The Pros and Cons of Imposter Syndrome
Imposter Syndrome isn’t all bad.
I know, I know. As human beings we really want things to be cut and dried, especially when it comes to “good” and “bad.” This is good, that is bad—as if anything ever was 100% one or the other. Life would be so much easier then! It wouldn’t require any discernment at all.
Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot about Imposter Syndrome—the feeling that you don’t deserve your success and are a “fraud” despite measurable proof of high performance and consistent achievement. Imposter Syndrome definitely gets a bad rap. And for good reason! This inaccurate self-assessment can lead to debilitating anxiety, burnout, shame, an inability to live up to your potential, and self-sabotage. Serious stuff.
And yes, if you struggle with Imposter Syndrome, then you need to address it. But let’s not forget why you fall into this thought trap—and so many others like it, such as catastrophizing, blaming others, ignoring the positive, abusive self-talk, etc.—in the first place.
All of the pesky thought patterns and behaviors you struggle with exist because your magnificent brain is trying to help you! It wants you to be SAFE. You eat too much and yell at your kids and continually show up late because some part of your brain believes that’s GOOD for you. Same with Imposter Syndrome: You discount your abilities and your past successes because some part of your brain believes that will keep you safe.
And on an irrational survival-mode level, it’s kind of right. Excess food keeps you from starvation. Displays of power and rage keep you at the top of the wolf pack (for awhile). Cramming more into your day than you actually have time to do keeps you feeling important. Telling yourself that you’re incompetent keeps you from risking failure.
At least, that’s what your primal brain—the basal ganglia structures, which focus on ensuring survival—would have you believe. Because you are rational, you can already see the flaws in those beliefs.
Thankfully, your brain is bigger than its primal part. Though many of your survival mode instincts kick in automatically, you can override them. You don’t have to believe every thought or act on every instinct that comes into your head.
But the fact that you have those thoughts, the fact that you sometimes feel like an imposter, tells you something. Something positive! It says you’re taking risks. You’re pushing boundaries. You’re learning new things. You’re growing.
That’s GOOD stuff.
The only way to never feel like a fraud is to regress.* Stick with what you know and don’t ever try to grow or improve. Lower your standards. Reduce your expectations. Keep turning down the dial so that you don’t try too much or risk making mistakes. Let Imposter Syndrome take over. To avoid anxiety and burnout, do less and less until you’re living in a stagnant pool of putrid thoughts.
Just kidding—I’m not actually recommending you do this for two reasons:
1) It’s not realistic. You can’t NOT change. You can’t avoid growth. Risks and mistakes come with the territory—they’re a part of life whether you like it or not. You can try and try to play it safe, but life will keep throwing you curve balls (or monkey wrenches or whatever your favorite metaphor is).
2) It sucks. You would never willingly drink from or swim in a stagnant pool of putrid water, because it’s likely full of stuff that will kill you. Bacteria, fungus, gross stuff. A stagnant life will kill you, too.
Most people deal with Imposter Syndrome by either avoiding things that make them feel like a fraud (and creating an increasingly stagnant life) or by getting angry with themselves for doubting and sabotaging themselves (and creating an increasingly negative life).
How about this instead: When you worry people will find out you’re a “fraud,” get excited. It means you’re pushing yourself. It’s a sign you’re pursuing a richer and more fulfilling life—and actually living it!
And then deal with it.
How to deal with Imposter Syndrome could be a whole article (or series) on its own, but here are the basic steps:
- Acknowledge it.
- Thank your primal brain for trying to keep you safe.
- Be as honest with yourself about your strengths and accomplishments as you are about your gaps and failures.
- Focus on growth instead of achievement.
- Be as kind to yourself as you would be to others.
- Get out of your head and into your body.
- Be brave and step forward.
I hope you never overcome Imposter Syndrome, because that would mean you’ve stopped living and growing. I do hope, however, you can learn to see Imposter Syndrome as a positive sign, embrace the discomfort, address it, and move forward in life.
How you talk to yourself matters. Be kind and brave and keep growing.
Change your communication, change your life.
*As a side note, narcissists also don’t typically experience Imposter Syndrome. Most of the rest of us experience it partly because, unlike narcissists, we worry about overblowing our abilities. This is another reason why it’s okay to occasionally have these feelings, but not the focus of this article.