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Imposter Syndrome and Quieting That Nasty Voice in Your Head

[Curtain opens. Clock indicates it’s 10 past the hour. We see a Coach facing a Client, seated at a table/Zoom meeting. Gender is irrelevant. Both are very attractive but particularly the Coach.]

Client: “I just feel, you know, like I lack confidence in my own skill. Like, I don’t deserve to be in the room. There’s a name for this…it’s…?” They look at me expectantly. Surely, as a coach who works with people each day on personal and professional development, I know the name of this sinister scourge that is plaguing them. “Hmm?” I murmur, not wanting to utter the name, dare I summon it like the noseless Voldemort.

Client: “I know, it’s IMPOSTER SYNDROME!” {SYNDROME Syndrome syndrome…ECHO Echo echo…}

“Ah, yes,” I say, nodding knowingly, scanning the room for the telltale ribbon of smoke that announces this particular demon’s arrival. “Right.”

The client looks at me in a way that is both sheepish and triumphant, for while they have just divulged to me a terrible secret, they feel good knowing it’s clearly endemic enough to have its own name. And a syndrome, no less! ‘Syndrome’ conjures up images of hysterical Salem Witch Trial era villagers, writhing on a stone floor yammering in tongues. Pretty serious. At least if your malady has a name, you can be comforted in knowing many others are just as miserable as you are.

Client: “So, what do I do about this?”

Of all the themes that come up in coaching, such as fear of public speaking, career transition, or conflict mediation, Imposter Syndrome is as reliable to show up as a heavy cloud layer on July 4th in Seattle. You pretty much have to plan for it, and just be pleasantly surprised if the skies remain clear for the fireworks. In my experience, it afflicts both genders — the main difference being that men usually hesitate to bring it up and women offer up the diagnosis rather easily.

So we are all on the same page, our pal Merriam Webster defines ‘imposter’ as “One that assumes false identity or title for the purpose of deception.” Moreover, ‘Imposter Syndrome’ goes so far as to be defined as “A psychological condition (yikes!) that is characterized by persistent doubt concerning one’s abilities…accompanied by fear of being exposed as a fraud despite evidence of one’s ongoing success.”

I don’t know about you, but my go-to visual for this is in the movie the Princess Bride when Buttercup is having a nightmare that she married horrible Humperdink and is BOO’d for being a fraudulent queen for not marrying for love.

Nobody wants to be called the Queen of Garbage, especially on our wedding day.

Even those afflicted with the syndrome that shall not be named know intellectually that it does not make sense. These are intelligent, capable people who have earned their spot at the table, usually after some barbaric interview process where someone has at some point actually said to them, “YOU ARE HIRED BECAUSE WE LIKED YOU THE BEST.” Yet this evidence of worth is not proof enough. We not only feel undeserving of being at that table, but fraudulent. Like a trickster selling snake oil to unsuspecting small-town folks in a musical. Ultimately, a phony. And nobody likes a phony. Just ask Milli Vanilli.

So why do we do this? Why do we a) have a loud and obnoxious voice in our heads that tries to sabotage every cool thing we want to do by telling us we’re not good enough and b) believe it? What a great question! The realm of the ‘Why’ is under the jurisdiction of psychological and cultural anthropological minds far greater than mine, but I’ll tell you what I do know — the real imposter? Is that voice.

Now, we have to whisper this next part, because if THE VOICE hears us talking about it, it’s going to get all rowdy and defensive and try to sabotage this whole conversation, so, shhh…

The voice, with all its bluster and bile and yelling, lives in terror. It lives in terror for us, that something awful is going to happen to us. And its life’s purpose, its very existence, is to protect us. I believe that the voice that mutters poison into our heads is a vestige of primal survival mechanisms that served to keep us alive and stop us from making dumb mistakes like pretending to ride a sleeping saber tooth tiger to make our friends laugh. “NO!!!” the voice would say, “THAT’S SO DUMB, IT WILL KILL YOU!”. “GET OFF THE TIGER!” Because let’s face it — pretending to ride a sleeping saber tooth tiger would be freaking hilarious, and if we didn’t die doing it, probably would have gotten us laid. We are drawn to doing scary things because there can be big payouts. Taking risks is in our nature, so it’s good to have an opposing voice of reason on board to balance things out.

So where did this system go awry?

Fast forward 12,000 years when all the saber tooths have sadly gone the way of the Cinnamon Tic-tac’s, and now many of our threats are less toothy in nature. The classic example of this is the fear of public speaking. This fear is so ubiquitous that as the saying goes, more people would rather be in the pine box than giving the eulogy. For while we will not actually die while giving a speech on marketing trend methodologies, that voice in our heads that used to shout at us to get off the tiger now recognizes public speaking as a serious threat. True, we might do a good job of it, but if we don’t, we just outed ourselves as inferior in front of the whole tribe and will surely be cast out of the cave, will absolutely never procreate and will be left to fend off the tigers all alone. Those are high stakes. So what does the voice do to keep this from happening? It uses the best weapon it has at its disposal — it tells us we are frauds and shouldn’t be at the podium at all. It knows it can’t yell GET OFF THE TIGER because the saber tooths are gone. Now the tigers come dressed as giving toasts at weddings, or making a sales pitch, or running a meeting, or asking for a raise. The voice has evolved and adapted to a tigerless landscape and found new ways to keep us safe. And it has really excelled in its work! So much so that it got a syndrome to show how effective it is. That’s better than a Grammy (sorry, Milli Vanilli).

So how do we get it to sit its loud ass down and be quiet so we can do things? Many experts on the syndrome that shall not be named offer techniques such as creating an opposing and louder voice of positivity that drowns out the voice, waterboarding it with rainbows and mantras. While I get this in theory, in practice, what results for many is just more noise and stress. I understand the instinct to create a larger soldier to fight the voice, but what I am proposing now is instead, to end the war.

Listen to the voice and let it yell all of its concerns. Give it the microphone. Really honor and acknowledge the voice because it has been through a lot and stresses about you all night. It cares about you. It wants to protect you. Instead of shouting back at it, or kicking yourself for having it at all, thank it. Thank it for its concern and its guardianship. Thank it for its vigilance, but let it know that you have this. You earned your place where you are and what you don’t know, you’ll figure out. You’ve made it this far and everyone is making all of this stuff up anyway.

We don’t do ourselves any favors by calling it a syndrome, which usually is a kind of genetic mutation or disorder. It might just be the remnant of an ancestral survival system that is on constant hyper alert in a world full of risks that seems never ending and it can’t tell the difference between a tiger and a toast. Are there other reasons why folks may have Imposter Syndrome? Of course. Some folks have clinical anxiety disorders. Women and people of color face workplace bias and discrimination on the daily, receiving the messaging that they are in fact imposters and are taking up someone else’s space at the table. And this is happening in addition to enduring the voice that plays songs of insecurity in our heads like an earworm. If we are to conquer this thing, let’s start by removing one front line of battle, and that is the one we can control — our own terrified inner security guard.

If you treat the voice as a scared toddler instead of a malevolent sage, it gets way easier to tell it to calm down and not buy the fear it’s selling.

Client: “I’ll try that this week, but I still feel like an imposter.”

Coach: “Me too!”

Client: “What?”

[Clock strikes right on the hour. We see the attractive Coach and Client exchange their goodbyes, and the last ribbon of smoke fades into nothingness. Close curtain.]

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A skeleton made of the bones of a Coach, Writer, Hypnotherapist, and Improviser, dressed in a skin suit of comedy.

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Adina Gillett

Adina Gillett

A skeleton made of the bones of a Coach, Writer, Hypnotherapist, and Improviser, dressed in a skin suit of comedy.

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