13 Aug My Journey With The Anxiety Of The Imposter Syndrome
I recently put out a poll in my Facebook Group (which you should join) about what interesting topics I should focus on in the coming weeks and months. Issues around the Imposter Syndrome was the top voted topic and seemingly something a lot of us are dealing with. Since I’ve conducted that poll, many people I’ve talked to casually about it mentioned having some experiences with this phenomena. I’ve decided to outline my own experience with this feeling and what I have learned about overcoming it.
When I joined Students For Liberty (SFL) in 2016, I was excited to be joining the organisation. I was attending a retreat of the top 100 leaders of Europe for the first time. Little did they know, I was incredibly nervous and suffering from massive amounts of imposter syndrome.
At the train station, after landing in Cologne, Germany, I met with one of the established leaders on the platform. He quickly put me at ease as to what was going to be involved in the forthcoming retreat. We were all headed for Gummersbach, a quaint town in North Rhine-Westphalia, also known as ‘Magic Mountain’.
The train pulled up to the platform and we embarked on our journey. A short way into the trip, more SFL colleagues came onto the train from other destinations. I began to get a feeling of both excitement and unease inside. It was great to meet and be a part of such an amazing group of leaders from around the continent. Something about me felt out of place. The imposter’s voice was whispering, ‘You’re a fraud Rob, you are totally going to be found out here’.
I was feeling like an imposter. Not only was I probably the oldest ‘student’ there (I was 36 and had completed my studies 18 months earlier), the deep knowledge that some of the other leaders were discussing on some of the topics of conversation was making my head spin and I got a sense of feeling totally out of my depth. As we got closer to the destination, I was starting to feel incredibly nervous and overwhelmed about meeting the other student leaders. Would my imposter feelings grow or subside upon meeting them? The imposter’s voice whispered, ‘These people are going to put you to shame and you will disgrace the region’.
Entering The Venue
Upon getting to the Theodor-Heuss-Akademie in Gummersbach, I was being introduced to everyone as the new Regional Director of Ireland & United Kingdom, taking over from my good friend and someone I admire greatly, Kevin Flanagan. I felt great pressure within to perform in the new role, to the best of my ability. Knowing what my role was or what was expected of me was still unclear to me at that time. Having met many leaders within the organisation 4 years prior at a regional conference in Munich, I was looking forward to seeing them again. This time, being an actual part of the organisation that I had a lot of time and admiration for. The imposter’s voice whispered ‘Kevin is a much better leader than you, you are in over your head’.
My sense was that I was with people who I shared a lot in common with. After all, they were liberty activists and I had been involved in liberty activism since I began learning about it in 2008. These were my tribesmen and women from around Europe, engaged in very similar activities on their own student campuses. The imposter’s voice whispered, ’You are going to embarrass yourself here, just keep quiet.’
One of the areas where I found an aspect of imposter syndrome and feared being viewed as a fraud was regards having never attended a physical university for my Undergraduate Degree. I’d been working full time whilst studying, through correspondence, with The Open University to attain my Honours Degree in Social Sciences with Psychology which I completed in 2013.
Hearing some of their stories of the activities on University Campuses made me feel an element of envy but also as if I was missing some vital information which might be important for me to perform well in my new role as Regional Director. The imposter’s voice whispered louder, ‘You have no experience, you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’ll never be respected, you have no authority here.’
How Does It Work?
Some of the deep economic knowledge that was coming from many of these young people was incredible to me. One incredibly erudite, well-informed lad, Rok Novak, was discussing some complex EU policy directives which made me feel like I literally knew nothing at all. This is one of the features of imposter syndrome. We have a tendency to elevate what others know and downplay and minimise what we know. The definition used by psychologist Audrey Ervin is of anyone, ‘who isn’t able to internalize and own their successes’.
In 2016, I was just beginning my journey as a coach. I’d taken this role in SFL because I knew it would challenge me and I wanted to be challenged. I was attempting to uphold all these new identities as I began to grow into the person I had pictured myself becoming, in reality, I felt a bit like I was Bambi on ice. Somewhere in my mind, I was setting unattainable goals because I was aware that I had a massive drive to make a big impact. I wanted to make the region relevant again after having only a handful of active leaders for many years.
The imposter phenomenon is very common in all sectors. A friend recently told me that in her field of work they discuss it openly because it is a new field (motion design) and nearly everyone entering feels the same thing, feeling like they are an imposter or a fraud. Many perfectionists and experts have high standards and if they do not get everything right or have all the relevant information about a topic, they can be struck by an imposters sense.
Where Does Imposter Syndrome Come From?
The field of psychology has many answers as for where it originates or what it is due to. It’s incredibly common and many people in a variety of careers and contexts experience it. Those with the environmental explanation theorises that various environments tend to elicit feelings such as alienation or being exposed to discrimination can bring about the imposter phenomenon. Some believe that personality traits like neuroticism and anxiety can raise the tendency for experiencing like an imposter in some contexts. Some psychoanalytic explanations say that previous relationships may have an impact. For instance, if a person is raised to believe they had to achieve good grades in school to be loved and accepted, this has lasting effects on the person’s ability to see themselves as loveable or deserving of attention.
What Can We Do To Overcome The Imposter Syndrome?
Whatever its origins, the way to overcome it is the same! It requires becoming self-aware of the thoughts that exist in our minds and challenging them where and whenever they arise. Asking ourselves reframing questions such as, ‘does this belief actually serve me?’ is a great way to allow us the space in our minds to reframe our experience. Key to this is to listen to the narratives and stories that your mind is whispering to you about some of the situations you find yourself in.
Perhaps you have learned to speak to yourself in ways which create a sense of alienation. Perhaps you have been downplaying your own abilities and knowledge? It might sound trite to some, but practising gratitude towards yourself and your gifts, skills and knowledge can help you reframe any sense where you perceive lack or inability within yourself. Simply repeating daily what you are grateful for about yourself and your characteristics, skills and values can help you grow your sense of ownership and acceptance for who you are. Creating such a routine can help prevent any comparisons your brain conjures up within new contexts and situations.
How I Overcame The Imposter Syndrome?
To finish off my own story, the sense of imposter didn’t last long for me within SFL. The imposter’s whispers went away after I immersed myself in the situation and embraced my own value. I became a popular, successful leader within the organisation and spent 4 incredible years helping amazing liberty advocates learn leadership. It was a pleasure to provide training and opportunities for them to learn their own style of leadership. I clarified my goals for my role and got to work on achieving them which helped immensely. I managed to make our region one of the largest represented groups within the European network and last year, 2019, the region Ireland & UK region won ‘team of the year’ which made me feel incredibly proud to be a part of.
Many of my colleagues have also reported the same sense of imposters feelings upon meeting other members for the first time. The negative effect of dwelling too long on this feeling is that we can allow it to overcome us. Your team and colleagues certainly don’t want this feeling to linger within you. I recommend leaning into vulnerability and naming it as soon as you can and that in itself might be enough to help you overcome it.
The exciting news is, that the origin of this phenomena comes from our own brains in the form of beliefs. This also means that the solution can, therefore, be created in the very same brain too. Change your mind and don’t get deterred from achieving goals in your activism, career, relationships or anywhere opportunities arise!
On a recent webinar on this topic, the great Owen Fitzpatrick shared a quote that hit home for me and I hope it hits home for you. ‘We limit ourselves because of what we believe to be true about ourselves COMPARED to what we believe to be true about others. When you change what you believe to be true about yourself, you become free and unstoppable’.
I have created a FREE challenge which goes some way to remedy this issue in the form of a Free 5 Day Challenge to help you catapult your journey towards mapping a better vision for what mastery in your emotional, professional and personal life might look like and I encourage you to check it out and start changing your story today.