We tend to assume that the most successful people are also the most confident ones. In reality, though, they're the ones most likely to question their own competency. The great writer and poet Maya Angelou was a perfect illustration. As she once shared, "I have written 11 books, but each time I think, 'Uh oh, they're going to find out now. I've run a game on everybody, and they're going to find me out.'"
The "monster" being described here has been called a lot of names: "the imposter syndrome," "the lizard brain," "the inner fraud." It’s that voice inside your head undermining everything you do.
You’re not good enough . . . You just got really lucky . . . There are people far better and more qualified than you . . .
This monster has been defined as “feelings of inadequacy that persist even in the face of information that indicates that the opposite is true. It is experienced internally as chronic self-doubt and feelings of intellectual fraudulence.”
There are a number of reasons why the negative voice exists:
- Maintenance of the comfort zone. Self-critical thinking steers you away from the unknown and frightening tasks ahead (even though you know growth comes from being stretched and from stepping outside your comfort zone). It’s a safety mechanism with good intentions, but unproductive effects.
- Inherited behavior. Those who grew up with highly critical parents unknowingly mirror and internalize the negative talk they received.
- A warped coping mechanism. Highly sensitive individuals and people-pleasers are able, in a warped way, to relieve their fear of criticism from others when they put that criticism on themselves.
Here are five effective ways to master the monster inside your head:
1. Name it and externalize it.
Labeling and externalizing an inner struggle allows for detachment. In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield called that detachment “Resistance.” Others have used the metaphor of the “Elephant and the Rider” to refer to the inner conflict.
Whatever creative name you apply, making the issue foreign allows you to see it objectively and out of alignment with who you desire to be. It keeps the issue “at a distance,” so to speak, as you work to separate yourself from negative responses.
2. Reframe your competition.
The "imposter" syndrome feeds off the comparison game. Regardless of what you’re involved in, you’ll always encounter someone more skilled. If you’re not careful, that measuring game will haunt and stifle everything you do.
Instead of seeing yourself as paling in comparison, take an approach of progress and possibility.
The 24 people who broke the four-minute mile within a year of Roger Bannister didn’t compare themselves and say they would never be good enough; they saw the opportunity to likewise succeed and exceed.
3. Be honest about your abilities.
Failing to reach high standards only reaffirms the voice of the imposter that says, “See, you’re not good enough.” Yet, it's not your efforts or the goal that's the problem, but the mismatch between the two.
High aspirations and standards for excellence are always encouraged, but you need the self-awareness and self-honesty of knowing your current level of skill in relation to the goal. Otherwise, you’ll keep setting yourself up for disaster and feeding the imposter syndrome.
You may have the potential to play varsity, for example, but don’t beat yourself up when you fall short as a freshman. Build momentum up to your big goals and balance them out with small, achievable wins.
4. Leverage it.
Use your self-doubt as an ally, in the same way that people suffering stage fright boost their performance once they've been taught to reframe their stress response as excitement and preparation.
Imagine that the "voices" you hear from the imposter syndrome are issuing a welcome challenge. Equate them with the tough love you may have received at some point from a coach or parent. The counter-intuitive acceptance of your inner dialogue can be an effective alternative to your tendency to constantly challenge it.
5. Own your achievements.
In our efforts to be humble, we often ignore our achievements and inadvertently feed the imposter syndrome with a pattern of discrediting behavior.
Nobody likes “tooting their own horn,” but forget about public applause for your success; rather, work on personally acknowledging your strengths and accomplishments. Receive compliments graciously instead of passing them off.
The imposter syndrome, clearly, feeds off a low self-esteem. But that’s overcome once you focus on how competent you really are. Journaling is a great way to achieve that focus. It allows you to look back at your success, and reminds you that confidence will silence the inner critic.