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Impostor Complex

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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.

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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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Down with Diminishment

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Of all of the behavioural traits that present themselves when someone experiences the Impostor Complex - that is to say: people-pleasing, procrastination, perfectionism, leaky boundaries, comparison, and diminishment - it’s DIMINISHMENT that comes up most often in my clients, readers, and audience.

Diminishment is the way in which we consciously dim our light. Dumb our message down. Take up less space. Play smaller. Avoid displaying actual confidence at all costs.

I suppose this should come as no surprise to me given the evocative language I use in and around “Stepping into your Starring Role." It’s INTENDED to be a calling forth of those hiding ever so slightly in the shadows off-stage.

Which is to say... YOU.

Diminishment is a nice and safe way to avoid feeling like an Impostor. No one can call us fraud, charlatan, or cast us aside if they can’t see us, right?

To be certain.

And of course, it doesn’t just look like staying off the metaphorical stage.

When you tell me that you were so lucky that the universe sent you the perfect designer, I will remind you that YOU made it happen. YOU took the chance and went on a coffee date and were open and willing and transparent. That YOU have built up a reputable business through tenacity and with excellence that anyone would be thrilled to be a part of. That YOU did your due diligence and knew what the market would bear and made the ask, even as you feared rejection. But yeah. Sure. It was the universe.

When you tell me that you are having a hard time filling up your Yum and Yay folder because “they’re just being nice” with their praise, I will remind you that nobody has time to just be nice like that and if they sent you a lovely thank you card because you helped them find a new way forward with the problem that they have been grappling with that MAYBE, JUST MAYBE you ought to dare to believe them when they tell you how truly remarkable you really are. In fact, MAYBE, JUST MAYBE you ought to take their words and add them to your testimonials page for the world to see truth.

So yes,
Diminishment looks like discounting others’ praise.
Diminishment looks like downplaying our successful decisions and wins.
Diminishment looks like handing over credit where credit isn’t due.
Diminishment looks like hiding behind your clients.
Diminishment looks like a crisis of presence.
Diminishment looks like the opposite of sovereignty. (This is informed by a sacred conversation in The Starring Role Academy lead by my dear friend and guest teacher, Ronna Detrick.)

Now, you have good reasons for hiding your glory from us, I am certain.

Maybe you have experienced the pain of the Tall Poppy Syndrome.
Maybe you have seen, far too often, the good person corrupted by the limelight.
Maybe you have experienced the sting of online haters and trolls.
Maybe you have committed the Sin of (Out)Shining.
Maybe your strong value of humility fears getting it wrong and having to eat humble pie.
And speaking of pies, maybe you’ve been told you’ve already had too much pie.

If you want to come out from behind the shadows and take the stage with your message, your vocation, your calling, it will be worth every moment of tension.

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But if you want to come out from behind the shadows and take the stage with your message, your vocation, your calling, it will be worth every moment of tension.

It will involve you being brave enough to confront the reasons why you stay out of action and the resistance that is keeping you from what you say you want.

It will require you to look at all you have done, without the red pen of editorializing and discounting the efforts you’ve made and the outcomes you’ve created.

It will demand that you not go this alone. It will mean you will gather your people, assemble your cast, bring your fans in close, and trust in them. But, above all, it will demand that you trust in you.

Like we say in The Academy: More pie, please.

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For the Moment That Has You Question Your Bravery

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You were brave. You remember, don’t you?

No? Okay. Here it is. You were brave:

when you stayed.

when you left.

when you said, "No, but let’s try this."

when you said, "No, never."

when you said, "Yes, thank you. More, please."

when your wave to the cool kids wasn’t returned (and still, you kept your head high).

when you kissed the ground (even though you wanted to shake your fist at the sky).

when you stood up.

when you stood down.

when you kept writing, speaking, teaching, singing, preaching, going.

(even though...)

when you danced with the shadow (but didn’t go to second base).

when you were so worn out, but made it count anyway.

when you wore your heart on your sleeve (it SO brings out your eyes).

when you believed.

when you trusted.

when you knew that you knew.

when you raised your hand.

when you took the high road (and not just for the panoramic views).

when you didn't feel so hot in the bathing suit, but swam in the grace around you just the same.

when you made your dreams your mission.

when you shelved your dreams for someone else’s (though you’ll never do THAT again).

when you tossed your limitations into the volcano of your desires.

when you committed to your life.

when you kept your promise to others,

when you kept your promise to yourself.

when you kept your promise to your soul.

when you trusted how it felt (not how it looked).

when you kept showingupshowingupshowingup (even though the duvet beckoned).

when you forgave (REALLY forgave),

when you decided to stop deferring to others.

when you decided that enough was enough and that you were enough (oh, that was a good one).

when you risked it.

when you risked telling someone they matter.

when you decided it wasn’t too latebut also that it wasn't too soon to just.get.going.

when you chose collaboration over competition,

discernment over decisiveness,

generosity over guarantees,

curiosity over certitude.

when you tapped yourself in.

when you switched gears (even though everyone was watching).

when you chose to love.

when you chose joy.

and, when you chose you.

So, you see? Every.single.day. you keep showing it. You keep showing us.


This Thursday, February 1 at 2pm EST,
I will be live on Facebook talking all things bravery. I hope you'll join me.


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On ham sandwiches and grief.

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I want to talk about ham sandwiches. And a dear old family friend, we’ll call Auntie P, who called them sangwiches in her adorable Scottish lilt.

She was a child of the Depression. It’s true, she really was, but my grandmother mentioned this, like, A LOT. Perhaps as some way to normalize her best friend’s extreme thriftiness.

Auntie P herself said she was “frugal”.  I loved the way she said it - frugal. It was a foreign word to me when I first heard it, and I assumed it was another word for fancy. She also always spoke in “pennies”. “People in those big houses just have a few more pennies to rub together than we do, sweetie.” Somehow when she said that, it made me imagine that she had piles of pennies upon which to sit.

But back to sangwiches.

When I was about seven, Auntie P and her soon-to-be late husband H went on a trip around the world. On a ship. How marvelous. I couldn’t wait to hear tales of Asia and deepest, darkest Peru (from whence my beloved Paddington Bear came.)

But it was Sweden that she wanted to talk about.

“When we got off the boat, they were handing out free ham sangwiches. FREE! And you could line up twice or even thrice without anyone so much as batting an eye.”

I wondered what it was like to be a child of the Depression. It was hard to imagine sweet old Auntie P at any age other than her tightly permed blue rinsed hair, sensible sturdy flat black shoes and nude coloured knee high stockings would allow. And I could imagine plenty.

But at a minimum, I knew the Depression meant that bread was rare and butter was scarce and ham was impossible to find. I pictured her in her cot (it was a cot, when I thought of it) coping with the pain in her empty belly by dreaming of ham sandwiches.

Dreaming of a time when she might have piles of pennies upon which to sit. Traveling around the world by ship. Being met on the shore with free sangwiches. Dream-by-dream. That’s how I would have coped, in any case.

Did she go within? I’ve never been too sure. We certainly never spoke of it. But I know for a fact that she went without. A lot.

So every occasion included ham sangwiches. Easter, Christmas luncheons, afternoon visits, bridge parties, funerals, christenings, and birthdays and any justbecause reason you could think of. Sandwich-by-sandwich, we celebrated and mourned.

I suspect this was the tie that bonded Auntie P and my mother, their love of ham sandwiches. For my mother though, it wasn’t about the sandwich itself. It was about being made a ham sandwich. That was a devotional labour of love.

Now, I don’t wish to speak ill of the dead. I really really don’t. But I didn’t enjoy Auntie P’s ham sandwiches. You see, I was not a child of the Depression, so good quality Black Forest ham was plentiful in my refrigerator. But for Auntie P, ham was ham, and pennies were pennies that needed to be rubbed together, for whatever reason one would rub pennies together. Seemed to me the fewer pennies the ham cost, the lighter the pinkish hue, ‘til Auntie P’s ham was but one shade above white. More opalescent than anything else, slightly slick with gelatin.

But her delight in displaying the sangwiches was legendary. With flourish rivaled only by her best friend Milly, she would summon us to the oilcloth covered table with a “come and get it, dearies”. And my mother delighted that a ham sandwich, any ham sandwich, was served with love.

I hope you find ways the ways to hug your people long and hard and true. 

We would often go to the Copper Kettle for lunch, a sandwich counter marked by a huge marquee of copper sequins that flapped in the wind. I loved going there.  Not because the sandwiches were good – they weren’t much better than P’s, bless her, but mostly because of the sign and the ride. My grandmother would drive her fire orange Plymouth (that today would be called a muscle car) like a bat out of hell. Auntie P and I would sit always sit in the back bench seat, no seat belts of course, this was late 70’s after all, and as my grandmother took the corners like every corner was the last one she’d ever get to experience, Auntie P would squeal: “here we go ‘round the get together corner” like it was a midway ride.

If she didn’t say it, I’d worry she wasn’t well. Hearing her say that was as satisfying as the little green light when the power adaptor has made its connection with the MacBook.

But. That’s it, isn’t it?

Connection.

She didn’t teach me to knit, but we did spend pleasant evenings munching ham sandwiches and cross-stitching little kitten patterns purchased from the dollar store. The teeny stitches both confounded and delighted me. Auntie P’s patience was infinite even as her eyes failed and the lights were dim in her sitting room. My eyes were strong, my patience, less so. Three stitches done and I was anxious to see the green eye completed, not just a fraction of the pupil.

It was through Martha Stewart that I learned to knit and purl. The sum of my output to date includes three scarves and one lap blanket and a couple of things I've forgotten about. But the crowning jewel of my knitting prowess was a mohair afghan I knit for my mother when she was very very very sick. It was of the most exquisite fuchsia colour imaginable.

A little more purple than pink, but just enough pink to brighten her cheeks as she snuggled it in her chair, nibbling appreciatively, but with no appetite, on the ham sandwiches I would bring her. Lovingly prepared, crusts cut off, to mimic “fancy sandwiches” of the high teas she wished we went to with much greater frequency. Like, more than twice in her lifetime.

I speak of the afghan in the past tense because we had it cremated with her. It was clear to me she’d want to take it with her wherever she went. You know, when I saw her ashes, I half expected to see fuchsia mohair fluff among the pallid sombre gray. Gray that was a little more white than black, but not enough to be lively. No, anything but lively. Of course not. How could ashes of a dead mother be lively? If anything, it was a detached colour. Can a colour be detached?

The mind’s funny that way. I mean, I know how cremation works – it’s not complicated – everything in the path of the fire gets incinerated. But still…I had hoped to see that fluff.

We served ham sandwiches at her wake, of course. Ham sandwiches, and egg salad sandwiches, and cucumber mint sandwiches, and lemon bars, and nanaimo bars, and scones with clotted cream, and a whole other varietal of delights you’d find at high tea. It was a tough time. I had an 8 month old with a ferocious diaper rash, a father who was...mourning and a sister who…missed her mother. I organized every detail. Including the eulogy. The thank you roses to the nurses’ station. The obituary. In truth, I’m sure I forgot more details than I remembered, but I know for a fact that remembered to cut off the crusts. Remembering those details was how I coped. Task-by-task.

I don’t recall Auntie P’s funeral. I think I probably wasn’t allowed to attend. Too distressing for little girls, you see.

But there can be no doubt that her final get-together corner included ham sangwiches.

Or at least, I pray that this is so.