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How Imposter Syndrome Leads Us Home to Become Our Most Resilient Selves.
As a resilience expert who specializes in helping people develop personal resilience, I engage in my own practice of self-acceptance and humanity every day.
Last Saturday, I sat down to watch a video of a presentation I gave three years ago. As I hit the play button, the pit in my stomach grew more intense, my breath shortened, and my chest tightened. I was finally ready to face my biggest fear—that I failed horribly that day.
This particular presentation represented the height of my leadership in my career at that point. I’d been asked by the prestigious Organization of American States (OAS) to present my unique perspective on building resilience in the Americas. I felt out of my league, the only non-PhD, and the only one not linked to a big organization.
And not only was I younger than everyone else, I was the only woman, and this was the highest-level audience I’d ever presented to.
Initially, I felt good about how I’d done. But, at some point in the days that followed, a flurry of thoughts and emotions started emerging:
I spoke too quickly.
Did anything I said make sense?
Had I appeared completely out of my depth?
I decided I wouldn’t watch the video, so I tucked it away in my “do not watch” box where it sat for three years.
Flash-forward three years. As I considered watching the video, my mind started shuffling through my memories of the event. I noticed the palpable power these feelings had over me, so I decided to follow the feeling, searching for the video online. In just three minutes, I’d found it.
And then, fear stopped me in my tracks.
It took me two days to open the minimized tab. I made the conscious decision to lean into the discomfort, that swelling belly of shame and doubt, and push play.
As I appeared on the screen, my stomach dropped: there I am. I look nervous.
I keep clearing my throat.
The sound is awful–was that on my end?
I’m taking too long to get my slides started. Did I forget how to start a slideshow?
We are 20 seconds in. What else did I expect? Just the all-too familiar out-of-body witnessing of myself failing and others watching me fail.
A flood of emotions welled up. I began fidgeting with my hands, my breath became shallow, and I was shifting around in my chair. Yet, I continued to watch despite having angsty sensations of distress.
Why? Because I’ve learned that if I sit with the discomfort long enough, it transforms.
I took a slow, deep breath and got curious. I reminded myself that I wasn’t giving the presentation now. It was already over with. Either way, I’d be okay; I am okay. My nerves began to settle as I listened.
And then I was pleasantly surprised. I’m watching this intelligent, knowledgeable woman share her work on Whole Systems Resilience to 35 ambassadors who themselves are seeking to build resilience in the Americas. I’m nailing it: a calm voice, clear and deliberate speech, hitting all the points. I had absolute authority over the topic and presented unconventional methodology in an inviting yet strong and convincing way.
After my presentation was over, I hit pause, literally and figuratively. Tears flowed down my face. But not of embarrassment. Of pride. I saw myself standing in my power. A swell of relief came over my body. My breathing returned to normal. I stood up and moved around. I felt whole. I felt free.
Why the turmoil?
I had imposter syndrome when I gave that presentation. And because I hadn’t made the conscious decision to face myself three years ago, to face the truth—it came back up in full force.
It’s important to note that not a single person told me I wasn’t good enough.
They had, in fact, invited me.
I was bringing my skewed perception all on my own.
My inner imposter was created by the part of me that believes I’m not good enough, something I internalized long ago that was reinforced along the way by society and others who couldn’t stand to see me shine. The messaging I received didn’t necessarily come from a place of malice, but, ultimately, for our brains, the impact is still there.
Does this sound familiar? The earlier and more frequently we get the message that we’re failures, the more ingrained it becomes in our mind.
My time studying human behavior and resilience, alongside my lifelong personal growth and development journey, doesn’t exempt me from feeling this from time to time. Rather, it empowers me to move through difficult feelings and obstacles when they arise.
What specifically is imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome is a misalignment of the part of us that wants to do a good job and the part of us that believes that’s not possible. It’s a psychological state of mind where we feel inadequacy despite evidence of success. Whether it’s a fleeting moment or a persistent feeling, everybody has felt this at some point.
Ultimately, imposter syndrome is a sort of false indicator from our nervous systems telling us we’re wrong in some way. It’s a cross-wiring in our brain that creates overactive parts of us that dictate our behavior for as long as we let them. It’s an internal misalignment developed from a young age as our brains form grooves of known experiences and subsequent thought patterns and behaviors.
What does imposter syndrome look like when it arises?
Imposter syndrome usually shows up when anticipating an event (the start of a new job, performance, first date, or something else important).
Personally, when the imposter starts to emerge, I feel that not only do I not belong, I’m convinced I’ve fooled someone to get here and now they are going to find out that I’m not “good” enough. I feel anxious and that the task in front of me is too difficult to handle.
Through two decades of building personal resilience for myself and others, I’ve learned that as humans we are always seeking equilibrium. We try to counterbalance unwelcome thoughts and feelings through behaviors we think will alleviate them. My personal favorites are a combination of hyper-focused attentiveness and forgetting my self-care, with a side of pleasure-seeking and numbing.
For others, it might be procrastination, overperforming, or missing an opportunity altogether by saying no out of fear.
What can we do about it?
We cultivate resilience through personal innovation. How? By consciously intervening in a single moment and as a daily practice, and by being supported throughout our process of growth. We build personal resilience through small tweaks and simple routines that naturally produce visible outcomes in our lives—like alleviating imposter syndrome.
Much like changing our diet to improve our health, resilience is a daily practice integrated over time in order to become our go-to habit. As we incorporate resilient shifts, we come back into alignment with ourselves. You see, building personal resilience isn’t about becoming someone else, it’s about becoming more of who we are at our core so that we can live in our fullness.
Resilience is a framework and a pathway to empower and enable us. It relies on the principle that we are born as absolutely “perfect” beings, and that it’s our experiences and influences in life that catalyze us to modify ourselves in order to survive. As adults, we can consciously move from an altered state of survival to thriving in our true essence.
Through the use of resilient tools, we build our capacity to tap into ourselves and disrupt our disingenuous neural pathways that are leading us astray.
Here is a foundational resilience practice:
*Please note: these activities are not intended to heal or process trauma, treat mental illness, or address addiction. Additionally, if you have a medical condition or feel this could negatively impact your physical health, please check with your doctor before engaging in this practice.
1. Goal: develop a deeper awareness of what’s happening for us in a given moment. Action: notice your thoughts and emotions. Get curious—particularly when something is challenging or you are feeling heightened.
2. Goal: practice being with ourselves and allowing feelings to come. Action: place your feet flat on the ground at hip’s width distance (whether sitting or standing). Take three deep breaths while actively feeling your feet grounding.
3. Goal: practice staying with our feelings by nourishing and grounding. Action: Keep breathing, slowly and fully. Stay connected to your feet on the ground, bring your attention back to your feet if the connection is lost. Continue breathing and bringing awareness back to your body, allowing emotions to flow through you as they are without trying to manipulate them.
If you find your mind cycling (common for us humans), send your thoughts a “thank you for letting me know” and let them go as if clouds passing by. If you feel overwhelmed in any way, slowly return to your regular breathing pattern and bring awareness to the room or space you are in. Take notice of the colors, sounds, and smells in the room to support you in transitioning out of the exercise. It is encouraged to try this in bite-sized pieces so that we can assimilate in a way that aligns with the needs of our body, mind, and soul.
4. Repeat these steps at a frequency and duration that feels good to you. This allows your nervous systems to relax and prompts the Self to come forward.
These regular smaller tweaks open us up to making larger beneficial shifts across our life, such as moving from defensiveness to curiosity when relating to others during conflict, which, in turn, primes us for connection and resolution.
Through a combination of thought-expanding tools and somatic practices, we’re able to interrupt dysfunctional historic neural pathways and facilitate the creation of new ones. This increases our neuroplasticity and results in a changed life experience.
This work has changed my life and it has inspired and guided me to obtain the training and expertise to facilitate change in the lives of others.