There’s a fable about a renowned aikido master who had a student who said, “Master, I wish for your skill. You never lose your balance!” She replied, “I lose my balance all the time. I just recover faster.”
As we discussed last week, the goal isn’t to stop ourselves from ever having an Imposter Syndrome thought again, but to learn how to recover quickly when we do. We can find solid footing and regain our sense of self-worth and confidence when we get messages that we’re not worthy or don’t belong.
The fundamental truth is that you are as worthy of respect, love, and belonging as much as any other human being. The Buddha said, “You can search the world over and you will find no one who is more deserving of your kindness and well wishing than you yourself.” This is a call to wake up and realize that no one is less than any other.
As women, we are typically socialized to believe that our worth is derived from being accommodating, quiet, demure, smiling, polite, and nice. We are rewarded for being that way, and censured when we are not. BIWOC (Black, Indigenous, and Women of Color) in our culture face even greater challenges because of systemic racial oppression and biases that perpetuate negative stereotypes. Black women experience the maddening double-bind described by Michelle Obama as, “the size of our hips, our style, our swag, it becomes co-opted but then we are demonized.” When we are “too” anything or don’t fit into the Eurocentric, masculine, Christian dominant culture, we often experience overt or subtle messages that we aren’t welcome or don’t belong at the table at which we are sitting, if we have access to the table at all.
Dr. Maya Angelou described the accumulation of these insults and exclusions as “being pecked to death by ducks.” This is how Imposter Syndrome comes to us from the outside, and how over time, we can succumb to the duck bites and start biting ourselves.
How do you respond when someone gives you a compliment? Here are some examples:
“Wow, you did a fantastic job on that project!” “Oh, no, it wasn’t a big deal, and I had a lot of help.”
“I loved the presentation you gave to the Board tonight.” “Well, I actually forgot a bunch of things I wanted to say, and I know I was rambling at times.”
“You were brilliant in the meeting today!” “Um, were we in the same meeting?”
We learn to make jokes, downplay our accomplishments, and self-deprecate as ways to lessen the sting and protect ourselves against the exclusion and devaluing we’ve come to expect. To try to make ourselves small, to not take up too much space, to not stand out or make waves. We try to beat others to the punch we think is coming.
If you took the challenge in Part 1, you tracked how many times you heard the voice of Imposter Syndrome and maybe recorded the things it says to you. Now, it’s time to turn our attention to countering the messages we get from the outside and the internalized thinking we’ve learned from these outside forces.
Questioning our thoughts is a fundamental skill for helping us overcome Imposter Syndrome. You may have heard the adage, “Don’t believe everything you think.” But our thoughts feel oh-so-real and oh-so-true! Our brains are wired to love certainty, which is why it feels deliciously satisfying to be sure and know things. However, our brains also have the capacity to reflect and inquire, and we can use these skills to our benefit.
Once we’ve become aware of the thoughts we’re having, we can learn to slow down, take a pause, and choose our response. We can choose to question the voice of Imposter Syndrome and cultivate our ability to respond with self-compassion and skill.
Tools for Practice
Let’s look at two tools that can help us increase compassion and empathy for ourselves and increase our power and confidence. These tools build on last week’s assignment which was to get really adept at catching Imposter Syndrome thoughts when you’re having them. If they feel difficult or strange at first, be gentle and patient with yourself. Unlearning old habits and learning new ones can feel uncomfortable.
The first tool is a meditative inquiry, which means slowing down and taking the time to deeply contemplate each reflection question. The process is deceptively simple, but powerfully effective when we deliberately pause, slow down, and allow ourselves to fully work through each question.
These are the questions we’ll use, which come from The Work by Byron Katie.
The most important questions are the first two. It’s super easy to fly by these and go for the “right” answer. If it’s yes to both, then that’s where you are. It’s important to be honest. You can watch Byron Katie coach people through these questions and download the full worksheet for free on her website.
- Is it true? (yes or no)
- Can I absolutely 100% know it’s true? (yes or no)
- How do I think and feel when I believe that thought?
- How would I think and feel without that thought?
Here’s how it can look to work through these questions:
Imposter Syndrome thought: Oh jeez, I hope they don’t assign the project to me. I won’t be able to pull it off.
Is it true? (only yes or no)
Can I absolutely 100% know it’s true? (only yes or no)
How do I think and feel when I believe that thought?
When I believe that I couldn’t be successful and want them to not pick me, I feel afraid and nervous and on edge. I don’t speak up and ask for the project. I sit there and try not to make eye contact, and then when they pick someone else, I feel relieved at first, but then I start to feel resentful and am disappointed in myself for holding back.
How would I think and feel without that thought?
Without the thought that I hope they pick someone else or that I can’t pull it off, I would feel excited to take this project on. I would feel confident in my ability to figure it out and ready to take on the challenge using the skills I’ve developed. It’s actually a great growing edge for me, and I can already envision some first steps. I would love to pull together a team to work with, and I have a couple of people in mind I’d ask.
I recommend posting these questions on your mirror or in your office, and putting them on a little card in your wallet so you have them at the ready, wherever you are. Try them out with your partner or a friend, and talk about them together. Attend the next Connection Session and discuss them with the other women there.
The second practice to counter Imposter Syndrome thinking is self-compassion.
We’ll work with being as kind and loving to ourselves as we are to those dear to us. Many of us say things to ourselves that we’d be horrified to say out loud to another person, let alone someone we cherish. For example, it’s not uncommon for people to say, “How could I be so stupid!” or “I’m such an idiot!” to themselves, even for a minor mistake like forgetting to return a library book on time. I invite you to bring to mind a person you love to the moon and back. Look into their face and eyes. Now, imagine saying, “How could you be so stupid! You’re an idiot!” We wouldn’t speak to someone we love that way, and we need to remember that we are just as deserving of our love and compassion.
The practice is this: when we catch ourselves having a harsh or self-critical thought, we slow down, breathe, then turn it around.
I’m such an idiot! / Breathe / I’m not an idiot.
That was so stupid of me! / Breathe / I am not stupid.
No one could possibly love me. / Breathe / People can love me.
Notice how your body feels when you read these harsh and critical statements. Breathe, then notice how your body feels when you read the turnaround statements.
If you find this practice challenging, try bringing your cherished person, or even a beloved pet, to mind again. Imagine them saying these harsh things to themselves. Does it hurt your heart? Now, bring the practice back to yourself.
Remember, you are just as deserving of love as the people you love.