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Impostor Complex

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The Impostor Complex wants to keep you alone and isolated. Don’t let it.

This is the first in a three-part series about how the Impostor Complex works. Make sure you’re signed up to my list to receive the next two.


Of the three primary objectives of the Impostor Complex, the one that seems to cause us the most suffering individually and collectively is this:

The Impostor Complex wants to keep you alone and isolated.

The other two objectives: keeping you out of action + doubting your capacity are also exceedingly damaging, to be certain, in that they preclude you from getting your brilliance out into the world. On the stage it deserves. That YOU deserve. But those objectives don’t seem to churn up the suffering in the same acute way that this one does.

The Impostor Complex wants to keep you alone and isolated. Don’t let it.

TWEET THIS

The Impostor Complex wants to keep you alone and isolated.

Yes. It does an excellent job of that.

This often results in you feeling like you are the only one who experiences the Impostor Complex. Even as your entire Instagram feed seems to be ripe with pithy quips about how “everyone” experiences it. Quips that feel satisfying in the moment, but can’t quite seem to scratch the deep itch you feel about just how alone and isolating the experience actually feels. Maybe even my own pithy quips.

Let’s be clear: the truth is there is no one who experiences YOUR exact, particular brand of Impostor Complex. It will be as unique to you as your DNA, your conditioning, and, most of all, the intersections that you inhabit and the way you are perceived and TREATED by the dominant culture.

And there may even be times and places in which keeping quiet about your experience of fears HAS KEPT YOU SAFE.

I’m holding that space wiiiiiide open for you. In the months to come, my relaunched podcast will be focusing squarely on some of these intersections with experts who KNOW those places intimately well, in ways my white, able-bodied, cis-gender self cannot speak to.

So, what I want to say here NOW is there is no one size fits all solution.

But. AND.

When we ARE dealing singularly with the Impostor Complex, it’s success requires it to keep you alone and isolated. To keep you quiet in your suffering.

I’ve been ironing out the edges of my thinking on this for years and I think I’ve landed the plane on how it has gained such fabulous traction.

Desire for Connection AND Independence

As my reader, I know a couple of things about you. Connection is a strong value of yours. Very strong. (I see you.) AND? So is independence. You like to do things YOUR way. Sometimes these two values are in tension. (How’m I doing?)

You crave the connection, the belonging, but feel if you ASK for it, it makes you appear weak. Or you feel you will not get the support you desire. It’s complex, to be certain… so why bother? Suffering in silence won’t hurt anyone.

Except you and your activation.

The Myth of Individualism

“We” bought into a myth of individualism that doesn’t actually exist. My thinking on this is very much informed by the brilliant mind of Nilofer Merchant and her body of work on Onlyness. In a recent article that invites us to consider the three questions: “Who are you? Whose are you? Who am I for?” she names it as such: "American society tries to isolate the question to the first one, “who are you”, celebrating a kind of individualism that defies all logic.”

But the truth of it, she goes on to say, is this:

“We do not exist in isolation. We do not conceive of ourselves in isolation. We are social.”

Precisely.

So when we buy into the Impostor Complex’s lies that try to keep us alone and isolated, in particular Lie #12 — asking for help is for suckers — and Lie #5 — you must not tell anyone about this — we are colluding with our confirmation bias that seeks to prove, on the regular, we are alone, we do not belong. No one gets us. No one cares.

The paradox, of course, is this:

NOT asking for help and NOT naming the fears KEEP you in the stasis of the Impostor Complex. And keep you from your top value: CONNECTION.

I call bullshit.

If the Impostor Complex wants to keep you alone and isolated? Don’t let it.

When you experience the Impostor Complex, I want you to NAME it.

To the whole world? Naw. There are indeed people who do not endorse, nor support your activation. And worse.

You’ve seen it.

You’ve felt it.

You’ve been cut back and down.

You’ve committed the sin of (out)shining.

So, nope. Do NOT name it for the whole world.

But name it for YOUR people.

Because as I’ve said, hundreds of times in thousands of words, in front of thousands of people and from every stage, in every conversation and interview:

“YOUR people want you to succeed. Let them help you.”

This is my most fundamental belief.

How do you know who YOUR people are?

I have yet to come across a more searingly clear rubric for discerning who YOUR people are than the poetry of nayyirah waheed from her book salt.:

some people
when they hear
your story.
contract.
others
upon hearing
your story
expand.
and
this is how
you
know. 

Yes. Here’s to the Expanders in your life.

The ones who are not afraid of your power.
The ones who are encourage you to know your self.
The ones who encourage you to show yourself reverence. 

THEM.

They are your people.

Call them in.
Call them forth.
Tell them when you are struggling with the Impostor Complex, or any one of the six confidence killers it presents with.
Allow them to reflect back to you your brilliance, your radiance, your shine.
Dare to believe them when they tell you how truly remarkable you are. 

And then say the two words the Impostor Complex hates above all others. Thank you.

 In a recent MarieTV episode on the subject of the Impostor Complex, Marie Forleo champions calling in your #fraudsquad.

I call those same people your cast, and I sure am grateful for the cast I’ve assembled for the production that is my life and my work.

Because it’s like Michelle Obama said:

“We all have to find the people who believe in us”

I know who to turn to when I am feeling the spectrum of comparison.

Or when I am having a tryst with diminishment.

Or when I’m stuck in perfectionism.

Or I’m out of integrity with my boundaries.

I may be fortunate... but not lucky.

Assembling my cast has been my JOB. And it’s yours too.

Because it is an illusion that I need to go any of this alone.

In fact, it is nearly impossible.

I’ve tried.

And I’ve failed.

And I’ve learned.

So yes.

The Impostor Complex wants to keep you alone and isolated. Don’t let it.


Next week, I’ll be drilling into the second objective of the Impostor Complex. The one that has you doubt your capacity. Like, when you downplay your successes and chalk them up to luck, fluke or timing… you know the drill. Then be sure to sign up to my list below.

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It doesn’t matter what took you so long.

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My poker face is lousy. I mean, really, REALLY lousy.

When a client or someone whose hopes and dreams I know intimately shares with me that they did something spectacular, I can’t hold my excitement in.

“How fantastic! You did the thing you’ve been wanting to do for such a long time!”

Now, after ten years of being a professional leadership coach, you’d think that I would know better.

Can YOU spot the trigger words in: “How fantastic! You did the thing you’ve been wanting to do for such a long time!”?

You get partial marks if you guessed: “How fantastic." Only partial credit because this is most unique for people-pleasers who think I’m just being nice as they would be. (Hint: I’m not. I no longer have time for that.)

You get FULL marks if you guessed: “You did the thing you’ve been wanting to do for such a long time!”

While I’m genuinely excited for their accomplishment and wanting to root into celebration (which is the only way to truly lock in accomplishments), they want to go ahead and bypass that and hang out in the “Damn. She’s right. It did take me too long.”

You’ve heard that too, right?

You finally get to the other side of the pivot or launch or ask or hire or creation or sale or award and, though there may be an immediate surge of dopamine, it is swiftly followed by:

“What took you so long?”

Hands down, this is THE LEAST HELPFUL of all of our Inner Critic questions and it shows up just on the other side of a breakthrough. To be clear... our breakthrough of THEM. But like death and taxes, you can count on it showing up.

And the truth is, there are a thousand reasons that it took as long as it took. I mean, of course it’s possible that you were colluding with your Impostor Complex by hanging out in procrastination or perfectionism. And you can make yourself as wrong as you want for that (you get to choose).

Or, and just hear me out on this: maybe it was something else.

Maybe on some level you knew it wasn’t safe. (I have more to say on this in this week’s Friday Finale - you can sign up for those emails below). Maybe you were subconsciously fearful of who you would piss off. Maybe you hadn’t done sufficient analysis. Maybe you took exactly as long as was needed to do this the way it needed to be done. Maybe you weren’t actually ready for reasons you may never, ever, ever know.

Any of these statements could be true. And probably another hundred.

But I’m here to tell you the bottom line:

It doesn’t matter what took you so long. It just matters that you’re here now. (tweet this)

And let us celebrate you.

You did the thing.

Fin.


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The Lump in Your Throat

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“Was there a brown van that used to come by the cottage to sell us Chelsea rolls on Sunday mornings?” my cousin asked, hoping that I’d be able to settle a friendly wager she was having with her husband.

I couldn’t recall, but I said I’d ask my Dad who I was planning on seeing that coming Saturday.

Earlier that day, I had interviewed my friend Vanessa Mentor in Haiti whose final advice to our listeners was, “Tell your stories out loud. Even if only for yourself. And your kids.”

So I was planning on asking him to share all.

Because, truly, how many more months, weeks, days would I have for him to tell me about brown vans and Chelsea rolls?

How many more months, weeks, days would I have to invite him to tell me about the time his brother wrapped an inner tub around his midsection and threw him into the Rhone River? Or to hear him talking about skiing hungover with the Austrian Olympic team? Or why he believed (and I swear these were his words) “of all the pugilistic art forms, greco-roman wrestling is the finest."

Two months, one week, and three days, it turned out. 72 days. And I never got to hear the stories.

So yeah.
Ask the questions.
Get the stories.
And tell yours.

But what’s that?
There. Right there.
That lump in your throat.
The one that makes it hard to swallow.

What’s in there? What is that energy?

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if it’s grief or rage or a beautiful orchid of a desire.

But it’s something and it needs you to release it. Only you can do it. The ideas you long to communicate. The questions you long to ask. The injustice you MUST call out. The wishes you dream of bringing to reality. The radical change you want to effect. The thing you’ve needed to say for too long that it seems that is has long since calcified. It hasn’t.

Ask the questions. Get the stories. And tell yours.

TWEET IT

Practice saying it. Hum it. Sing it. Whisper it.

Truth is, my friends: sometimes it IS the Impostor Complex that keeps us from asking what wants to be asked and from saying what needs to be said.

But sometimes, we just simply run out of time.

Ask the questions.
Get the stories.
And tell yours.

It may be hard.
Releasing grief, rage, and even beautiful orchids often is.
But you’ve done harder than this.
You’ve asked questions that didn’t have answers.
You’ve told truths when it was neither welcome nor convenient nor appreciated.
You’ve told your stories into the dull din of ambivalence.

And I promise you this. With all that I have and all that I know:
It all matters.
And it’s what we have.
Bridging, connecting, becoming more real.

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Happy Anniversary, Impostor Phenomenon!

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It occurred to me in the last speaking gig I did a couple of weeks back that it’s been FORTY YEARS, since clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes coined the term “Impostor Phenomenon” back in ‘78. FORTY YEARS.

Yikes.

So, I figured this was a great time to set the record straight about its name.

You mostly hear it referred to as the “Impostor Syndrome." But see... Clance and Imes never called it that. They called it “Impostor Phenomenon." Amy Cuddy calls it “Impostor Experience." I call it “Impostor Complex” - though it’s possible Jung may have different thoughts on that.

I mention this, because (a) naming is important and because (b) in calling it a syndrome (which it has become most colloquially known, largely from Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 blockbuster “Lean In”) is simply incorrect. It is not a clinical diagnosis of a mental health condition. So even though it sucks for my SEO to call it a “complex," I stand by it because it feels like calling it a syndrome is distracting us from the issue, especially as I see more than my share of “stop whining about your so-called syndrome” pieces of late.

Let’s take a moment to talk about what it IS and what it ISN’T.

Drs Clance and Imes started their research at Oberlin College and were working with high-functioning, high-achieving female students and noticed a curious through-line in these women. They felt that they got into the college by fluke and that some day, any day now, they would be found out as the frauds they are.

Across the board, they seemed to be incapable of internalizing their successes. Their failures on the other hand, they were MORE than happy to own. This to say, if numbers didn’t add up, they made a mistake. But if their numbers DID add up, then they just assumed they got lucky, it was a fluke or they had somehow inadvertently managed to hack the system. That factors beyond their control (and skills and talents) were at play.

The Impostor Complex isn't straight up self-doubt. And it's not simply fear.

TWEET IT

It’s not straight up self-doubt. And it’s not simply fear. Sure, those two experiences play a part in the overall experience, but they are not the same. Self-doubt and fear show up on the precipice of doing something new, exactly when the Impostor Complex does, but this is more a function of conscious incompetence. Knowing all that we don’t yet know. Always a tricky place. (Exciting too.)

Impostor Complex, though, is more like self-doubt on steroids. You experience massive stress despite your proven track record and consistent validation of your capabilities... that’s when we’re in the land of the Impostor Complex.

So I’m a big fan of attributing my teachers, but the experience of feeling like a fraud most certainly predates the naming of it. Biologists have pointed to it being an instrument of evolution, set up to ensure mutation doesn’t happen too quickly.

Ancient sages of India apparently referred to the experience of spiritual evolution, or the threshold of greatness as “chala” - the sensation of being a fraud.

Okay. I have more, much MUCH more to say about this. A whole book’s worth, in fact. So keep your eye on this space. And in the meantime, why don’t you check out which Impostor Complex coping mechanism is tripping YOU up?

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The Arrogance of the Impostor Complex

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:

Know why you experience the Impostor Complex?

Because you are high-functioning person with strong values of mastery, integrity, and excellence.

Awesome. 

But know why else you experience it?

Ready for the realtalktruth?

Your standards and expectations of yourself are realllllllly high. And though you won’t admit it to many people, you want to be THE BEST at everything you do.

(Do you know that still, after all this work, when I take the stage at a speaking gig, I still actually EXPECT - and assume I'm a failure if I don't receive - standing ovations. Every.single.time. THAT is the stunning arrogance of my Impostor Complex. It’s lie #3… “you are all or nothing.” Oy.)

And, like me, I believe that you want to be THE MOST qualified person on the planet to be doing the work you are wanting to do. (Because if you are not the MOST qualified, then surely you are the LEAST qualified. Mmmhmm.)

And the shitty fact of the matter is this: it is exceptionally likely that you are NOT the absolutely most qualified person on the planet to be doing the work that you are wanting to do. 

The odds are highly stacked against you that you are THE BEST Parent on the planet. 

The BEST Developer.
The BEST Writer.
The BEST Speaker.
The BEST Artist.
The BEST Actor.
The BEST Activist.
The BEST Leader.
The BEST Business Owner. 

HIGHLY stacked against you, my friend.

And even more improbable is that you are THE BEST PARENT ANNNNNND SPEAKER on the planet. (Though it would be awesome if you were, of course.)

Truth is, you know more than you think and you’ll never know it all.

Can you feel the grief and the relief in that? 

Me too.

Now, I’m not saying that the road to mastery and excellence isn’t worth the commute.

It TOTALLY is.

I’m just wondering why you never include grace in your backpack for your travels?

Grace... you remember that, right?

  • It’s the same stuff you dole out in great swaths to others when they stumble on video or on stage. In fact, you find their humility refreshing and it does nothing to erode your confidence in what they are saying.

  • It's when you forgive others for not knowing EVERYTHING, but instead find their earnestness charming.

  • When you give people on your team generous extensions on their deadlines because they are dealing with grief, but can barely allow yourself an extra nap.

Why do you hold yourself to such a different standard? Are you not also deserving and worthy of such grace? Or another way to ask: what makes you think that you are the only one who has such grace to offer?


And while we’re talking about offerings…  

Why do you CONSISTENTLY choose to discount the praise others offer you?

I’m thinking it's one of a couple of reasons:

You don’t trust their standards.

I mean, sure. I get it. As we’ve already established, you have strong values of mastery, integrity, and excellence, AND you don’t know EVERYTHING, right?

You know more than you think and you’ll never know it all.

So, maybe the person offering you the acknowledgment, the compliment, the praise is offering you reflection on what you DO KNOW. What you DO exceptionally well. What you DID exceptionally well. 

But because of your impeccably (impossibly?) high standards of yourself, you are out of sorts when someone compliments your work that is below your watermark. THEY mustn’t have very high standards, and as such, you don’t need to do the hard work of allowing the compliment to land.

Who was it that said that he wouldn’t want to be part of a club that would have him as a member? Ouch.

You think “they’re just being nice." 

I’ve covered this off puh-lenty of times, and yet, for chronic people-pleasers, it still stings as it sticks.

Making the assumption that everyone is just being nice is as impossible as it is dismissive of their intelligence and free will. 

I mean, seriously: Who has the time to sit around blowing smoke up people’s nether-regions? Certainly not the people you respect and admire. 

Imagine lining up every last person who has ever lifted you, advocated on your behalf, complimented your work, allowed you past the velvet rope of academia, gave you a great mark, review, reference, testimonial, tweet, bit of kindness.

Go ahead. Line ‘em up against that wall over there. Ran out of wall? Imagine a bigger wall.

Got them all there? See them looking at you with the kindness and admiration and respect that they feel for you?

I will repeat: MAYBE, JUST MAYBE you ought to dare to believe someone when they tell you how truly remarkable you really are.

The university admissions committee didn’t make a mistake. Your clients didn’t make a mistake. Your boss didn’t make a mistake. You earned this. Stop assuming everyone makes such massive (and SPECIFIC) mistakes. 

When you diminish the value of another's opinion, you may ALSO be missing out on the honey that is their constructive critique.

TWEET IT

(Side bar: While we’re at it, when people thank you for your gifts, stop deflecting. It’s insulting to them. Just say “thank you.")

And let’s take it even further. When you diminish the value of another's opinion, you may ALSO be missing out on the honey that is their constructive critique.

Listen to them. You’ve done your due diligence. THIS is a person you say you respect and admire, so listen to them. If they didn’t care about you and your work, they wouldn’t take the time and energy to offer you conscious critique. It just doesn’t work like that. To assume anything else is straight up arrogance.

And, as ever, you get to choose what to integrate... but it starts with listening.


What do you think you accomplish by holding your talents back?

I see a bunch of reasons for this. And they all come with no small amount of arrogance.

Avoidance of disappointment

I think you’re a big-hearted person. And I already KNOW you have super high values of integrity. This leads me to believe that you don’t want to raise the hopes of others and disappoint them, right? So maybe you hang back from offering your (well-researched) opinion. I mean, you don’t want to send them down a dangerous path of repercussions from following your shitty counsel. (Which it MUST be because it’s not PERFECT, right?)

Hmpf.

Can you see where this once again presumes another’s lack of Sovereignty? LET THEM CHOOSE. Give them your absolute best and know that THEY TOO can listen then choose to integrate.

You’re not avoiding disappointment. You’re hoarding your best, and that is not just arrogant, but also selfish.

(Like we say in The Starring Role Academy #stophoardingyourgoodshit)

On some level, you may not think people can handle the fullness of who you are.

I cover a LOT of the reasons you may choose to diminish over here.

It can be scary.

But if you’ve read this far, I think you feel like you ARE in a position to make a choice.

Stay behind the curtains or answer the call that keeps you awake at night. The one that knows that you NOT standing up for what you believe in helps NO ONE.

Your powers are blindingly brilliant, but they are not capable of hurting anyone. I, for one, am not afraid of them.

I’m just afraid of them burning out if not used and shared generously and expansively.

So. Let’s make a deal, you and I.

Let’s ease up on our expectations of ourselves. If your expectations exceed what you would ask another of themselves, you may be asking too much of yourself.

Let’s ease up on our arrogance and give ourselves the big swaths of grace we offer others.

And let’s rise up and meet our desire to activate on the best work possible, and serve the world with generosity and joy. Parent. Developer. Writer. Speaker. Artist. Actor. Activist Leader. Business Owner.

Will it be the BEST WORK IN THE ENTIRE WORLD? Likely not. But that doesn’t make it any less valuable.


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