Fake…Poser…Imposter… These words can be found lurking in the corners of your mind.
That is, the fear that you do not deserve to be in the good position you are in, be it school, work, or any place of success and recognition. We have often heard the phrase to ‘fake it until we make it’, but that is different than believing that we are nothing unless someone tells us we are. Similar to the question about a tree falling in the forest – do you exist if no one sees your brilliance but you? Do you see your essential goodness and love yourself when nobody’s watching? If not, then you may have a touch of the imposter syndrome.
Hope Robs Us of the Present Moment
Pema Chödrön nails this imposter syndrome perfectly: “Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something; they come from a sense of poverty. We can’t simply relax with ourselves. We hold on to hope, and hope robs us of the present moment. We feel that someone else knows what is going on, but that there is something missing in us, and therefore something is lacking in our world.”
Many of us were taught or caught the idea that who we were was not right. In the moment we believed it. We then began creating another image of ourselves and feeding it with alleged proof of our inadequacy whenever we made a mistake, extra solidification if pointed out by someone with institutional or cultural or familial power. It eroded the innate internal value that we were all born with as children.
Imposters Can’t Lose
We call wolves loners, whereas in fact they are very tribal and take care of their own. Like them, we are also tribal, but we become loners in carefully crafted ways so people can’t see that we are not what we pretend. We may have wonderful achievements, both big and small, as mothers, as business owners, as community members, but we never truly embrace it because we think we couldn’t possibly be that successful. We credit people, events, luck or God. We develop an aversion for that place where mistakes are seen as growth opportunities, instead hanging out where we know THE answer. Why? Imposters can’t lose – it will blow our cover.
Problem is, we have to lose! Money, relationships, work, ideas, love, certainty.
One thing our imposter image is really good at is accepting blame, shame, and guilt. I called a Latina supervisor out of a retreat room once because her staff was going to surprise her with flowers and appreciations. As we left she said, “What did I do wrong?” This is a favorite question of our imposter syndrome. As we waited for the signal to re-enter the room, she said: “I hope they aren’t going to do something bad to me.” I chastised her: “Why don’t you think of something positive instead of worrying? And anyway, I would never let that happen on my watch.” I paused, hearing my judgmental stance, and switched the channel to compassion: “I have those thoughts too, it is an old script in my head. It will never go away, but I catch it sooner and sooner, and so will you.”
A buddhist precept encourages us not to praise self at the expense of others. This does not mean not appreciating our genuine efforts and success. It means we are not unduly boastful of our success OR of our errors, which is – surprise – another way of praising ourselves: “Look how good I am at being stupid or clumsy or inattentive.”
Internalized Subtle Messages
I did not truly believe in my innate value until well into my thirties. My mother nitpicked at my sense of worth partly based on her own sense of unworthiness as an immigrant with a thick accent. She also saw me have success in areas she could not. An odd legacy for many of us is the presumption we have to do “better” than our parents. This can result in harmful competitive energy between children and parents. I also internalized subtle messages from media and from my lived experience that Latinas were meant to be farmworkers, office help, child care workers, or maids and this culture denigrates those roles. Even though I attended first La Verne College and then Stanford University, my jobs included dorm maid, work-study office assistant, church service child care provider, and fast food cook.
Role Models Matter
I had one woman of color professor during my undergraduate time in college, none when I received my MSW. By the time I entered my MFA program, I insisted on having my two advisors be women of color. I knew, by then, that role models who navigated many of the challenges I faced were a critical key to believing in my true self, not the image of what most writers look like.
Gabby Douglas, the first African American to win an Olympic all around gold medal, said: “I loved Dominique Dawes. She inspired me to do bigger and better things.” Dawes, for her part, cried her way through an interview after Douglas’ big win. “I think what touches my heart the most is knowing that there’s a whole generation of young kids looking up to her as they looked up to me,” she said.
In an article on role models, Oprah names Maya Angelou as hers and said: “Over the years, she has taught me some of the most profound lessons of my life: that when we know better, we do better; that to love someone is to liberate, not possess, them; that negative words have the power to seep into the furniture and into our skin; that we should be grateful even for our trials.”
Here are some tips on how to diffuse this invisible energy field that drains our sense of worth:
1. Give yourself many chances to lose. Imposters are terrified of being found out – this inner mole will always point us toward the direction of what we know well. Accepting your authentic worth means getting out and playing the game. If you are naked of your well-crafted disguises, you will get hurt. When this happens to me in quick succession, I feel a deep pain that sometimes seep down into the small remaining embers of my imposter syndrome – “you see,” it says, “you were a fake all along”.
2. Know what to do with the disappointment. This is a whole blog in itself. The quick answer is to go talk about it with people who do not practice shame or blame. Remember that isolation is the cornerstone of the imposter syndrome and of oppresssion.
3. Finally, count your breaths, find time to play and rest, and be grateful for every chance to live boldly. It is hard to show up messy. There will be tears. Even the buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh cries. There will be bruises. STAY. Breathe. Trust.
The imposter syndrome is tough to release and it absolutely can be shrunk to a light breeze that comes and goes. No matter what anyone else does, we can ALWAYS give ourselves another chance and “failing” is how we have learned since birth. It is just information to use for the next time we step up and commit to living our one wild and precious life!