Is Imposter Syndrome Blocking Me From Pursuing My Goals?
Last week I had a chance to visit the Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. I was psyched to go on the three hour cave tour that is guided solely by lanterns. The idea of experiencing the caves the way people did long ago, to feel what it is like to be 150 feet below ground with pitch blackness hanging behind you and the same darkness looming ahead of you, was thrilling. To walk forward, never knowing what’s ahead, seeing only what is within the reach of the lantern’s small flame. I so wanted to experience this!
My friend, myself and the lantern inside Mammoth Cave.
In the pit of my stomach, though, a walnut sized ball of fear started growing. With each step towards the cave entrance, I thought about how that one time my vertigo was triggered by darkness, how being in a small space can on rare occasions make me feel somewhat claustrophobic. The idea of being so far underground started to feel more scary than thrilling. At this point we had already walked into the pitch blackness of the cave and that ball of fear turned into anxiety buzziness in my skin. I had to make a choice, either to go forward or ask to leave the tour. A phrase rang in my head:
Go gently towards your fears.
It had an immediate impact on me. My hunched shoulders relaxed. My stomach knot released. I could take a breath in and slowly breathe out. Enough calm emerged in my body for me to keep walking. Soon I was engaged in the tour guide’s stories and enjoying the awesome hollows of the cave.***
When I sat down to write this blog post about imposter syndrome, I thought about that moment in the cave. How that phrase - go gently towards your fears - applies to my imposter feelings (aka feeling like I don’t belong, or thinking that people will find out that I’m not as competent, intelligent or talented as they originally thought, that I’m a fraud and somehow have fooled people into thinking that I’m good at my work, hobbies, skills, etc.)
The same way that my fears about going into the cave started to take over, my imposter fears have a way of taking over my life. They keep me from trying new things because I’m afraid it might show others that I’m not “perfect” or a “genius”. Furthermore, they prevent me from owning and experiencing the rewards of my hard-earned skills. They make me feel like I’m pretending to be something I have no right to be - like “who am I call myself a photographer, I don’t have a Masters in Fine Arts, I haven’t sold my photography, I don’t have a name in photography.”
So how do I continue to pursue my goals while dealing with imposter syndrome?
I believe the key is our internal dialogue. I’ll show you (FYI, I talk to myself in third person to help me gain perspective on emotions).
Statement: Who am I to call myself a photographer?
“Okay, Anna, whew, that’s a loaded statement. Good job of identifying and labeling it as imposter feeling. Let’s remind yourself of the facts. You love facts. 70% of people experience imposter feelings. But what’s more important is that people who do not experience imposter feelings are not more competent, talented or intelligent than people who do. That’s huge. This means these feelings are in no way related to your actual competency, intelligence, or talent.
Okay, great. So what are these feelings actually related to?
Well, impostor syndrome expert Valerie Young has found a pattern that people who experience imposter feelings also fall into the categories of
perfectionism - any mistake will reveal that they are not perfect and therefore a failure and not competent,
being the expert - therefore feeling that they always need to know everything and if they don't, then “clearly” they aren’t the expert
someone who is typically a “natural” at something - but has to work on a skill therefore feels like an imposter,
soloist folks - people who feel that they need to do everything on their own because if they ask for help then it must mean they are a fraud, and
“supermen” and “superwomen” - people who feel they have to work thrice as hard as anyone to prove they are not fakes.
Sounds familiar, Anna? ….Yep. It makes sense that the imposter fears are coming from these areas rather than from me actually being an imposter. But still, I’m somehow a fraud, right?
Okay, well let’s look at the evidence.
Have you ever claimed to be a world-renowned photographer or claimed you have certain educational degrees that you do not? ...No.
Have you taken & are you taking steps to learn and practice photography? ...Yes. I’ve practiced on my own, read books, taken a class, done photo shoots, worked in a studio for a bit, taught photography to kids.
When a person asks you how long you’ve been a photographer, do you tell them the truth? ...Yes.
Are you open to constructive criticism and to learn how to improve your photography? ...Yes.
When is it okay to start calling yourself a photographer? ....That’s a hard one. Yes, there are things that are regulated for good reason - you cannot call yourself a heart surgeon or a therapist if you don’t have the appropriate degree and license. In other areas though, people’s lives are not in your hands. So if you paint on a regular basis, you are a painter. If you play an instrument on a regular basis, you are a musician. If you run on a regular basis (no matter how slow you go), you are a runner. So if I photograph on a regular basis, I am a photographer.
All of this data points away from imposter and towards a person who is learning, practicing and honing a skill. That’s the opposite of a fraud. You have a right to be here AND to not be perfect, to not always know everything, to have to work at it, to not do everything alone, to not have to over-prove your abilities.
So these fears are just like the ones that crept up when you were entering the cave. You can still have fears and pursue something. Go gently towards your fears and goals. The fears will eventually subside and the goals will take center stage.”
As you can see, it’s not about proving your feelings wrong - in no part of the conversation did I say “stop feeling this way, you’re being too sensitive, just ignore it, you’re overthinking this, etc”. It’s about bringing in real data points into the picture - data points that we often forget about or discount when imposter feeling arise.
When you are feeling blocked from pursuing something because of imposter feelings, I hope this internal monologue can guide you in navigating the dark corners of these fears. You are not alone. And it is possible to walk gently towards these fears and your goals.
Till next time.
Wishing you joy, safety and ease.
***Important note: I would like to be clear that there’s nothing wrong with backing out of something. I have done that on many occasions when I did not want to or could not do something. That is the brave thing to do in those cases. In this case, however, I did want to do the cave tour and I knew that the risk of me experiencing those mentioned fears - in this case - were low and if they did come up, I knew that I could deal with them. Trust yourself.
Anna is a blog contributor, meditation leader and teacher, and photographer. You can follow her on Instagram @skillsforwellness and find her blogging away at reset brain + body. reset brain + body is a mental wellness practice where traditional talk therapy is elevated through the integration of meditation, nutrition, yoga and mindfulness. Connect with reset brain + body on Instagram & Facebook, check out the class schedule, or contact us to book an appointment.