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Impostor Complex

The Impostor Complex wants you to doubt your capacity. Don’t let it.

This is the second in a three-part series about how the Impostor Complex works. The first one lives here.


We’ve established that the Impostor Complex is trying to keep you alone and isolated.

But, ironically, that objective rarely works alone; more often, it interplays with the second objective: The Impostor Complex wants you to doubt your capacity.

Which sounds like:

“I’ve never done xyz, so I can’t do xyz.”
“I just got lucky with that win.”
“They’re just being nice when they tell me I did a fabulous job.”
“I don’t have anything useful to add to the conversation.”
“I’m not ready yet.”

Lies...every last one. (Trust me… even if you could argue the case for any of these extremely well, I’m certain I’m right about this.)

Back in 1978, when Clinical Psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes were studying the Impostor Phenomenon at Oberlin College in Ohio, what they noticed at its most BASELINE was:

“Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the impostor phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. Numerous achievements, which one might expect to provide ample objective evidence of superior intellectual functioning, do not appear to affect the impostor belief.”  The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention.

In other words, folx who experience the Impostor Complex dismiss their success and overidentify with their failures.

In other OTHER words, the Impostor Complex wants you to doubt your capacity.

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You’re running a scam on everyone...you’re not super sure how. But you know it’s working — for now. And, tick tock, it’s just a matter of time before this all crumbles beneath you.

Now, this is going to present in one’s life in a number of different ways, depending on which behavioural trait has its hooks in you you identify with the most. (Not sure? Take the quiz here.)





Each IC Behavioural Trait Colludes with Doubting your Capacity

If you’re a people-pleaser, it’s pretty much a given that you will discount the praise of others, when they tell you you’ve done a good job, or when they invite you to step up and lead. I mean, they don’t mean what they’re talking about, right? They’re just being nice, after all. (No...actually, they’re not.)

If you have leaky boundaries, you may shelve what you think you know, what you THINK you are capable of, in favour of others’ perspectives, which erodes your confidence in your knowing even more.

If you tend to compare, you know all you’ve done will never quite stack up to what others have done. Or you may despair that you’ll never be capable of what you see others doing. (30 before 30 and 40 before 40-type lists are notorious for causing these reactions!)

If you’re a perfectionist, you know all you’ve done will never quite stack up to your impossibly high standards of what you OUGHT to be capable of.

If you’re a procrastinator, every second you spend staring at that blinking cursor erodes your belief that you know what you’re even writing in the first place.

If you tend to diminish, welp… doubting your capacity, or at least DIMINISHING your capacity is the name of the game. Don’t shine too bright, or you’ll be cut down.

It is my true and deep desire that you know that all of these behavioural traits, in and of themselves, are not problematic. We are social beings, and so the relational focus on comparison and leaky boundaries makes perfect sense. People-pleasing and diminishment have deep roots in survival. Perfectionism and procrastination are two sides of the same coin: the desire for excellence and the resistance to that expectation.

Perfectionism and procrastination are two sides of the same coin: the desire for excellence and the resistance to that expectation.

TWEET THIS

But when these behavioural traits keep us alone and isolated, doubting our capacity, and out of action? That’s when it’s an issue. Which brings us back to this time and place. To be certain, there is oh-so-much more to be said on all of this. An entire books’ worth, in fact. (Coming soon to a bookshelf near you.)  

No matter which behavioural trait is keeping your belief about your capacity at bay, the best and only way to wriggle free is by deepening into the TRUTH about said capacity.

Simple, not easy.

There’s another factor that shows up when the Impostor Complex is jonesing to have us doubt our capacity. It will have us FURTHER DISCOUNT the value of our contributions if we feel they came too easily to us. As though there is a direct causal relationship between the effort expended and the merit of the outcome. It lives inside of a Puritanical need for value to equal sweat equity. It likes to negate alllll the work that got us to this place of good work which affords us a quality of ease that comes with practice. Writing. Experience. Learning. Failing. Calibrating. Because that is the investment you’ve made in building your capacity.

But for the IC, it doesn’t count.

So we need to make it count.

The Impostor Complex wants you to doubt your capacity. Don’t let it.




Go Inside First

We need/must/are required to look long and hard and close at the TRUTH about our capacity.
This requires us to KNOW ourselves.
Our strengths, our values, how we do what we do.

And uncomfortably, this means we have to look at what we have DONE.

Oh, how we resist this. How we resist looking at the proof of what we have accomplished.
The reason is simple.

The ego wants to want more than it wants to get.

That’s just true.

And still. Your job IS to do an analysis of all you’ve done. In my line of work, we call this Bolstering your Authority Thesis.

When was the last time you listed every.single.thing you ever did brilliantly well? Every.single.thing you delivered, sold, created, influenced, decided, authored, won, crafted?

When was the last time you listed every.single.thing you have survived? Every.single.thing you have healed and fixed and released?

Yes, I’m talking about that grade 7 science fair project and the time you asked for the business and the time you raised your hand and the time you claimed what you knew and the time you overcame THE THING and the time you had the hard conversation and the time you risked the heartbreak and the time you called them in and the time you did NOT tolerate it and the time you broke the record and the time you chose you and the time you did not back down and the time you got back up and the time you said yes when you meant it and the time you dug deep in spite of the fear and the time they recognized you but you realized the recognition of your self was more valuable. All those times. And then some.

When was the last time you did that?

Oh… you haven’t ever?

And why not?

I’ve already named it as the work of the ego above… so there’s that.

Celebration offers us the chance to remember that there was once a time when you believed what you have just done was not possible.

TWEET THIS

And ALSO, we struggle with owning up to our accomplishments because we don’t PAUSE in celebration. We don’t rest in celebration to integrate the hard work. We’re on to the next thing. Wanting to want, not wanting to get.

Celebration offers us the chance to remember that there was once a time when you believed what you have just done was not possible.

So yes. Get every.single.thing you’ve ever done written out. Keep on writing until you have run out of paper then buy another ream. You’ll know when you’re done.

Remember all the times that you decided to jump and discovered that the party was indeed on the other side of resistance?

TWEET THIS

And on an on-going basis, track your wins. All of them.

DAILY.

Because in doing so, you are building a new narrative. One that celebrates your resilience and tenacity and helps you to recognize all the times you've stood in your doubt at this very precipice of your desires. Of expansion. Of a breakthrough.

Remember all the times that you decided to jump and discovered that the party was indeed on the other side of resistance?


Get Outside

And ONCE you’ve done that internal analysis of your capacity — or, in other words, realized that you are a badass — THEN you have a fighting chance of believing people when they tell you that you are truly remarkable. (I highly recommend you believe them. It’s simply the arrogance of the Impostor Complex that has you disbelieving them after YOU’VE already done the analysis.)

But I repeat: you MUST go inside before you can receive what others on the outside are telling you. And when you’re there, gather it alllll up. The reference letters, the sweet tweets, the cards, the emails. Gather it all up and hold the sacredness of accolades as true. Feel the gift of the acknowledgments and notice how the doubt of your capacity starts to melt away.

You did things.

All the things.

And there are oh-so-many more things for you to do.

The Impostor Complex wants you to doubt your capacity. Don’t let it.


Ready to name your Imposter Complex and Step Into Your Starring Role?

Enter your information here to receive the (mostly) weekly Friday Finale from me in your inbox, and my gift to you, Imposter Complex 101: Four short videos to prompt you to think more deeply and clearly about how the Imposter Complex wants to keep you playing small—and how you can fight back.

The Impostor Complex wants to keep you alone

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. They are your CAST.

Assemble the Cast

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.


Ready to name your Imposter Complex and Step Into Your Starring Role?

Enter your information here to receive the (mostly) weekly Friday Finale from me in your inbox, and my gift to you, Imposter Complex 101: Four short videos to prompt you to think more deeply and clearly about how the Imposter Complex wants to keep you playing small—and how you can fight back.

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.


Ready to name your Imposter Complex and Step Into Your Starring Role?

Enter your information here to receive the (mostly) weekly Friday Finale from me in your inbox, and my gift to you, Imposter Complex 101: Four short videos to prompt you to think more deeply and clearly about how the Imposter Complex wants to keep you playing small—and how you can fight back.

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.

What's the difference between Imposter Syndrome and Impostor Complex?

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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 “Imposter Phenomenon” back in ‘78. FORTY YEARS.

Yikes. (And happy birthday, Impostor Phenomenon!)

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

You mostly hear it referred to as the “Imposter Syndrome." But see... Clance and Imes never called it that. They called it “Imposter Phenomenon." Amy Cuddy calls it “Imposter Experience." I call it “Impostor Complex” - though it’s possible Jung may have different thoughts on that. (Why do I spell it with an “o”? I’m Canadian, eh?)

I mention this, because (a) naming is important and because (b) in calling it Imposter 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?