First coined as a term in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Clance & Suzanne Innes, we are pretty familiar with the concept of imposter syndrome these days. It’s that feeling of not being good enough (even when all the evidence points to the fact you are doing just fine). The fear of being on the cusp of being found out… as not really the right person for the job.
Now of course there is a difference between imposter syndrome and actually being self-aware enough to know when we aren’t quite achieving or performing to the level required. And in this situation we should try to get support and feedback to rectify the issue. If we agree to deliver something to a certain standard we should. But when everything is going ok, imposter syndrome is toxic because it robs us of a sense of security or achievement that good, hard work deserves.
I also think imposter syndrome might rob us of a lot more – it’s just a hypotheses, but maybe it also kills our desire to put ourselves out there and try something new, just for fun. Because the negative feelings associated with imposter syndrome seem very similar to the feelings that can create barriers to trying something new – shame and fear. Fear that we won’t be good enough, shame for (the perception of) coming up wanting. If we are trying to protect ourselves from feeling like frauds, avoiding new activities we are bound to be less skilled at seems a practical strategy.
And as research has suggested that as many as 70% of people feel imposter syndrome at some point, this could be killing a lot of joy in the world. Because sometimes we aren’t going to be good at something. We are going to be a bit rubbish. We have to give it a go and try and eventually we might become good at it. And if not, does it matter?
When we are children everything is new – and we make allowances that it will take time to learn. But it is as if we reach adulthood and begin to compare ourselves to those who are highly accomplished… and find ourselves wanting. As if by being an adult we should be accomplished at what we do or it isn’t worth doing. And that is sad. So here are a few ideas about how we can nurture our inner child and keep trying things just for fun:
1. Think about what you used to love … and simple ways to integrate this into your life: It is easy to get busy and forget what we used to like doing for fun when we were children. Or what we love now. Think about it… take some time and list a load of things that you loved doing or having in your life. I loved writing stories and articles. And hadn’t done it for years. Now I just do this for fun. I love silver rings but always thought it was silly to take a class on how to make them when I didn’t plan to become a jewellery maker. I’ve just booked a 3 hour beginner class to make a silver ring. It will probably be an ugly ring – but so what!
2. Exorcise your excuses. When you think about doing something do a load of excuses instantly pop into your head? It takes up too much time, money, you are too tired, you won’t be good enough, it is silly, you don’t want to be cliche, etc… write down your excuses. Are any of them really valid if you are just going to try one little thing? how much time and energy is being wasted on these excuses that could be channelled into just doing?
3. Don’t worry about the outcome: it doesn’t have to be your new day job to be worth doing. The process itself should be what we enjoy. If we begin to think that everything we do needs a pinnacle of achievement… then it becomes no fun anymore. Embrace being a bit rubbish and enjoy the process of just doing. When I go for a run I am not trying to be an Olympic athlete, I am just enjoying a jog in nature.
4. Have perspective: everyone started somewhere. To become good at anything takes time, experience, skill and commitment. And maybe you don’t need to be good at it to enjoy it – so stop worrying! There are some things we are naturally good at and some things we aren’t. But if we don’t just begin with a little step (see point 1, 2 and 3) then we will never even begin. And maybe you will become great at it, or maybe not. But it doesn’t matter – you gave it a go.
Because if we can re-learn to be brave, just have fun when we try something new and allow ourselves to be bad at some things, we might also better appreciate the skills, experience and expertise we really do have. We might exorcise that feeling of being an imposter when it matters, because we embrace being a bit rubbish when it doesn’t.
For an interesting and intensive course on finding a more creative self, the highly recommended ‘The Artists’ Way’ has some really useful exercises and insights.