Impostor syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which a person is unable to internalize his/her accomplishments. What that means is that the person cannot see the true worth of their accomplishments despite significant supporting evidence. A simple example might be an award-winning writer who struggles getting out the words due to their fear that what they’re writing isn’t worthy of being read. Another example might be an A-grade math student who feels stupid and unsure of him-/herself despite the excellent grade.
Impostor syndrome can be a source of anxiety at the best of times and paralyzing at the worst. In a worst-case scenario, a person feeling like an impostor might give up on a business idea that would otherwise be successful. And in this situation, I am concerned that those who are well equipped to help others will not adequately recognize their talents to bring that help to where it is needed.
I’ve thought a lot about the issue and have come to the conclusion that Impostor Syndrome is a learned response. In essence, we learn to feel like impostors because we were taught to evaluate our worth against the worth of others. Back in the ’70s and early-’80s, when Impostor Syndrome was just being defined, it was thought that the phenomenon marked a behavioural trait. Since then, however, studies have gone on to show this is not the case. As such, not only is it a behaviour we can learn, it is something that we can unlearn.
value who you are!
It’s a difficult proposition for many, but the ultimate solution is to learn to value who you are. Exactly now. Exactly in this moment. Without judgment or “Yeah, but”. I think that everybody has value and brings something worthwhile to a situation. For example, I might not have the same way with words as Mike Dooley or Wayne Dyer, but I’ve become comfortable knowing that how I form my thoughts and put them to paper (or computer file) is going to resonate with somebody. I don’t need to positively affect everybody on Planet Earth for my efforts to be worth something. Positively affecting a single person in the first degree has a tremendous ripple effect that ultimately resonates outward to potentially touch millions.
The same is true for you.
I don’t know you, but I do know that you bring life experiences, perspective and skills to this world that are utterly unique to you. The very fact that this mix of stuff is unique in its breadth and depth makes it incredibly valuable. No two people know the same things. No two people will have the same voice. It’s in the contrasts of knowledge, voice, opinion and experience that we learn new things. In that light, everyone is a teacher.
Regardless of how legitimate you feel with regard to your skills and/or worth, it’s important to understand that you’ve gotten to where you are by virtue of the decisions you’ve made throughout your life. What you chose to do (or not), study and how you decide to interact with those in and around your life all conspire to provide value despite any fears you may have to the contrary. You may feel out of control, but nonetheless you have played a role in how you got to where you are now.
If you choose to not share your voice with the world, you’re not protecting yourself; you’re cheating others of a rich opportunity to learn. If you can overcome your fear of expressing the Who of You, you serve as a wonderful example to others who also struggle to find their voice. Each of us who learn to stand on our feet and find our voice have the privilege of affirming the experience with others. I think that’s a big deal.
One element about finding your voice is that others may label you as an expert, which might give you a sense of pressure or even fear over having to know it all. Frankly spoken, nobody knows it all. Not a single person knows everything about something. The best anybody can hope for is to know a little of something about many things. If you’ve specialized, then you might know a lot about some things. Nobody, however, can ever know everything about anything.
What that means is that we’re free to say “I don’t know” about a particular topic. It’s okay to not know about something. In this age of information overload, it’s more important to know how to find the answer to a question than it is to know the answer. When you admit to not knowing something, it shows another important side of relationships: Authenticity. When I’m honest with you about what I don’t know, you’ll have a lot more reason to trust what I do know.
You don’t need a PhD to be an expert in a field. There are farmers out there who can hold soil in their hands and simply know the health of the land. It’s hard to come by that kind of insight in a classroom. A person may be a voracious reader and amass a tremendous amount of useful knowledge. Take comfort in what you know and be fully accepting of it. Don’t worry about what you don’t know. It’s all good.
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