There's a discussion going on in a coaching networking group I belong to about how to help clients who are struggling with imposter syndrome.
As someone who is intimately familiar with the feeling that I'm just fooling people, and the minute I let down my guard everyone will see that I'm a total fraud, I had some thoughts on the matter.
The first one being, of course, “Who am I to offer anything of value on this topic?”
And the second one being, “Good use of irony, Howie's Mind.”
And then I started to share.
Unhooking from Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome is one particular manifestation of an interior voice that, in its attempts to avoid unwanted experiences (when we believe we're an imposter, we tend to play it safe and not “go for it”), actually causes them in the long run.
When my clients get hooked by self-limiting or self-sabotaging thoughts, my goal is to help them unhook and gain distance – rather than debate, dispute, or dismiss those thoughts. Simply naming, “Oh, there's my ‘I'm a imposter' story again,” typically gives them the space to de-fuse from it and choose actions based on their values and goals.
That's what I did when I spoke directly to my mind, and tongue-in-cheek applauded its use of irony. I was unhooking my observing self from the part of my mind that was generating the unhelpful thought.
And how did I know it was an unhelpful thought? Because had I acted as if it were true, I wouldn't have shared my knowledge and experience with the group.
I value being generous and helpful, and not sharing would have transgressed those values.
I also have a goal of being a visible and credible member of this group, and not sharing would have undermined this goal.
Other techniques can include word repetition – having them repeat the word “imposter” or “faker” or whatever their mind is telling them 30x in 30 seconds – this often leads to semantic satiation whereby the negative voice loses its power.
One of my clients wrote down her most damaging self-talk on a piece of paper and carries it around with her. When she feels hooked by that thought, she'll take the piece of paper out of her bag and literally hold it up to her face until she can't see anything else. Then she'll move it down and hold it to her body. The words are still there. But she can focus on other things, like what she wants to do and how she wants to be.
When we first did the exercise, she wanted to burn the piece of paper as soon as she wrote on it. I told her that she absolutely could, any time she wanted – and unfortunately, there's no known method short of traumatic brain injury or dementia that enables us to delete thoughts.
So burning it would be a less relevant and useful metaphor than simply choosing to allow the thoughts to exist, and practicing mindful noticing and allowing of those thoughts – while focusing on a pattern of committed action in alignment with her goals and values.
Now she enjoys having the piece of paper and knowing that she can still be the person she wants to be without having to overcome, banish, or delete those thoughts.
Why Positive Thinking Rarely Works
This approach differs from the one most of us have been taught, that we need to convince them that they aren’t an imposter.
While it’s tempting to refute their thinking (“Look how successful you are!”) or to encourage them to dispute the “irrational” thoughts, that rarely works for long. Rather, arguing against felt beliefs only makes them stronger, just as arguing against someone else tends to reinforce their beliefs as they scan their brains for more ammunition in the argument.
That’s why we want to help clients see that all their thoughts are just thoughts, not objective reality. The question then shifts from “Is it true?” to “Does this thought help or hinder me as I seek to achieve goals and live according to my values?”
If the answer to the second question is no, then we can work with them to identify with the observer of the thought rather than the thinker. From that place, they can practice tolerating the thought “I’m a fraud” without letting it determine their behavior.
The key is to help them understand how confidence gets built when we face an unknown challenge. You don’t achieve confidence first. You operate without confidence until you prove to yourself that you have developed the skills and experience necessary to succeed.
Imposter syndrome is simply a lack of confidence wrapped around a persistent story about identity. The way forward is to identify actions that a confident person would take to accomplish the task at hand, and then move forward with committed action while tolerating the doubts and self-judgments.
So one great question to help clients get unstuck is, “If you had unlimited confidence, what would you do?” That opens their mind to strategic and tactical thinking, and allows you to work with them to formulate a clear action plan.
How to Use Imposter Syndrome to Reconnect to Motivation
Tolerating the inner experience that arises when you hear your imposter syndrome story is a first step, but you can actually leverage the story to get back in touch with what matters to you.
This is important because the decisions you make are all, essentially, cost-opportunity calculations. Feeling like a fraud, or being scared of failing, are costs. In order to take actions that move you toward your goals and values, you have to believe that the future opportunities that will come from those actions are worth the immediate negative costs.
That's a hard equation to make work, because human brains are so biased toward the present over the future. Even a great future reward – fit, healthy, attractive body – can pale in comparison with the present cost of getting your ass out of bed on a cold morning to go work out.
One solution is to hack the equation. When an action gives you immediate gratification, it's likely you'll repeat that action in a similar situation. That's why it's so much easier to develop a Snickers Bar or beer or porn habit than, say, a study habit.
So how can you use Imposter Syndrome to create a reward for the ideal behavior in this moment?
By tying Imposter Syndrome to your cherished values.
Remember, Imposter Syndrome is fear wrapped around an identity that matters to you. You probably don't experience Imposter Syndrome when you misplace your keys, unless you aspire to win the Memory Olympics. Then that glitch might seem catastrophic.
Which is all to say, you only have Imposter Syndrome when you're pursuing a meaningful ambition or achievement. You can feel crushed and paralyzed by your assessment of yourself as a fraud because NOT being a fraud is so damn important to you.
So once you've found distance from the voice of Imposter Syndrome, your next step is to query it.
“What about this identity matters to me? What has to be true about my values for me to even care about whether I'm good at this or not?”
The answers to those questions instantly rub your nose in your values. The person you aspire to be. The positive impact you aspire to have.
And acting in alignment with your values is pleasurable. Ask a Crossfit participant sweating through a tough workout – they've learned to love the discomfort, because they interpret it as evidence for increased physical and psychological strength.
When you're clear in the moment about what you want to achieve and who you want to become and how you want to show up in the world, there's pleasure in the actions that get you there. And pleasure in overcoming the discomfort that attempts to stop you.
For more on ACT in general, here's an interview I conducted with ACT's founder, Steven C. Hayes:
Another great resource specifically about building confidence and overcoming imposter syndrome is Russ Harris's 2011 book, The Confidence Gap: A Guide to Overcoming Fear and Self-Doubt.