Along my journey with The Kabbalah Centre, I’ve had the privilege of connecting with people from across the globe and in most every profession you can think of. I’ve met confident, fulfilled people living their best lives without fancy jobs or expensive homes. I’ve met others who seem to have it all at first glance–but who suffer from anxiety and insecurity. Interestingly, sometimes the top achievers (by the world’s measure) are, in fact, the least certain about why or how they have what they have. They may feel like they don’t deserve their success. Or they may believe that they’ve robbed others to get where they are. They may even believe they are fooling everyone around them, and that at any moment, someone will tear off the veneer, and they’ll be exposed as (gasp!) just. Plain. Ordinary.
And that, my friends, is imposter syndrome.
The idea was first introduced in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes when their article, “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women,” was published in a psychotherapy journal. In it, they shared research showing how common feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt were among high-achieving women, despite their accomplishments. From a social evolution standpoint, this isn’t surprising.
Yet imposter syndrome isn’t just a factor of the times. Nor is it relegated to women or outliers who may have external pressures that lead to this feeling of inadequacy. If we’re being honest, most of us have experienced something like this phenomenon at some time in our lives.
It makes sense that we might berate ourselves when the chips are down (though this is far from productive or warranted since mistakes always help us grow!). But it’s interesting to note that tendency towards negative self-talk when things go well, too. Those demeaning thoughts may waltz in and tell us that we just “got lucky” when we got that promotion–and not because we had the skills and the work ethic to earn it.
So many famous people have expressed versions of the same feelings. In an interview with NPR, Academy Award Winning actor Tom Hanks shared that he’s found himself thinking, “How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?” Likewise, Cheryl Sandberg, philanthropist and former COO of Meta (formerly Facebook), wrote, “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.”
Where does this thinking come from? And how do we contend with the hijacker of our confidence and self-worth when it arises? According to Michele Molitor, author of Breakthrough Healing and expert on imposter syndrome, the answer is complicated. Imposter syndrome can result from any number of life circumstances. Often, she says, it stems from our early environment. She explains how, if you faced negativity or criticism as a child, “that gets caught in your subconscious program.” As a result, you may have deeply ingrained feelings that “I’m not good enough. I’m not worthy… I don’t deserve this, that, or the other thing…” Other factors may include failed relationships or jobs, feelings of not belonging, or social pressures. Overcoming them isn’t easy, but knowing they exist is a great starting point. And ultimately, the best way to move through them and past them is through conscious effort and action!
Molitor also details the many “faces” people use to mask, rather than deal with, imposter syndrome. Maybe we become perfectionists so that we’ll be perceived as good enough. Or we pose as Superwomen and work 80 hours a week to show that, haggardness aside, we ARE worth it. Or perhaps we act like know-it-alls because, Hey, if I know everything, then I’ll look like I’m the real deal!–and so on.
The thing is, as Kabbalah teaches, we aren’t here to be the smartest. Or to work ourselves to the bone. Or to be the most perfectly perfect person possible. We’re here to be ourselves–and not just “sort of” ourselves, but to be in the fullness of our most actualized, sparkly, fully impassioned selves!
We don’t have to adopt the labels others have put on us, or even those we put on ourselves. Coming from a family where I am one of three sisters, I know too well how labels can tangle up identities, as in, She’s the pretty one… and there’s the smart one… and that one’s the troublemaker. And we’re guilty, too, when we venture out and drop labels like Post-it Notes on people we meet. We think, She’s the boss…. must be super together. Or He’s the janitor… without an inkling of his expert musicianship. Doing this feeds the notion that labels define us. And it excuses us to also hold on to those we’ve placed on ourselves.
So how do we tackle imposter syndrome? Here are a few starting points:
1) Remove the labels from yourself and others. That puts the power back into each person in the present moment. We are each whole, 360-degree people. Remember that. And believe it.
2) Spend some time exploring what really matters to you. Rather than seeking external validation or fixating on the critical voices of the past, listen to your own inner voice. Meditate. Go for a long walk. What is true and important to you NOW? Write down the beliefs that you WANT to have for yourself. Let your answers create a new voice to play on repeat through your mind!
3) Take ACTION. Take action today, and take more tomorrow. Break out of those self-imposed shackles and DARE to go for the things you truly want in life! Don’t just step; overstep! Don’t just move a little; move a lot–and move towards those dreams.
4) More than anything, never underestimate your own power to grow, to become, and to achieve. If you think it, you CAN create it!
Because you are NEVER an imposter when it comes to being yourself. Therefore, whatever life you make from the wholeness of YOU will be wholly yours… and wholly true!
And guess what? You’ve earned it.