My Biggest Insight about Imposter Syndrome

Sep 18, 2023

I have read a lot about imposter syndrome, primarily as a desire to leave that ghost behind me, but now increasingly to help my clients who express this condition as something they too want to be free from.

For me, I wanted to be free of the need to constantly check that I hadn’t made a mistake. It was something that would be a little debilitating and held me back in school, work, and my relationship with my kids. 

Having now found the solution to my particular flavour of imposter syndrome, I believe that sharing my biggest insight may help others to do their own version of ghost-busting - but you don’t have to strap a vacuum cleaner to your back for this particular approach (I am now showing my age).

But before I share my biggest insight, let’s wander over to the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi which he encapsulated in his book FLOW - The classic work of how to achieve happiness.  

It was understanding flow that set me on the path to my biggest insight.

Mihaly explains in his book that there are a series of FLOW activities, FLOW being that contented feeling that we all can experience when we are engrossed in work we are uniquely suited to.  

He explains that certain flow activities with the characteristics of low complexity matched to advanced skill can lead to boredom. In our family that means putting the bins out, or washing the dishes after a Sunday family meal. But it could mean a skilled architect putting up a tin shed in their yard - not particularly Nobel prize winning stuff.

Equally, activities with high complexity matched to a perceived absence of skill can create anxiety. An example would be removing the inside of the toilet roll on completion and pop it in the bin, which in our house seems to create massive anxiety. But a more worthy example might be being asked to run a marathon with little or no training.

Mihaly’s work helped me understand the cause of my imposter feelings, and they weren’t coming from the complexity, or a perceived lack of skill.

So, where were the imposter feelings coming from? The obvious answer is inside me, but the more nuanced answer would be they were coming from a much deeper question. 

The question I was asking and the one most people experiencing imposter feelings are asking is:

‘Can I handle the consequences of making a mistake?’

Let’s take a closer look at this question and how it hangs together.

If we look at the sentence stems of the above question we can see the following:

Can I - this is an identity stem. When we are referencing the self, we often begin with ‘I am <name>’ or ‘I am <profession>’. 

Handle - this is a competency stem. It is associated with knowledge, skill, or attitude. 

The consequences - this is a outcome stem. There can be a tendency to think the worst about ourselves and the outcomes of mistakes.

Of making - this is a creation stem.  Making in this context is a verb and includes commission and omission.

A mistake - this is a judgement stem.  Mistakes treated properly help us learn - think riding a bike.  But a mistake can also be a error of judgement, deliberate rejection of truth, or a destructive act.  In this case we are assuming an error of judgement. 

This means the internal question I am really asking about my character is - Do I have the identity of someone who is incompetent when it comes to the outcomes associated with creating something for which I will be judged. No wonder the brain gets fearful!

Combating this fear inducing question required me to understand the following:

1. My identity doesn’t change whether I do or do not have a particular competency - ‘I am’ is my identity, not Matt, not coach, not failure as these are all transient.

2. Skills are developed over time as I experience more complexity, per FLOW. Unconscious competency follows conscious competence - so initially I may need to practice and practice makes, well better.

3. Judged - compared with what. To judge something you need to weigh it against something. We typically associate judging with the law and punishment. But it can also apply to competitions.  So judging can be positive as well as negative, depending on the context.

4. The context of this question is associated with something in the future, so it is imaginary right now. A creation of my imagination - therefore not real. But I can also use it as a diagnostic to inform my need to develop skills, or my mindset, or my language associated with something new.

Developing this thinking allowed me to focus on skills building by running towards complexity and experiencing the anxiety in a safe environment - also know as a sandbox. (A term used in software development to describe an area for safe evaluation of code)

Which leads me to the Leadership Sandbox - a structured, bounded space where you can run towards complexity in a safe environment and build your skills. We offer this quarterly to those who need a space to experiment.  It's a 4/1 programme.  4 x personal coaching sessions, and 1 x creative lab sessions in a facilitated group. Interested?

Contact me for more information about when our next leadership sandbox opens its doors - I look forward to hearing from you.