People-pleasing and the Impostor Complex

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You’ve heard me say that there are six behavioural traits of the Impostor Complex. Places where we might go to hide out to avoid feeling like an Impostor.

Because, let’s face it. We know the Impostor Complex wants to keep you out of action, doubting your capacity, and feeling alone and isolated. Who needs that? Who WANTS that?

No one. So it’s reasonable for us to want to avoid the whole experience. (Hint: we can’t really. But, onward.)

So yeah. To avoid feeling like we don’t belong, aren’t worthy of anyone’s time or attention, or are the Impostor, we tend to go to comparison, diminishment, procrastination, perfectionism, leaky boundaries and my particular coping mechanism of choice: people-pleasing. (If you haven’t ID’d yours yet, check out this quiz here.)

I’m in excellent company...18.6% of you share People-Pleasing with me. (Oh HEYYYYY!)

We are a fun bunch, we people-pleasers. We can be pretty charming and likable. We are relational and sociable. We care a LOT about others. We value inclusivity. We make things happen by bridging connection. We can be generous and gracious, though sometimes we are charged with being “generous to a fault.” We learned early on about flies and honey. It’s part of feminine conditioning that my friend and colleague Jo Casey speaks to.

I love us. I celebrate us.

And bonus: Our ability to blend in with the crowd, and in fact, be welcome in most, means that we can avoid feeling like an Impostor. It’s cozy in the middle.

But the flies are IN the honey.

And I’ve spent my life trying to pick them out.

Fly #1

As people-pleasers, our relatability gets us in the door alright. But the tricky bit comes once we are inside, and we start to fear we didn’t earn it for any reason that MATTERS beyond the charm. We’ll discount any praise we are given, and dismiss the opportunity to take the stage or lead the charge. Suddenly our talents and skills and will and tenacity don’t seem to matter. And surely, if we weren’t already, we are NOW the Impostor. In a club we were never supposed to enter.

People-pleasing is about prioritizing making sure everyone likes you so that you fit in, but then not feeling like you earned your opportunities—you just got them because they liked you... or are just being "nice."

Fly #2

Sometimes, it’s a little TOO cozy in the middle, right? Cozy’s great, but not always the answer to the problem. Sometimes discomfort is. Often, in fact. Already an edge for many, discomfort is poison for cozy-loving people-pleasers who have spent their lives trying to say and do the “right thing.” (And that right thing, more often than not, is the thing that WON’T rock the boat. But it won’t change worlds, either.)

As a people-pleaser, you are likely to opt out of the kinds of action that runs the risk of pissing folx off.

Said another way: people-pleasing strips us of permission to experience righteous rage. And I am not here for that. (I know you’re not either.)

Fly #3

You don’t ask for what YOU need. And then TRUE connection isn’t happening. It’s a one-way relationship. And that has never worked out so well, now has it?

Fly #4

We can lose ourselves in trying to do the impossible: pleasing everyone.

Playing to our fans and avoiding our detractors can mean that our Integrity becomes eroded. And Integrity is a cornerstone for Unshakeable Confidence.

And I know I don’t need to tell you this: but you can’t please everyone ANYWAY. In some ways, assuming you can has an air of intrinsic arrogance. If you set out to please everyone, you will fail 100% of the time AND lose yourself in the process. (Those are not the odds you want.)

So don’t. (Yeah, I know: #simplenoteasy.)

Your people will get it.
Your people will get you.

And THAT, my friend, is PLEASING.

When everything is said and done, and the Impostor Complex is working double and triple time to keep you out of action, doubting your capacity and alone and isolated, I want you to know this, my people-pleasing friends:

Your tendency to please others comes from an excellent place.

  • Maybe your value of inclusivity wants to be assured that everyone feels heard.

  • Maybe your value of connection wants to bridge differences.

  • Maybe your value of generosity just really loves offering grace.

  • Maybe keeping others pleased around you was a question of SURVIVAL.

So I am not here to tell you to unravel all of the glorious aspects of who you are.

I am, however, here to tell you this:

For you to be the fullness of you, you just may have to disappoint some people.
(It will be well worth it.)

and

You are not responsible for sourcing anyone else's joy. No matter how “easy” it is for you. (That’s on them.)

And finally, what if, instead of assuming “they’re just being nice”...

What if you believed them when they told you just how truly remarkable you are?
What if you could just dare to believe them?
What if you could just dare to believe ME?

What then?

Are you a people pleaser? Not sure?

Click here to take the quiz and discover which of the behavioural traits is holding you back the most from having unshakeable confidence.

Fifteen

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(This is my annual birthday love letter to our daughter. Regularly scheduled articles about the Impostor Complex and your Unshakeable Confidence will crank back up next week. Promise.)

Beloved L.

Today’s your fifteenth birthday.

FIFTEEN.

I just...can’t even.

So can we take a pause here to let me catch my breath and scan where we’ve been.

On your eighth birthday, I made some wishes. They continue to hold strong and true.

On your ninth, I shared some wisdom from truth-sayers intended to light your way.

On your tenth, I called in some reinforcements to remind you of the wonder that you are.

On your eleventh, I invited you to trust your body, your knowing.

On your twelfth, I made an apology and some promises I’ll never break. Namely, this: “I will never withdraw my love. I will always be your soft place to land. You will never go wrong if you are always yourself.”

On your thirteenth, I shared a story that I will never forget.

On your fourteenth, I tried to do the near impossible. To reflect back to you the light that I see.


Okay.

I’m ready.

Remember when I used to drive you to Theatre Day Camp? In particular, it was the summer of Taylor Swift. Ly had turned you onto her, yeah? “Romeo and Juliet” was the gateway.

You’ll not be the least bit surprised to know that I used to watch you in the rearview mirror as we sang along to “Fifteen”. You had just turned seven. The fact that you would one day be that freshman girl who discovers the only way one can truly learn about heartbreak took my breath away. Knowing all too well the next eight years would go by in a flash.

I was right. (And you KNOW how I like to be right.)

The first line of the song was:

“You take a deep breath”

So I did. Every time in the car. I would watch you with your head thrown back as you belted it out with full heart and voice. I would smile and also wonder at what age I would need to address how problematic the lyrics were. But for the moment, just feeling it all. And breathing deeply.

Which is what I’ve been doing for the past eight years.

Your grace taking my breath away, and me needing to take a deep breath.

Grounding into the now that we have. Every time.

This year has been one of massive transitions. Again. As you have navigated the newness of high school and tricky terrains and social dynamics and expectations swollen with your potential and projections from those who mean well but place the weight of the world on your sunny shoulders...because you cheer everyone up.

And your grace takes my breath away.
And so I take a deep breath.

I want you to know it’s okay to feel down, and to stay down just as long as you need to.

That you don’t have to be the good girl.

That I love singing with you as much as I love our spirited conversations about problematic lyrics that presume cis-het relationships and suggest the value of a girl’s worth being inextricably linked to her virginity.

That there are no limits to our love. Nor on your capacity for greatness.

That you get to choose.

But what I want you to know is that the shift that has happened in this last year has taken my breath away above all else.

No longer do I feel the need to show you the world.

Now I only want to see the world through your big — and yes — beautiful hazel, knowing, questioning, challenging, just, loving, kind, empathetic, and sparkling eyes.

Because you see the all.

Believe me.
But above all, believe YOU.

I love you with every breath I have.
Mama

Is it safe to be real? When tackling the Impostor Complex feels unsafe.

Those of us in the self-development space mean well. (I reckon that’s the first time I’ve ever said I’m in the self-development space, but y’all know I’m writing a book and if there’s one thing Big Publishing loves, it’s titles… but I digress.)

We really do. Or at least, I operate under the assumption that those of us in the self-development space mean well.

And in that meaning well, we can do harm. You know I’m talking about that chasm between impact and intent.

I am certain I have done harm when I have said things approximately (or quite literally) like:

Believe in yourself!
Take up more space!
Shine up!
Be bolder!
Step into your Starring Role!

I believe in those things. I want those things for you. Truly and deeply I do. And… they are insufficient.

If you’ve been around for any amount of time, you know as a Libran Leadership Coach, I am a little more than preoccupied with seeing the both AND of things. That life is not happening in the extremes, but rather in the spaces in between. I tend to see and dream in nuance. Frustratingly, I speak in nuance too. What others may perceive as wishy-washy, I assert to be discernment.

But maybe that doesn’t always come through. Because “ALWAYS,” I mean...isn’t that one more extreme? (See what I did there?) Even last week’s article: The answer is almost always: bring more of you, the “almost” in the title was an intentional linchpin word.

And here’s what I want you to know.

The Impostor Complex is highly concerned with you belonging. Or not belonging. Which is a fundamental need. Refresher: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs goes like:

  1. Physiological needs

  2. Safety needs

  3. Belonging

  4. Esteem

  5. Self-actualization

So it follows that you need to feel safe before you can feel you belong. And you can’t feel the fullness of your esteem and confidence until you feel you belong.

So… we can see how unhelpful it is when we see and say:

Believe in yourself!
Take up more space!
Shine up!
Be bolder!
Step into your Starring Role!

...in response to a crisis of the Impostor Complex variety.

Out of context — and it’s all about context — these are not simply incomplete directives because they don’t offer up a HOW. They are incomplete directives because they belie the reality that for some, it may simply not be safe to do so. Or it hasn’t been safe to do so up until now. And maybe it still isn’t.

In this instance, these confidence hacks are insufficient. This is not simply about shifting your mindset. There are real structural and systemic forces at play here.

So here’s what I want to offer up. Another lens.

It’s true that when I see diminishment and/or comparison and/or perfectionism and/or procrastination and/or leaky boundaries and/or people-pleasing running the show, I suspect that the Impostor Complex is in the house and I want to make sure you’re not hiding out in those coping mechanisms.

But/AND the ORIGIN STORY of those behavioural traits… may be that they come from your second most basic need: safety.

Diminishment is an entirely appropriate response if you have ever been targeted.

Comparison meant you always knew how you were stacking up. And how to modulate accordingly.

Getting it perfect may have meant you were spared some kind of punishment.

Procrastination meant you delayed getting it wrong.

Leaky boundaries meant you could shape-shift to fit into hostile environments.

Pleasing the people who hold power over you is just deeper wisdom keeping you safe.

See why these are such hard(wired) habits to break?

I sure do.

Let’s pause here and breathe together.

I see you.

And I am sorry.

I am sorry for every time you have endured a reductionist rah-rah quote that didn’t attend to the complexity of your lived experience and the emotions you endure.

Truly, I am sorry.

And I want to offer a little tenderness to those painful places.

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What if…

Diminishment meant you valued humility.

Comparison meant you valued connection.

Perfectionism meant you valued excellence.

Procrastination meant you valued discernment.

Leaky Boundaries meant you valued generosity.

People-pleasing meant you valued inclusivity.

What then? What if these glorious aspects of you were not something to be fixed but rather to be calibrated… and then, maybe even, with time and care, to be celebrated?

What then indeed.

Maybe they only become a PROBLEM when we allow them to shut us down. To stay out of action. To doubt our capacity. To stay alone and isolated. And THAT’S when I’m a hard NO on your behalf to these behaviours.

When those behavioural traits are getting in the way of your good work. Your leadership. Your art. Your movement. Your activation. We need to call them out. That’s just true.

When those behavioural traits have been speed bumps on the road of your expansion, we need to know how to circumnavigate them.

But maybe we don’t need to eradicate them. Because they are PART of you. The discernment is in knowing when they are born of a good place and when they are getting in the way.

So I just want you to know why they’re here and for you to adjust your route—knowing why and where and WHEN they tend to show up. (Psst… usually on the precipice of your desires.)

And when the whole world wants to trivialize just how remarkable you truly are and you are prepared to buy into it, I will indeed remind you that you are made of stardust… you are literally the stuff of stars.

That much, I am certain I am right about. Without exception and without apology.

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 answer is almost always: bring more of you.

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From the moment I landed the plane on the language that I currently use around my process: “Step into your Starring Role,” I have had to defend it.

Most people hate it.

“I don’t want the spotlight!”
“I don’t want the stage.”
“Stars are egomaniacs… why would I want anything to do with that?”

And yet, yet, there is something to it.

Because folx stick around. They stick around and they read my words and they work with me and I am forever and truly and deeply grateful that they do.

And I’m stubborn, it’s true. But given how vociferously folx argue with me about the language, I’ve always wondered why I haven’t let it go for the ten years I’ve been using it.

It wasn’t until last week when I invited Nicole Lewis-Keeber to teach inside the Starring Role Academy and she had us consider what our younger selves wanted that I remembered.

Settle in for story time…

When I was six, I was in the church Christmas pageant. I wanted to be the Angel. Not Mary, but the Angel. She, to me, was the Star of the show. The Knower and the Wayshower. Instead, I kind of called it in for the audition, shelved the fullness of my passion and was given the role of a Shepherd. I loved the staff my father hand crafted and stained for me and I really loved getting to wear a colourful terry cloth bathrobe to Church, but for all my brave face, I was miserable that I didn’t get to be the Angel. It was made worse by the fact that my arch nemesis got the role instead.

You know how these kinds of pageants go. There are few lines and even fewer directions. So the directions that are given are sacrosanct.

The Angel decided to breach protocol and step out in front of Mary and Joseph. Her act of defiance was more than my little six year old jealous heart could bear and I was apoplectic.

“SHE’S NOT SUPPOSED TO GO IN FRONT OF MARY AND JOSEPH,” I proclaimed to the congregation, pointing the sinner out with my awesome staff.

The audience did not join me in my righteous indignation. In fact, they started to laugh. And so, I responded — as one does — and started to pee right there on stage. My Sunday School teacher came to carry me off… mid-stream. I remember being in her arms as she made a lighthearted joke about wishing she knew how much the staging of the Angel mattered to me… she would have given me the Role.

Truth of the matter is, I have made peace with this 41 year old story. I have loved up that wee one and given her plenty of care for the shame she felt. I have forgiven her for her temper and she has forgiven me for making light of that story for all these years.

But the idea of not having had the chance to Step into my Starring Role then? Because I didn’t bring the fullness of myself to the audition?

Well… I see it now. I see why and how deeply it matters to me. For me. And for you.

You see, we all know the truth of it:

We offer others the thing we most want for ourselves.

Love.
Care.
Permission.
Amplification.
Kindness.
Generosity.

And for me, I see in others what I wished I had seen in my six-year-old self. The Star she was.

So, I get to see the Star in you.

In fact, I don’t just see the Star… I see the Moon. I see the Universe. I see the ALL.

And I want you to see it too.
So that’s what I do.
That’s why I offer Star Tipping Intensives.
That’s why I defend the language.

The answer is almost always: bring more of you.

I want you to change the game.

How?

The answer is almost always: bring more of you.

That’s what’s on my heart.

That’s what’s on my mind.

Bring more of you.
And that thing you give so freely of yourself?
Give it to yourself…too.

The answer is almost always: bring more of you.

TWEET THIS

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 PRAISE YOU SEEK AND THE CRITICISM YOU AVOID. TWO SIDES OF THE SAME COIN?

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We’re spending a lot of time over in the Starring Role Academy looking deeply at our current and existing relationships with Praise and Criticism.

Where we are looking at what triggers our need for praise and what we do to avoid criticism at all costs.

As ever, we’re in excellent company. We’ve heard Oprah say that every single guest on her show (Gloria Steinem! Sidney Poitier!), over the years asked her how they did when the cameras stopped rolling. This is the handiwork of the Impostor Complex but also, just our basic human need to be told we've done a good job.

So yeah. This is UP for us. And so this people-pleasing piece is inextricably linked to the Impostor Complex, as one of the behavioural traits we try to hide out in to avoid feeling like an impostor (along with comparison, leaky boundaries, procrastination, perfectionism, and diminishment.)

The real problem shows up when we compromise our integrity by playing to our fans OR to our detractors. At a macro level, that means we are not doing our best work.

What we’re really doing is playing the odds: How much praise can I get and how much criticism can I avoid?

So yes. We go out of our way to seek praise and approval. Why shouldn’t we? Praise gets us going, feeds us, inspires us to keep going, and bolsters us when our energy (and stamina) wanes.

The paradox of praise, however, is that too much, or not the right kind, or an unbalanced diet of praise alone really rattles the cage of the Impostor Complex (“I’m really not THAT good… they mustn’t mean it” or “it’s just a matter of time before they find out how wrong they are about my abilities”) AND so the value (and impact) of the praise starts to diminish.

And then, of course, there’s the ACTUAL diminishment we engage in lest we commit the “sin of outshining.”

As for criticism, we do everything in our power to avoid it. Stopping short. Keeping our heads down. While it’s true, we don’t get barbed with the sting of criticism, we do miss out on the honey that is available to us when it’s well-delivered and well-intended. The best kind of criticism, delivered as conscious critique, keeps us sharp, on our game, and moving us into our starring role. But too much criticism? Yeah, of course that also shuts us down.

It’s a game of discernment.

But the thing that I’m wondering about today, and the thing that I invite you to explore is this:

When does praise NOURISH you and when does it DEFINE you? Big difference with a life-shifting impact.

And then I invite you to consider the things that you want and don’t want. Do you see any connections? Any similarities or opposites?

The thing you are afraid of being criticized for is most likely the thing you have not yet accepted about yourself.

The thing you are most wanting praise for is the thing you don’t feel like you CAN accept yet.

I think that praise and criticism are two sides of the same coin. They are often mirror images reflecting back the same deep desire from different angles.

The thing you are afraid of being criticized for is most likely the thing you have not yet accepted about yourself.

The thing you are most wanting praise for is the thing you don’t feel like you CAN accept yet.

TWEET THIS

When you feel confident, you won’t be overly swayed by praise or comparison; only when there is an underlying issue, desire, unmet value, or other sticking point will you feel swayed by what praise and criticism have to offer.

Praise about my parenting isn’t what I’m after. That feels good and solid and I give thanks.

Criticism about my parenting is not what I’m avoiding. That ALSO feels good and solid and I give thanks.

You see, I am clear and comfortable with my parenting. Did I say I’m doing it perfectly? Nope. But I have accepted what is.

The praise that I seek is in regards to the power of my work. The criticism I am fearful of receiving is that my work isn’t powerful.

See how that goes?

It tells me that there is something going on internally that it is holding me back from accepting the power of my work, and I need to start looking deeply and analytically at the places I diminish. And the places I compare. (Because those are indicators that PRESENCE needs some attention, and of course, POWER underpins Presence. Full circle… just like we love.)

Let’s take it one step deeper.

If I’m really wanting people to tell me I look great for my exercise efforts and absolutely do not want to be criticized for having gained weight, well I guess that’s an excellent time to look at my shame relationship with fatphobia.

The things we haven’t accepted about ourselves will be the places criticism feels unbearable and the places where we crave praise the most.

Continue to let praise and criticism unseat you when they get out of alignment? Or learn to face the lessons they're trying to teach you and keep their power in check?

The choice is up to you.


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.