Expert Enough, Take 2: Why Imposter Syndrome Matters, and How to Overcome It

Your inner critic is full of it. Photo credit: Forest Runner, Your inner critic is full of it. Photo credit: Forest Runner, "Arms Crossed," Flickr.

I ‘ve written before about imposter syndrome. (It’s that thing where you’re terrified that someone is going to figure out that you don’t really know what you’re doing, and you’re just winging it. Know that feeling? Uh huh.) Many of us experience it at one time or another; many women I know experience it to a rather overwhelming degree, and I’m of the opinion that if we could successfully overcome us, the world as we know it would change, significantly.

I spoke at an event last week where a woman with more than twenty years’ experience in her field balked at being introduced as an expert. “I’m not an expert!” she protested as the emcee was pumping up the crowd. And I sympathize with her – I do. It’s really hard to receive a compliment like that from a peer – to bask in your awesomeness – when you feel like you still have more to learn, like there are so many other brilliant people in the world you look up to, and when you’ve been socialized your entire life to believe that if you shine too brightly, you will be rejected by other women for being too stuck-up, self-centered, and individualistic.

But I really had to fight the urge to shout back at her and tell her to close her mouth and accept the truth: She is an expert. And I am racking my brain to think of an occasion when I’ve ever seen a man protest the laurels heaped on him in a public introduction – and I can’t think of one. It’s time for us to learn how to recognize the difference between expertise and infallibility. We can be experts, and we can be successful, and that doesn’t mean we need to be without fault.

Un-Athletic Me

When I was in Grade 9, I attended a school awards ceremony, where I received a couple of awards – I can’t recall what for. Languages, maybe? Math? Anyway, afterwards my sweet gym teacher, Mrs. Lal, came up to me overflowing with enthusiasm and said, “Lauren! Congratulations on your awards. I had no idea you were good at other things besides gym!”

I laughed in her face.

hated gym class with the fire of a thousand suns. I had grown up in a family that never even watched sports on television, let alone played them. I could never remember the rules of the games; to this day I can’t comprehend how people can notice when a player is off-side. And I considered myself wildly un-athletic, kind of chubby (this, in retrospect, was patently untrue, but such is the self-critical nature of the teenaged girl), and basically incapable of ever executing a single athletic move with any sort of grace or skill.

Therefore, I could not receive her compliment. I couldn’t take it in, and I certainly couldn’t believe it. It took me years to get over my hangups and start going to the gym regularly.

Get it? My mental blocks were an impediment to both my sense of worth, and my physical health. 

This is not a teen angst thing, though. There’s the woman at last week’s event, and my wonderful, too-humble mother, and countless other women I’ve spoken with who undervalue their contributions.

It’s also not the sole domain of women, but in my experience, women are especially hard on ourselves. We all know this intellectually, but we persist in doing it. We cut ourselves off from both experiences and self-confidence, by getting caught in the traps laid by our inner critic.

“The best is the enemy of the good.” –Voltaire

What I notice is that we have exceedingly high standards for ourselves when it comes to claiming our expertise. It’s almost as though we think we need to be infallible in order to call ourselves an expert.

Calling ourselves experts is an edge. Know what I mean by “edge”? It’s one of those places where you bump up against your fears of the unknown – where you feel like, “Yikes, I don’t know what’s out there and it’s safer to stay where I am.”

Why Do I Care About This So Much?

Let’s take the example of my mom, who nearly turned down a public speaking opportunity because she didn’t think she had anything valuable to say (because she only had, you know, thirty years’ experience in her field).

  • When we don’t speak at conferences, we miss opportunities to build our profile, impact, and prestige.
  • AND… our voices and perspectives aren’t heard.
  • AND… the conversation is dominated by whoever believes they have something worthwhile to say. (N.B. This doesn’t mean they actually have something worthwhile to say.)
  • AND… the business book industry, conferences, business newspapers and magazines, even business blogs, are seriously lacking in diversity.

Beyond public speaking, though, this is a broader issue.

  • We aren’t growing our businesses at the same rate as men. We run fewer million-dollar businesses, and get less venture capital funding, than men.
  • We are underrepresented in the political arena, at every level, around the world.
  • We are still battling serious income & wealth inequality.
  • We don’t have the same level of representation on corporate boards as men.
  • And we lack visibility in other areas.

As I see it, there are 3 layers to this:

  1. Individual: You miss out on personal opportunities.
  2. Social: Your friends don’t see you doing it, so they assume they aren’t ready either.
  3. Community: Women’s perspectives are underrepresented.

If you need a reason to motivate you to play a bigger game, I invite you to pick one of those three.

  1. Do it for yourself.
  2. Do it for your friends.
  3. Do it for womankind!

Lest I Seem Oblivious to Structural Problems…

Let me pause here to say that I’m not suggesting all of these issues can be solved through confidence alone. There are structural problems at every level that contribute to this issue. 

I’m focusing today on this small piece of the puzzle, because while we can’t always control our external environment (or change it as quickly as we’d like), we can control our behaviour. There is inner work & outer work to do. I’m focusing now on the inner work.

Your Inner Critic and The Four Kinds of Experts

OK, so that’s why this matters. Let’s talk about how you get from point A (hiding your light under a bushel) to point B (stepping up to the mic).

In my experience, most women who experience imposter syndrome have a hyperactive inner critic. The inner critic:

  • Exaggerates the level of risk. (If you mess up, what is the worst that can happen?)
  • Has an all-or-nothing, black-and-white view of things (e.g. has dark fantasies about bombing a keynote in front of thousands of people, whereas that’s highly unlikely to be your first speaking gig).
  • Judges and shames you, rather than simply pointing out facts.
  • Confuses expertise with infallibility. (There’s no room for error.)

Let’s spend a minute looking at this last piece – expertise vs. infallibility. I love Tara Sophia Mohr’s take on expertise; she describes four types of experts in this wonderful, insanely helpful piece over at 99U:

  1. The Survivor: You lived through something and want to share what you learned.
  2. The Cross Trainer: You have your feet in two disciplines – say, business and running – and enjoying finding connections between the two.
  3. The Called: Something deep within you needs to be part of the conversation on a particular topic.
  4. The Specialist: You might have a couple of academic degrees and/or books to your name on the subject.

When our inner critic is at work, we have a tendency to focus on #4, The Specialist, to the exclusion of all the others. We haven’t done a complete literature review; therefore, we can’t possibly claim to know anything. We haven’t subjected our work to a peer-review process; therefore, our perspectives don’t hold any water.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Being wrong about some things doesn’t make your ideas worthless. And if you hold out for a Ph.D. in everything you have to say, odds are we’ll never get to hear it – and we’ll be poorer for it.

Helpful Internal Feedback, or Inner Critic?

The tricky part is, while the inner critic is not helpful, we have to learn how discern between the inner critic and helpful internal feedback.

So, for example, let’s say you are experimenting with the idea of offering a new product line. And it’s a departure from what you are currently doing. When you’re entering new territory, your mind is always going, and always chattering away at you, right?

Sometimes that inner voice does have a good point or two. So how do you tell the difference between valid contributions and unhelpful criticism?

Helpful internal feedback points out gaps, thinks of tasks you need to do – e.g. “We are going to need to reach a new market with this – who is that, and how can we reach them?”

The voice is creative, inquiring, curious, open.

The inner critic is a straight-up bully. It focuses on beating you up & shutting you down. “You are so ______.” “Everyone is going to think _______.” It has a worst-case scenario focus, the tone is anxious, worried, and negative – and it speaks in statements, not questions. (Again, a hat-tip here to Tara Sophia Mohr, who helped refine my thinking on this question.)

Managing Your Inner Critic

The key to managing your inner critic is to tune in, and notice who’s talking. When you recognize the critic at work, you can try different techniques:

  • Turn down the volume. I like to picture myself in a soundproof recording booth, and the inner critic is in the studio. I have headphones on, and a gigantic control panel in front of me. The critic can keep talking into the mic, but I just lower all the volume switches to zero until the critic is inaudible.
  • Acknowledge and invite constructive input. “OK, I hear you. Now, do you have anything constructive to add?”
  • Let the fire burn itself out. A friend of mine prefers to taunt his inner critic: “Bring it on! Is that all you got? Come on, come at me.” Eventually, this rope-a-dope strategy pays off when the inner critic runs out of new material, and you can get on with things, unimpeded.

Confidence Boosters

What else can you do to boost your confidence when you’re pushing up against an edge?

Amy Cuddy’s research on posture demonstrates  that when we assume “power positions” – standing in a “victory lap” pose with our arms outstretched (I think of this as “The Steve Holt“), for example – we become more self-confident, and others perceive us as more competent. I often employ this technique to calm my nerves before a speaking gig, a meeting with a new prospective client, or any other occasion when I’m pushing up against an edge.

Other posture alternatives, if you’re not able to get enough privacy (or muster enough courage) to stand like Wonder Woman in public:

  • Stand (or sit) up straight
  • Get big
  • Lean forward
  • Find your own power posture: Ask your body to find a position that feels centered and powerful, and lock into that posture so you can recall it later.

Beyond your physical stance, you can also:

  • Move your body. Dancing to your favourite tune shifts your energy in incredible ways.
  • Carry a power totem. I’ve worn my late grandmother’s wedding rings on days when I needed a reminder that my roots go deep and that I’m part of something greater than myself. It helps me keep my worries in perspective.
  • Practice. Start small, and find lower-risk ways to expand past your edges.
  • Try a perspective shift: “If I were an expert at _____, how would I tackle this?

The difference will not be instantaneous. It is a process. But it gets easier. You are building a muscle.

And as the wonderful Steven Pressfield, in his must-read book, The War of Art, reminds us:

“Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do.

“Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”

Questions to ask yourself

  • Where are you being invited to play a bigger game?
  • When do you catch yourself downplaying your worthiness?
  • What would you need in order to close the gap between where you are now and where you could be?
  • Who motivates you to play bigger? (For yourself, for your peers, for womankind)
  • How will you shift your energy the next time you’re pushing up against an edge?

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12 Responses to “Expert Enough, Take 2: Why Imposter Syndrome Matters, and How to Overcome It” Subscribe

  1. Channing 20 Jun 2013 at 3:19 pm #

    Lauren! This is so helpful. One thing I really like about this piece is that – besides helping me to see where we all take the wind out of my own sails and suggesting ways to claim power – you totally nailed the things I already subconsciously do to find strength and by calling it for what it is, made those practices that much more powerful. My great grandmother’s ring also comes out at times when I need to remember my roots, and I am never calling it a lucky charm again. Hello, power totem!

  2. Ashley Milne-Tyte 21 Jun 2013 at 11:17 am #

    Wonderful post, Lauren, thanks for focusing on this. This is exactly why I’m doing The Broad Experience – and it’s also what the Write/Speak/Code conference is concentrating on today and tomorrow (I was just there briefly). Women are so hard on ourselves. I learned about 12 years ago that maybe I wasn’t as ‘bad’ at my then job as I thought I was, when I realized one of my older colleagues (who I had assumed must be fabulous at his job simply because he was 25 years older then me and talked a lot) was full of bluster. He was actually not a great writer and rather an ineffectual worker. But he was always talking himself up, and I fell for it. It was a much needed lesson in not being taken in by pompousness and having some faith in my own abilities to do the job.

  3. Tanya Geisler 22 Jun 2013 at 9:46 am #

    My goodness. What an artfully crafted, rich and wise resource. Beautifully done, Lauren.

    Two areas I always go back to is “bolstering your authority thesis” and “assembling your cast”. The people (YOUR people) want to help you hold your brilliance, radiance and shine. They remember all that you’ve forgotten about your expertise.

    So happy to see this being spoken to in such a meaningful way. You know how passionate I am about it.
    XO
    TG

  4. Alex 24 Jul 2013 at 9:16 am #

    Thank you so much! I so identify with concentrating on #4 and having to be an ‘expert’ in everything and feeling like an expert in nothing. Love the ways you give to turn down your inner critic, the power poses and the idea of keeping an object of significance about your person.

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