Have you ever found yourself standing in front of a group of colleagues, employees or clients, seemingly holding it together while delivering an important pitch or speech, all the while wondering who’ll be the first in the room to realize that you’re totally not qualified to be there?
That’s imposter complex speaking, and you’re not alone in feeling like a fraud.
“Almost everyone that you look up to has experienced imposter complex at some time or another,” says Tanya Geisler, a leadership coach and imposter complex expert based in Toronto. She's coined the term "imposter complex", rather than the more widely-popular "imposter syndrome", because it is not a clinical diagnosis or a mental health condition. It's an experience.
Imposter complex can impact any area of your life, but when it comes to running a small business, it may manifest in some pretty (ahem) inconvenient ways, such as:
Feeling like you don’t belong among your brilliant team.
Passing up on new opportunities because you doubt yourself.
Undercharging for your services.
Never feeling like your contributions are “good enough”, even if you’re in a leadership role.
Constantly telling yourself that you don’t deserve your success.
So, why do we do this to ourselves?
In short, because it’s part of our makeup, rooted in our need to belong, says Tanya.
Tanya was a speaker at Wagefest 2021: Peace, Love and Payroll.
She has been speaking to audiences about imposter complex for over a decade, and says that, while we all experience it differently based on cultural and systemic factors, a common thread is internalizing our failures while chalking up our successes to external factors, like happy accidents, coincidences, or good timing.
In other words: We’re really, really good at telling ourselves that we can’t possibly be the successful, talented pros that others (somehow!) believe us to be.
Often, we doubt ourselves most when faced with the unfamiliar.
“Imposter complex tends to show up when we’re right on the precipice of something new or important, like a new work opportunity. Because representation matters in leadership, it can also show up when we don’t see people like us at the front of the room. So, if you’ve never seen someone who has the same lived experience as you (same gender, class, race, qualifications, degrees, etc.) as a leader, you will have a hard time imagining yourself in that position.”
— Tanya Geisler, Leadership coach and imposter complex expert
But feeling this way doesn’t mean that you can’t actually get there.
Great leaders feel like imposters, too.
According to Tanya, imposter complex makes an impact in the areas of your life that matter most. So it’s only natural that, if you place a lot of value in your leadership capabilities, you’re more likely to feel “imposter-y” during a work meeting than, say, a yoga class. (This, says Tanya, is most definitely where she personally stands.)
What’s more, she says that feeling this way means that you value things like:
It could be a huge clue that you’re already living by some of the most important tenets of great leadership – and that’s a good thing.
So how do we embrace these values, without stretching them to the point of self-sabotage?
Tanya has some tips. (Hint: A whole lot of them have to do with self-reflection.)
Did you know? Self-awareness is a sign of emotional intelligence (EI). Learn about EI and how it can help you grow your business.
Tanya’s tips for shaking Imposter Complex:
1. Figure out where you get “tripped up”.
There are six character traits of the imposter complex, according to Tanya:
- Leaky boundaries
- Procrastination (we listed this one last for obvious reasons)
Figuring out the one that most applies to you can be challenging because “they all ping-pong off each other” and shape-shift according to the situation. But, once you do, you can begin to look deeper at what’s driving you to feel the way you feel.
Are you a perfectionist or a people-pleaser? Take Tanya’s online quiz to find which of the six character traits best describes you.
Most business owners who hire Tanya to coach them through imposter complex struggle with perfectionism or diminishment, though they range across the board. Perfectionists over-deliver without ever really feeling great about their work, while diminishers downplay their abilities and never put their name forward for exciting new opportunities, making them “the industry’s best-kept secret”, according to Tanya.
The key, no matter where you land on the spectrum, is to first understand what your go-to behaviours are, so that you can use them in a way that propels confidence, rather than self-doubt.
2. Turn your values into strengths.
One way to do this is to circle back to the values at the heart of each imposter syndrome character trait.
For example, perfectionists value excellence, which is why they are able to produce high-quality work, even if it comes at a cost, like losing sleep over every detail. But this same value of excellence makes them great CEOs, says Tanya, if they can learn to use it at the right time and place. In a similar way, diminishers can have great hidden ideas with potential to have an impact on the world, and people-pleasers are inclusive, making them amazing hosts.
By understanding what we value, we can begin to understand what uniquely positions us to succeed, not fail.
Check out Tanya's TEDx video, “Owning Our Authority”, to learn additional strategies for navigating imposter complex.
3. Find the stop signs.
“Look analytically at what’s stopping you. Is it an inner critic? A realistic objection? Someone else in the way? Once we know the nature of what’s keeping us out of action, we can calibrate accordingly.”
— Tanya Geiser, Leadership coach and imposter complex expert
Here’s what calibration might look like:
4. Think like a CEO.
If we were to apply this advice literally, we’d be thinking in jokes all day (thanks, Shrad!) But that’s not exactly what Tanya means. What she’s getting at, is that sometimes it helps to put yourself in the shoes of someone accomplished – someone you’d look up to – who shares your values, in order to cut yourself a little slack. (In her work, Tanya calls these alter egos “iconic identities”.)
For example, perfectionists can embody a CEO to give themselves the permission needed to back off on the self-imposed pressure of always having to get it right. It makes sense that a CEO “cannot have the time or capacity to do everything in the weeds”, to quality-check all. the. things. So, why would you?
At some point, Tanya says, you need to adapt a similar mindset. “You’ll have to let some of that stuff go because there’s a bigger vision that you’re holding focus”, she says. A bigger vision like becoming CEO, perhaps.
Pro Tip: An important skill for all CEOs is learning how to give constructive feedback. Read this blog post to see how.
5. Keep a “Yay!” folder.
If you want, this can be an actual, physical collection of your highlight reel. (Folders optional.)
Why? Because there’s something about celebrating your wins that makes you feel like you can do it all over again, even if the situation isn’t exactly the same.
“Bolster your capacity by recognizing all the places where you have been exceptional at what you do - that it wasn’t actually a fluke, and that it is near impossible for you to be where you are or have the success that you have in your business on fluke after fluke after fluke. Who are the clients that are satisfied? What are all the awards you’ve won? Contracts you’ve gotten? What have you delivered? We are not conditioned to celebrate the good work that we’ve done but, by doing so, you will start to feel confident in what is actually true about your capacity.”
— Tanya Geisler, Leadership coach and imposter complex expert
By reflecting on times you’ve done it before, you’ll be much more likely to believe that you can do it again.
Paying it forward.
There are many benefits to getting a grasp over your imposter complex. A major one for leaders, managers and anyone who finds themselves “at the front of the room” is a new set of tools that can be used to help others.
Let’s say that you’re a manager who recognizes that a member of your team constantly doubts their abilities or never takes credit for their amazing work. If it’s something you’ve overcome yourself, you’ll be able to coach your team, mentoring them to think about what is stopping them and sharing strategies that have personally helped you.
By opening up in this way, you’ll not only humanize the experience for others, but help them to not feel alone. Use phrases like, “Here’s how I’ve addressed it…” to get the conversation going, and the confidence of your team growing.
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