strategies for defusing impostor syndrome.

Strategy 1: Keep positive feedback (emails, notes) where you can look at it when your confidence sinks. Use these as evidence that you do have something to offer, even if it doesn’t always feel like it. Don’t argue with yourself about it; just notice that you don’t always feel this way.

Strategy 2: Use The Work of Byron Katie (www.thework.com) to question stressful thoughts about being an impostor. People need you to be better than you are, is that true? Real professionals do x, y, or z. Is that true?

Strategy 3: Reach out for support. Friends and colleagues who know your value can not only reflect it back to you, they can also remind you to use strategies like these. That’s one of the biggest benefits of my Master Mind group.

Strategy 4: Name impostor syndrome and own it. Nobody’s on all the time. When you feel like an impostor who has nothing to give, you aren’t, in fact, going to be churning out great content or bringing in clients like crazy. Acknowledge this and ask, “What *can* I do from this place?”

Strategy 5: Ask for spiritual support. It’s hard to sustain feelings of being an impostor when you are of service. Ask God, the Universe, or the Source of your understanding to use you in a way that serves others. For all you know, your suffering right now may be enhancing your ability to serve.

Strategy 6: Remember that impostor system happens, and it’s not permanent. However nasty it feels, impostor syndrome is temporary. Remind yourself that this, too, will pass. It’s not a commentary on your value as a human being.

Strategy 7: Practice full engagement. Make the choices that support sustained, energetic engagement in your work. Get enough rest. Eat foods that nourish you. Schedule breaks.

Impostor syndrome isn’t personal

Above all, remember that impostor syndrome happens to everybody. It really doesn’t say anything meaningful about who you are and what you can do in the world. It’s a temporary response to the instinct to locate yourself in the context of your tribe.  It’s a natural hazard of being a lifelong learner. It can be triggered by a frustrated desire to serve others. And it tends to strike when your energy is low.

The less personally you take it when impostor syndrome strikes, the more resilient you’ll be.

Image credit: Pinke via Flickr


About Molly Gordon

Molly Gordon is the owner of Shaboom Inc., a company devoted to helping Accidental Entrepreneurs who are allergic to business develop the skills they need to prosper. She’s an artist, writer, marketing consultant, and coach -- as well as a paddle-boarder, cyclist, singer, and grandmother. She lives in Suquamish, Washington with her husband, two hens, and Bolivia the Wonder Cat. Molly blogs at http://www.shaboominc.com/blog, where you can also sign up for her weekly ezine, Authentic Promotion.