“Imposter syndrome” or feeling like a fraud is a common experience. It’s a form of insecurity and a natural part of being human that most of us experience at some point.
Pete, for example, was promoted to a management position in his organization. He felt unqualified and anxious that he'd make mistakes. He ruminated about being humiliated, or worse, getting himself fired. Very painful and scary!
The tendency when we feel like a fraud is to avoid doing what is uncomfortable. That makes sense! However, in the long run, we don’t want insecurities to hold us back. The great news is that we can work with this feeling in a variety of ways so it doesn’t paralyze us. In the processes outlined below we gain new, cutting-edge tools to grow our confidence for the rest of our lives.
What can Pete do to help himself feel more confident?
Pete can get to know BOTH the part of himself that feels like an imposter AND the part of himself that feels competent - however small that part of him might be.
Why do this? By honoring all aspects of us, we gain easier and faster access to the ways we actually are competent. This feels better and stops a downward spiral where the part of us that feels like a fraud overwhelms or overtakes us.
More on Working With Parts of Ourselves: What are “Parts?”
Our mind stores our experiences in networks of brain cells that contain associated beliefs, emotions, body sensations, images, and memories. We can subjectively recognize and work with the many different parts of ourselves that we all have in our minds.
A part can refer to each side of a conflict: “A part of me wants to be a manager AND a part of me thinks I cannot do it.”
A part can refer to a childhood experience that lives on in the brain as a memory or as a trauma: “This part of me feels like a helpless, incompetent ten-year-old.”
A part can be an emotion, belief, image, or thought: “A part of me felt sad, and another part of me felt happy” or “A part of me believes I am capable and another part of me feels out of my league.”
Pete can listen and communicate with the parts of himself that feel both unqualified and qualified.
Why do this? From a neuroscience perspective, communicating with various aspects of ourself integrates the mind and body by building connections between the different parts of our mind. Our core authentic self can notice and hold conflicting memories and experiences with practice. Integrating the brain, body, and mind by building awareness and greater intra-psychic communication helps us feel, think and behave in coordinated ways. We feel better! In contrast, repressing, blocking, and disassociating from parts of ourself makes us feel fragmented and anxious.
Pete can validate, and address his underlying emotions like anxiety, anger, fear, shame, etc. The Change Triangle is a great tool to understand and work with emotions to feel less overwhelmed. I use it myself almost every day and I teach it to others.
Why do this? When we recognize the specific emotions we are having and get comfortable tuning into them, we can use them as data to understand ourselves and to foster healing and transformation. When we understand and use emotions the way nature intended, we feel more confident that we can help ourselves through distress with maximum know-how and skill.
Pete can relate to his fraud-feeling part as if it were a separate younger version of himself and give it unwavering compassion and love, like a good parent gives to their scared and insecure child.
Why do this? Insecure parts of us feel more secure when seen, validated, and accepted. The love and compassion we give to these parts of ourselves fills us with self worth and esteem because we truly accept ourselves as we are even when life deals us tough challenges like a mean boss, for example. This may be easy for some of us and take a lot more work for others. If we were not given a whole lot of love in our childhood, there may be many core and inhibitory emotions and defenses to process before being able to give compassion to our younger selves.
Feeling like a fraud is natural and human. It’s how we validate, work with, and deal with those parts of us that make a real difference. The definition of true courage is doing something we fear. Be with your fears, give compassion to your insecure parts, and go out there and make it happen anyway!
Want to go deeper? The next section puts this all into practice!
GETTING TO KNOW YOUR INSECURE PARTS
NOTE: For this kind of internal, reflective work, we must find a quiet space where we won’t be interrupted for about 5 minutes.
Bring up your last memory of feeling like a fraud
Just see whatever images come to your mind without second-guessing their validity. Some people are not so visual. That’s fine! Working with emotions and beliefs is a very creative endeavor. Another approach is to notice where in your body you feel this pain. I feel it as anxiety in my core. My whole torso vibrates and it feels like there is no solid ground beneath me. I often have an image of myself as a little girl trying on my mom’s high heels shoes. I actually see an image of my little foot that fills about a third of the shoe.
Where do you sense this feeling of insecurity in your body? Scan your body up and down, get curious about your internal world, (It may be a very subtle sense.) Point to where you feel it inside.
Communicating with Insecurities
Whether you see a visual image or just notice it in a part of your body, tune into it and imagine talking to that part of you. Can you ask it these questions and listen for the answers:
How old were you when you first experienced this feeling?
What was happening at the time?
Who was there to help you feel better?
How did you get the idea that you were an imposter—was there actual evidence or just a feeling?
Once we get some sense of that part, we try to communicate with it. Yes, I am suggesting listening to parts of yourself. We can connect deeply with our insecure part. We can give it compassion, love, kindness, and talk to it like a loving parent would talk to a scared child. Judging or being harsh to insecure parts of us only makes them feel worse and as a result they get stronger. We want to create a safe internal space to reflect on our vulnerabilities just like we would do if we were talking to an upset child. With practice this gets easier.
Listening to the Part of You that Feels Like a Fraud
Imagine you and I are together in my office. I remind you we are not here to judge you, merely to support you and help you bring greater awareness to your experiences. I encourage you to suspend judgments of yourself and to relate to yourself with curiosity and as much compassion as you can muster.
You tell me you feel like a fraud.
And I say, can we slow down, breathe deep belly breaths together and notice where in your body you feel this part of you that feels like a fraud (it may be a very subtle sense)? Can you take all the time you need to find it inside?
Now imagine you held up a microphone to just this part of you so it could tell us how it came to feel like a fraud. Don't edit or rationalize. It need not make sense as we are working with right-brained experiences that are more like dreams and less logical.
Can you write down what that part of you tells you:
Now, I ask you to scan your internal world and body from head to toe and sense where in your body do you feel the most confident part of you that recognizes some, if not all, of your abilities? It may feel as small as a molecule of confidence. Great! Find it and listen to that part no matter how small and quiet it is.
Write down the evidence that you are not a fraud here (no matter how small and insignificant it seems to you):
Can you imagine holding or visualizing both of those parts of you together with lots of space in between but nevertheless holding them together in your mind. Or draw out these two parts of you and where you sense them inside. See Pete's drawing.
Naming and Validating Your Emotions
When we validate our emotions, we feel better. We have two main categories of emotions. Inhibitory emotions, which are anxiety, shame, and guilt. Under those lie our core emotions of sadness, fear, anger, disgust, joy, excitement, and sexual excitement.
When you feel like a fraud, try validating all the emotions you notice that go with your imposter syndrome.
Nicole, a successful coach, wants to publicly speak, but the thought panics her. She thinks: Who am I to coach others? I don’t really know anything? What if people find out I don’t know what I am doing?
Imagining this part of herself, she saw an image of herself as a little girl. The little girl was small in stature and overwhelmed by fear. A memory came up from childhood when she had to recite a poem in front of the class and she forgot her words.
As an example of naming and working with emotions, Nicole validated that she was scared to do her presentation. She was also happy that she was asked. She was also angry that she didn’t have more support from her family.
Think about a time when you felt like a fraud and see if you can name all the emotions that go with that memory. There can be more than one. They can also be conflicting emotions happening at the same time like fear and excitement.
What emotions do you sense inside?
Just putting words on emotions helps us relax. We can listen to what our emotions are telling us and then think through actions we should take on our behalf. For example, if you feel scared, ask yourself, “What is the worst thing that could happen?” Then listen and see if that could really happen? For example, Nicole’s fear told her that someone might standup and say, "You don’t know what you’re talking about!" Once she said that out loud, she realized nobody would be that rude. But we planned a response to her worst fear so she felt prepared just in case…
Giving Our Insecure Parts Compassion and Love
“What does our insecure part need?”
Offering compassion to ourselves when we feel fraudulent helps us feel better. But for many of us, compassion doesn’t come easily, especially if we were treated harshly as a child.
Compassion immediately softens tension. So, let’s try it. Here's an experiential exercise:
First access a loving compassionate part of yourself. You can do this by remembering how you lovingly treated a hurt puppy, child, aging parent, or good friend. From this loving, calm, and compassionate part of you, try to see, feel, and connect deeply with your insecure part. Give it compassion with a warm look, kind words, a hug, or anything else that feels right for you. Judging or being harsh to insecure parts of us only makes them feel worse and get stronger. We want to create a safe space to reflect on our vulnerabilities just like we would do if we were talking to an upset child. I hope you'll try this gentle exercise on self-parenting, above so I can guide you through it.
A+ for trying these new strategies.