Getting real about feeling like an imposter

Does so and so really think I can do this?”

What have I gotten myself into?

“Omg- all of these people are going to find out I have no clue what I’m doing.”

There isn’t a day that goes by where I haven’t had at least one or two of these passing thoughts. 

I’ve started and stopped writing a version or two of this post more times than I can count. There’s a lot of reasons why I am nervous opening up about my struggles feeling like an imposter but the biggest is . . .  

I feel like I’m not even qualified to talk about imposter syndrome in the first place.

Let me explain.

The term, imposter syndrome, was first coined in this 1979 study.

“The term impostor phenomenon is used to designate an internal experience of intellectual phonies, which appears to be particularly prevalent and intense among a select sample of high achieving women.”

Even though up to 70% of people have had feelings of imposter syndrome from time to time, pretty much everyone who talks about it publicly have “made it.” They are the success stories that all of the rest of us ordinary people look up to and in some cases idolize.

  • Or, much more recently, this TMBA podcast and all of the subsequent comments of Internet entrepreneurs talking about their struggles with imposter syndrome. Pretty much everyone in the podcast and in the comments is running six and seven figure businesses.

I look up to everyone who shares their story and struggles, because it takes a ton of guts to talk openly about this.

As I read these blog posts and listen to podcasts like the ones above, it also makes me feel like an imposter for thinking I’m an imposter. Like I have imposter syndrome for even thinking I could suffer from “imposter syndrome.”

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Most people don’t openly talk about their fears and struggles at all or when they do it is only after they have found success. I’m the first person to tell you,  “I haven’t made it.” While I live fairly comfortably, I have never even made six figures in a year. Let alone in one month like some of these people above.

The reason why I’m going to open up about this topic is because I have a spidey sense that a lot of people struggle with this silently – and not just me – and I want to share how I cope with it.

Here’s the thing. In our social media obsessed world, it is so easy to show only the good stuff and the “highlight reel.” You only end up seeing that so and so has made it. 

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You never end up seeing the struggles, the sacrifices and demons that the “success story” had to deal with to become successful.

Even the posts where people openly talk about their imposter syndrome or failures tend to be “glorified failures” or only talked about after they have had some success. It’s what Brene Brown refers to as “gold-plated grit,” in her book, “Rising Strong.”

“I worry that this lack of honest accounts of overcoming adversity has created a Gilded Age of Failure. The past couple of years have given rise to failure conferences, failure festivals, and even failure awards. Don’t get me wrong. I love and continue to champion the idea of understanding and accepting failure as part of any worthwhile endeavor. But embracing failure without acknowledging the real hurt and fear that it can cause, or the complex journey that underlies rising strong, is gold-plating grit.”

One of these failure conferences is Fail Fest. While this is a great start, I think this conference and others don’t take it far enough. It favors the inspirational comeback stories. It doesn’t fully address the sacrifices made or how much failure sucks in the moment (and how to get over that enormous hurdle).

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This came up again while I was chatting with a few community managers at that Community Leadership Summit – an epic unconference that Jono Bacon organizes – a couple of weeks ago. We got to talking about our own struggles with imposter syndrome and how each of us manage it.

For the past couple of months, I’ve been working on a project – helping to plan a fairly large event for the community I manage for work. I’ve helped plan a few events in the past and they’ve gone over pretty well. Still, I was a little apprehensive as this is my first time taking a bigger role of planning and executing it.

While I work to actively seek out challenging projects, it is been awhile where I’ve encountered a project where I keep hitting one roadblock after another. 

When I hit a bunch setbacks on a big project I’m working on back to back, self-doubt starts to settle in.  It starts innocently enough and escalates to “Where I am thinking to myself 2-3 times a day (if not more) some variation of – “Omg- all of these people are going to find out I have no clue what I’m doing.”  

I get tunnel vision into every little thing I’m struggling with and only can remember the negative thoughts or things I’ve screwed up. I forget any of the good things or successes I may have accomplished.

I’ve struggled with these feelings many, many times before. I used to think the more experience I get and the more challenges I learn to work through, the less likely I’ll experience these imposter feelings in the future.

It is proving to be the exact opposite.

The more experience I get, the more I feel like a fraud.  And, the harder it is for me to snap out of it.

I’m the first one to chalk up the minuscule amount of success I’ve had in my career to luck, even though I know luck is only a tiny part of it.

I’m paraphrasing this quote from Darren Hardy’s book  – The Compound Effect. We create our own luck through taking action on any good breaks that come our way.

It is often times when I’m working on a challenging problem or project – like the one above- is when all of my insecurities and anxieties come back at once even ones that are not related to the project at all.

There’s a few times last week where I was really struggling with a task that I have done hundreds of times before and started with these self-destructive thoughts like . . .

“Am I even a good community manager?”

“Is it possible I somehow lucked into all of good results I’ve gotten in the past?”

“Maybe, I have absolutely no talent and now the entire world is going to find out?

Because I was on a roll and hadn’t shattered my confidence enough, I start to analyze my personality and spot all of the characteristics that I think a “great community manager” should have that I lack. Notice – I didn’t mention any of the positive traits that I think I have, I go straight for the negatives including that community managers should be extroverted, charismatic, self-assured and a total social butterfly. I openly admit I’m none of those things.

I’m introverted. Always have been. (For those into Myers Briggs, I’m an INFJ.)

I’ve historically (and still am) pretty terrible at making first impressions at “networking events.” I think I’ve given off every bad first impression you can have from being too quiet and meek to coming across as arrogant, intimidating or standoffish. I know I’m not any of those things, but when you are insecure or trying to hide your weaknesses, it is really, really easy to overcompensate and come across as the polar opposite of who you actually are. For example, I tend to be insecure and shy when I first meet someone. I used to take the advice – “fake it to you make it” far too literally to the point where I was coming across as arrogant and standoffish. I stopped doing that, thinking I’d rather come across as a little too quiet and you know stupid than an arrogant know-it-all.

Now, I’ve done a lot of work (and am still working on) ways to actively work on all of these things. But, I realize I’m never going to be super charismatic and the life of the party.  It is just not in my DNA. When I try to play that part, I’m left feeling like even more of a fraud and completely drained of energy. Like I need at least a full day and sometimes more to recover and get centered.

I’m sure you are thinking. Why are you openly admitting all of your flaws and neuroses?

I realize these flaws are the exact same things that actually help me to get better and strangely enough help me to cope.

I love this quote from the Jason Cohen post I referenced earlier.

“If I don’t feel like a fraud at least once a day then I’m not reaching far enough.”

The times where I feel most like a fraud are the very same times where I’m pushing myself the hardest. I’m stretching myself right to the edge of my comfort zone.

When you peel back all of the layers around imposter syndrome, it really boils down to a lack of confidence.

The great thing for people like myself who struggle with self-confidence is that confidence can be earned by sheer hard work and execution.

When your self-doubt is at the highest and desire to want to hide from the world or freak out is the strongest, that’s the exact moment when you need to just find anyway to immerse yourself in the work. Even if you can only muster the courage to work on the smallest task at first.

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By starting to execute one task at a time, it creates a domino effect.  That momentum will build up your confidence and in time will lower the volume on that inner voice full of self-doubt.

By constantly focusing on executing and getting better at your craft, it also keeps you humble and grounded in your abilities. That’s a great thing.

No matter how hard I try, I don’t think the imposter thoughts will ever fully go away. But by keeping my head down and focusing on my craft and executing all the things, the volume will be more manageable. Not to mention, it makes the work more fun.

Speaking of which, I really should get back to executing on this project. But first, I’m going to panic, freak out and hide under the covers briefly as I reflect on publishing a post sharing a bunch of my flaws for everyone to read and judge.

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