Living Authentically with Imposter Syndrome
Updated: Nov 3, 2020
Connection to others is not possible without vulnerability. The more authentic we are, the easier it will be to connect on a deeper level with others. Perfect people are very difficult to connect with, we connect with people who are like us, human and fabulously flawed. I oriented my Women's Career Support Group members to this dynamic the night of our first meeting. I'm an introvert, as are most of the other group members. We are people who are comfortable sitting out of the way and observing others. I really had no idea how discussion in a room full of introverts might go, but the group is made up of smart, insightful, driven women who I thought just really needed to all get to meet each other. The themes that emerged from the meeting were around acceptance, connection and vulnerability, and the ways that these concepts relate to personal and professional growth.
Trust and Authenticity
Some of us talked a little bit more and some of us a little bit less, but it balanced and harmonized perfectly because all were so authentic and honest. There was no pretense. We talked about the role that high-control religious groups had played in our childhood and adolescent development. Many of us had been held to impossible standards of being in our families of origin, and subsequently developed perfectionist behaviors. It's funny, while we couldn't relate to each other as perfect people, we could all relate to perfectionism. I think because we're humans, perfection is unattainable, we inherently distrust others who might appear to be inauthentic, and we even have difficulty trusting ourselves when we're behaving inauthentically. If we constantly tell ourselves, and the world at large that everything is great, when it's not, that's very invalidating and we begin to distrust our own emotional responses and intuition. If our mind is saying one thing, and our body is saying something different, then we can't trust our own thinking or decisions. The best way to practice authenticity with others, is to be authentic with ourselves.
This is a bit of a conundrum, how can we be authentic and present as competent and capable, when it doesn't feel like we are good enough? In the professional world we call this Imposter Syndrome. For non-narcissists, this is a universal experience, particularly when we're new at something. Imposter Syndrome is basically the opposite of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Imposter Syndrome is the experience of thinking that you aren't good enough, you don't know enough, and other people might find out that you really aren't qualified to be doing what you're doing. People who are conscientious, dedicated and high achieving are very likely to experience this because they genuinely want to provide the very best service, product, or interaction possible. Intelligent, conscientious people tend to have an acute awareness of how much they don't know and are painfully aware of the limitations that results from this. If this is something that you can relate to, just know that this is a really normal experience, and is probably a sign that you're doing your best. How can we navigate between these two poles successfully: living authentically and awareness of our limitations?
Growth Mindset and Acceptance
We have to be willing to stretch ourselves past our limitations in order to grow personally and professionally, but we also want to be perceived as competent and professional. This is a quandary, it's also a dialectic, two concepts that at first glance might appear to be contradictory, but can be harmonized if we explore the space between. This dialectic can be resolved by framing our thinking and behavior as practicing acceptance, within the context of a growth mindset. Growth mindset means that our self-concept is flexible and fluid. We don't see ourselves as fixed statues, but rather as dynamic actors who can bend and stretch as needed to grow and learn. Bending and stretching gives us a broader range of movement, however there might still be limitations to this range. Most personality traits aren't necessarily good or bad (with the exception of narcissism, that one's always destructive), they can be either useful or work against us depending on the situation.
I tend to be a very efficient, but impatient person. My efficiency/impatience works very well for me in owning my own business. I complete tasks quickly and accurately, I don't procrastinate, in this way I get done what I need to get done in a timely, organized manner. This same trait works against me when I'm in a position where I have to wait on someone or something. I don't necessarily think that I have a lot of control over the way that my brain works, but I do have control over how I behave.
I'm generally not someone who is ok hurting other people, so I've learned some mental tricks that help me be more patient when that's what's called for. I imagine that the person I'm waiting on (store clerk, receptionist, fast food worker) is one of my kids and it's their first day on the job. I think about how sad I would be if some woman walked in and was rude and hurtful, this helps me to be mindful of how I'm behaving so that I can behave in ways that are in line with my values. This helps me attend to compassion and empathy rather than annoyance. The acceptance piece is knowing that I have this trait, but having a growth mindset helps me to take advantage of the trait when it's useful, and minimize when it gets in the way. Let me state though, that I'm by no means always successful at this. The flexible mindset allows me to see and accept my faults while also working to not be an asshole. When I'm not as successful as I would like, I can be honest with myself about what went wrong and try to do better. Acceptance is a practice that helps us to grow. In the work world, acceptance can help us to see where we can do things differently and grow our skills.
I'm very curious to hear other's perspectives. Please tell me about how you've identified traits that are helpful in some situations and not in others, and the thinking that helps you know what's most useful. If you would like to learn more about mindset differences, vulnerability and connection, and dialectics please take a look at these books:
Mindset The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck Ph.D. This book describes the research and practice of changing unhelpful fixed mindset based beliefs to more flexible, growth mindset based beliefs.
The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown Ph.D., L.M.S.W. (really any of Brene Brown's books) This book and the books that follow outline the differences between shame and guilt, and describe a path to resiliency and authenticity.
Cognitive Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder by Marsha Linehan Ph.D. This book describes the use of dialectics in increasing flexibility of thinking, behaving and responding.