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The Imposter Syndrome: Ending My Agonizing Epic Struggles

Have you ever felt as though you didn’t belong? That you don’t really deserve the position you hold? That your success is more attributable to luck and timing rather than skill and competence?

You just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Anyone could have done what you did. There’s nothing special about you….or is there? If you can relate to any of this, does it help to know that, that you are not alone? Millions of others share these feelings and experiences on a daily basis. According to some studies, as many as 70% have felt like a fraud at one time or another.

Unless you’re a con artist, my guess is, you don’t like feeling like a fraud any more than I do.

The psychologists labeled this the impostor syndrome. Perhaps you’re familiar with it. It’s a term coined in the 1970s to describe people unable to internalize their accomplishments. The Caltech Counseling Center provides defines it as. “A collection of 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.” Much has been written about the impostor syndrome. While few people are immune to it, I’m one who is fed up with it. What follows is my contribution based on personal experiences.

A Two-Headed Monster

There are two sides to the impostor syndrome. On one side are the outsiders. These are those people, who for a variety of reasons, question whether or not you belong in the position you are in or whether or not you legitimately deserve the success you have. There are myriads of motivations that move those outsiders. Among them are jealousy, envy, and insecurity.

  • Maybe they wish they had the success you’ve had.
  • Perhaps, they feel entitled to the position that was granted you instead of them.
  • Worse yet, maybe they live in a perpetual state of comparison and something about you and your success, causes them to question themselves and their apparent lack of success.

And then, in a class all by themselves, are the haters. These are the people who found some reason to not like you and apart from a change of heart, they never will. Don’t give them the time of day. Here’s the harsh reality, there is very little you can do to silence or sway the voices of the outside critics. Besides that, there is a minimal return on investment for the time and energy you spend there.

The outside critics’ voice rings loudest when it amplifies or echoes the voice of our inner critic.

That’s right.

What really fuels the impostor syndrome are the voices we hear inside ourselves. Sometimes that voice seems innocuous and masquerades as a ‘friend’ who simply asks the question, “But what if they’re right? What if you don’t belong? What if they find out you’re a pretender and a fraud?” Then, they are the dark and ominous times that voice yells like a prosecuting attorney, “You’re a fraud, you don’t belong and you damn well know it! You are going to be exposed, evicted, and publicly humiliated.”

Our response? Fear. Doubt. Insecurity. Followed by more fear. Doubling doubts. Crippling insecurities.

OUCH! Those words sting. They hurt. But where do they come from? Is there any truth to them?

Tracing the Roots

Here’s what I’ve discovered. At some point along the way, there was an encounter, maybe multiple encounters that, at least from our vantage point, attacked some aspect of our identity or caused us to question it seriously. Maybe it’s the voice of some authority figure that echoes in your ears or maybe it’s a high-definition video that vividly captures every detail of that encounter. Whichever it is, it seems to be continuously on-demand or playing on a perpetual loop in your mind. And it always stands ready to validate the accusation that:

YES, YOU are an impostor.
NO, you don’t belong.
And of course, you didn’t earn it and you certainly don’t deserve it.

May I invite you in and we share some sacred space? May I candidly disclose my battle with the impostor syndrome in hopes that it helps both you and me find freedom and release from its vicious grip?

Right now, I’m hearing voices. This is risky. This is crazy. It might even be insane.

Being this vulnerable will only give the outsiders more ammunition to question your credibility. Trust me, they have more than enough ammunition already. This isn’t going to give them more. It’s going to disarm what they already have. Oh, and the same is true for you and your critics. It’s those inside voices I want to silence. And maybe those are the voices you need to silence too.

There were three episodes that together provided ample evidence of me being an impostor. I’ll share them in chronological order.

As I entered the eighth grade, I was placed in the ‘gifted program’ at school. (Please don’t judge me and think I am bragging. You will soon see, this was anything but a gift to me.). The public school in my little town chose to conduct an experiment that year. For those of us in the gifted track, we were smart enough to skip Pre-Algebra and go straight to Algebra.

Or so they thought.

Maybe some of ‘us’ were. I happened to be one of those that wasn’t. The faculty and administration were kind to us and chose to label our epic fail as Pre-Algebra, give us a passing grade, and let us repeat Algebra in hopes of us better understanding it the second time through. Subconsciously, this encounter seriously called into question, whether or not I was really gifted. Hmm, did they (whoever they were) make a mistake in labeling me gifted? The seeds of doubt were sown.

At the time, this all seemed relatively harmless. No big deal. They let me and the others continue in the gifted program, so it must have been an honest mistake. A few years passed. I had pretty much forgotten the Algebra episode and most of what I supposedly learned about Algebra along with it.

Then came biology.

Owning It

We were studying photosynthesis and cellular respiration. Then there was a test. It wasn’t just any test. Since that day, I’ve regarded is at the test. More accurately, the test of all tests, that I bombed.

It was an epic failure. Not for everyone in the class, but there were a few of us that failed miserably. Or at least enough of us failed that it merited the rant of all rants from the teacher. Before the whole class. I still remember the little man pacing through the whole classroom. He was so mad that he was literally spitting. In his hand, the stack of tests. He kept feverishly slapping the tests against his other hand. He couldn’t believe some of us could so completely confuse photosynthesis with respiration. At the height of his tirade he shouted,

If you’re gifted, then I thank God, I’m a jackass.

A few moments later, he passed out the papers. Y

ep, you guessed it. Mine was on the top of the stack. The one he kept pointing to. The one that seemed to be the target of his tirade. It was the lowest grade in the class and obviously, belonged to the student least deserving of the label ‘gifted’. That stung! Bad.

For me, this is one of those events captured in high-definition in my mind. Every detail. The veins about to explode on the side of his head. The spit spraying across the room. The anger. The rage. It’s all there. I was a fraud. I didn’t belong. Or at least, that’s the narrative that has always been available and played on demand. It plays every time someone pushes my impostor syndrome button.

Anytime, in any arena, where someone asks a question that poses a threat to my credibility. It’s easily, and usually, instantly translated to some version of, “Does he really belong here?” “How did he get through our screening process?” And naturally, the first voice I hear is, “If you’re gifted, I thank God I’m a jackass.”

Not anymore! 

Calling it Quits

By going public with my battle, I’m declaring it over. I am depriving it of its ability to paralyze or hinder me any longer. The one thing I have realized that is absolutely essential to me living free of the impostor syndrome is my accepting who I am and being my authentic self. I cannot be an impostor when I am authentically being me.

It’s impossible to be an impostor when you are being your authentic self.

We can only be impostors when we seek to masquerade as someone other than who we are. Now, you may, or may not like my authentic self and my actions. That’s your prerogative. You may think me a jerk, a phony, or something else. That’s okay. That’s your opinion. Remember, we can neither silence nor control the opinions and voices of the external critics. But we have complete authority to tell the internal critic to sit down and shut up. I am gifted. So are you.

Gifted is not a label bestowed on us. It is how we arrived at the moment we were born.

It may take some time to uncover your gift and discover your superpower. Trust me, you’re gifted. Don’t ever allow someone to make you doubt that you are. Oh yeah, about that third encounter I mentioned. That happened in college with the English professor affectionately known as Bloody Mary for her generosity with caustic comments in red ink. I don’t relive this encounter every single time I sit down to write something. But it has provided ample evidence that has kept the impostor syndrome alive and well when I have aspired to think of myself as a writer.

The episode involved a term paper. It happened a few years before the advent of the word processor. Back in the day of the manual typewriter. I had spent hours on that paper. I’m not sure how many sheets lay waded on the floor before the final version was complete. However, this I do remember — vividly. On the day, the papers were returned to us, mine had a big fat red F on it. About halfway down the first page she drew a line through the paper and wrote,

Run-on sentence, I stopped reading here.

For years, I would see that red line and remember those words almost every time I sat down to write. “Who are you kidding? They won’t even make it through the first page.” Another battle with the impostor syndrome.

I want to thank Jeff Goins for encouraging me to say “I am a writer” and own my identity as a writer. Now, I skip submitting any of my writings to Bloody Mary for review. She is no longer in my audience. Her opinion no longer carries any weight.

Your Turn Now

What are you to make of this?

Besides being a therapeutic exercise for me, I hope this helps you and others like us. I hope it helps you isolate the voices and the videos that run on autoplay in your mind that cause you to question whether or not you belong. Once you isolate them, I hope you can deconstruct and disempower them. I also hope it encourages you to find your authentic self and live authentically. That’s where we’ll resume in the next post. If you’ve read this far, you have been most generous with your time and I hope the ROI is worth it for you.

If this has connected with you in any way, would you take a moment and leave a comment. I’d love to know your strategies for overcoming the impostor syndrome.

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Kevin Monroe
Kevin Monroehttps://kevindmonroe.com/
Kevin Monroe helps people flourish on the road less traveled in business, leadership, and life so they make their dent in the universe. Since he was a teenager, he has usually chosen roads less traveled which usually involve going against the grain and seeking to go with the flow. All in hopes of making the world a better place and inspiring others to do the same. His unique contribution to the world is creating environments, hosting encounters, and crafting experiences where people are inspired, equipped, and encouraged to live, love, and lead in extraordinary ways. He hosts a variety of events and experiences designed to do just that including; the Higher Purpose Podcast, The Gratitude Challenge, This ExtraOrdinary Life, and most recently, The League of Extraordinary Difference Makers. Kevin holds a Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership from Gonzaga University and an undergraduate degree in theology from Mercer University. He lives in Woodstock, GA with his lovely wife, Gwen. They are the parents of two adult children and one precocious granddaughter, Emma.

11 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting article Kevin. I think many of us have felt out of place at some point or another, but to have perpetual feelings of imposter syndrome… that’s shocking. I wonder how much if this is a deep rooted lack of confidence, the feeling that you will never be good enough or smart enough, not deserving enough. This would be a dreadful experience in any career, marriage or relationship. Fascinating, but hopefully this is something that can be helped or improved with therapy or counseling…

  2. Oh my gosh, Kevin…. this is brilliant. We’ve had this conversation, but the way you tell the story here is gold. I know that you just made readers everywhere say, “Hey… that’s me, too!!”

    Welcome to BizCat! You’re going to love it here and the people here are going to love you!

  3. Kevin, welcome to the Biz Catalyst 360 family! I loved reading your opening act. Your insights and reflection on your battle with imposter syndrome are inspiring. Thank you for peeling back the layers and sharing this with us here. I’ve played my fair share of tug of war with this syndrome for many years. Like you, some of it stems back to my youth, but much of it, I can pinpoint to a toxic work environment that regularly fed imposter beast. Fortunately, I’ve made progress and worked through a lot of autoplay in my head.

    You are right, however. There comes a time when we must silence the autoplay and listen to our authentic selves. Be and own the person we see in the mirror. The haters will always hate – or so I’ve come to find. So it is best to concentrate on the parts and pieces that make us whole. That’s where the honesty resides and where we discover our best self. You are a writer, and this piece is evidence of it.

    I look forward to reading more of your work.

  4. Kevin, welcome to BIZ360. Great article! The imposter syndrome is a challenge for a lot of people. Overcoming the inner critic can take time and the outer critics don’t help! I have been fortunate not to be afftected by this syndrome, but I am always aware of my personal thoughts about my skills, capabilities and who I am. There have been plenty of disempowering experiences in my life, but I am a warrior of the spirit and push hard through the obstacles to rise above. Glad to see you tapping into your writing, wishing you much success! Cheers! Eileen

  5. Kevin, this is exactly the kind of story that when you uncover it as the beginning of a damaging, long-term internal message, gives you great power to shift it. I’m so glad you know when those pivotal moments happened, and that you can recall them with such detail! Now it’s time to consider the context… What in the world would cause that biology teacher to lose his shit like that? After all, when someone freaks out like that, you know it’s not EVER about the person or people in front of him. I promise you that his rant was all about HIS OWN SENSE OF FAILURE. Any reasonably good teacher knows that when a large portion of your students fail a test, it has little to do with the students.

    Though I am periodically troubled with those damaging internal messages, I have said goodbye to them as much as that’s possible, and a big part of that is looking at the evidence of recent success. If I did that well, what makes me think the next time will be different? Thoughts on that?

    • Thanks for pointing that out about the teacher, Sarah. I can’t say that I’ve invested much time in wondering what was going on in his mind/world at that time.

      These voices still show up and speak up — I don’t give them much time or space anymore.

      Looking forward to catching up with you in conversation soon.

  6. Kevin, welcome to the BC360 tribe. Your article compels me to share two things with you. This, first, from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

    To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius … A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within … Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty … Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.”

    The second is this, in which I wonder how and why we lose the simple certainty of early childhood: https://medium.com/@mark_9893/take-the-first-step-cf9352273945

    Anything that can be undone can be re-done. And so it is with our self-faith.

    Thank you for reminding us with your wonderful story.

  7. Kevin – Welcome to the BC360 family of authors where intelligent engagement and civil discourses are highlights and new friendships are created every day. Your first article is right on. I spent 20 years in the Marine Corps. I cannot tell you the number of times people questioned whether I deserved the promotions and special recognition that came my way. But I had mentors who reminded me every day that I could achieve so much if I just believed in my talents and used them to grow as a person and help improve the organization to which I was assigned. That helped me tune out the negative and focus on the positive. Great way to start your journey in this wonderful forum.

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