The Charlatan Within: Wrestling with Imposter Syndrome

How often do you feel like a fraud? It’s happened to all of us. At some point or other, we all know what it feels like to struggle with the burden of feeling like we don’t measure up or as if we’re passing under false pretenses. Those nagging questions, “What am I doing here? Is this my group? Do I qualify?” can burrow their way into our awareness, leaving us feeling jittery. Sound familiar? The challenge for all re-booters is to move to a place where these questions arise less and less of the time.

Recently, I started working with an executive coach to help me get a handle on what in the hell it is that I think I’m doing with my life, and she introduced the possibility that maybe I experienced some of this. Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I do. I hadn’t thought of it quite that way, but now that she articulated it for me, the picture is coming a bit more into focus. I suffer from Imposter Syndrome. There. I said it. Not in all cases and not in all circumstances, and I have sufficient confidence that it might surprise some of you to hear me profess this, but here I am saying it. To you.

The anxiety we feel when we worry that we’re not good enough or somehow have arrived in this “place” by mistake or, maybe, that those around us—you know, the ones who truly “belong”—simply haven’t looked closely enough to recognize that we don’t fit in amongst their august group is an uncomfortable reaction that settles into the pit of our stomach or clutches at our chest. Is this an issue for you in some part of your life?

I bet it is.

In terms of re-booting, there is usually a sense that we don’t fully mesh with the life we are living, whether that’s because we detest our inescapable relatives or the career we’re stuck in or you name it. I mean, look at Bruce Jenner, right? Talk about agony. “This isn’t fully me,” we mutter under our breath, vaguely uneasy. “I’m not sure I fit in.” For me, I feel like I’m wobbling around, straddling life in two canoes, trying to hold it together as they drift further and further apart. There are many such dilemmas, but mine (for right now) is my career path. Part of me was/is the professional, accomplished, Type A obsessive/compulsive performer, but another is the creative, somewhat scattered and definitely random but hopefully funny writer. Except 1) I’m no longer a professional and only-sort of-in-the-most-attenuated-way a lawyer, but 2) I’m not quite a writer yet—not in any real way that “counts”. I’m trying to be both, but not very convincingly. Am I fooling myself or do I think I’m fooling you? Because the whole thing makes me anxious, I shut down this line of thought, put my game face on, and head onto the field…

I hate this sort of dissonance. What’s worse is the internal debate about what it is I’m going to do about it. This sort of purgatory is a key reason we need to re-boot our lives. It’s what propels us forward.

Perhaps you grew up in a family where athletic prowess is the highest form of achievement and while, sure, you’ve got long legs and can run like the wind, you’ve never cared about being a pass receiver or hurdler; you’d way rather play the tuba. Only, there’s not enough time to go to practice and study music, besides nobody at home wants to hear you honkin’ away, so it’s easier to make them proud embracing a sport that doesn’t interest you much—even if you’re great at it. Or perhaps you think of yourself as an artist only you’ve never had a show and only sold a couple of works for a couple of bucks, a couple of years ago. Have you “earned” the title of being an artist? Do you deserve to consider yourself part of this group? Two different constructs. Two different types of dilemmas. Same fraudulent feeling. Do you see where I’m going with this?

Where in your life do you feel like you don’t belong? Why is that? What possible steps might you take to move closer to that place where you do fit? What shift or attitude adjustment might you make to own what it is you really want? Where you’re closer to being the authentic you instead of the imposter you?


Take five minutes to think about this.

A few nights ago, I trooped downtown to the conference room of some big, fancy law firm to attend one of those university alumni lecture things about marketing and personal branding. Since I am a terrible self-promoter, I found it quite helpful, but one slide the professor showed really caught my attention. “Prepping Yourself to be Found” it proclaimed in bold letters. Prepping yourself to be found. Allowing ourselves to be seen. Is this something you want? To be seen? As you really and truly are? As you wish yourself to be? The artist tuba player? It’s easier to stay hidden, isn’t it? It’s safer to pretend we’re somebody else—that jock who ignores the band nerds.

“I’m tired of pretending I like them, anymore,” confessed a friend discussing their self-absorbed and utterly dominating in-laws. Now, while I would never encourage anyone to be their authentic self by expressing open disdain to extended family, I can sympathize with the forced, tight smile or feigned indifference we must assume when who we are clashes with what we want. Imposter Syndrome arrives cloaked in all the colors of the rainbow. What cloak does yours wear?

The goal of re-booting is to shed some of these layers, to strip away what we find stifling, to embrace that part of ourselves we’ve been fighting all these years. If it helps any, know that I continue to want to call myself a writer but struggle with whether or not I deserve it. But then, I tell myself, there are a lot of crappy writers out there—way worse than I—who run around all day long proclaiming to the world, “I’m a writer!” So, why not me?

Why not you?


Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

2 Responses to “The Charlatan Within: Wrestling with Imposter Syndrome”

  1. Jim Patterson Says:


    The Imposter Syndrome is another out-picturing of the inner critic that says we are never good enough. In this case, there is an internal image or goal that must be achieved, otherwise we feel we have not “made it” in life.

    The problem is that us perfectionistic and obsessive types never carefully look at what constitutes success. Does it mean we have won awards, are highly acclaimed in our social circles or people are constantly coming to us for our wisdom and advice?

    With an active inner critic in place, the problem is no matter what we achieve and do, it is never enough. Even when we achieve a level of success the inner voice speaks to us that it is not good enough or worthy of mention. We are quick to dismiss our accomplishments and achievements as insufficient.

    We also tend to measure our success in the classic terms of more money, fame, or recognition. We want validation from the outside, from others, and never think that we need to focus on validation from the inside, because that is what will make a difference. We need to stop relying on the recognition of others but instead we need to recognize ourselves

    The problem is internal recognition is even harder then external recognition because our criteria are unachievable visa vie the inner critic.

    It all starts with self parenting and giving ourselves credit for what we have learned, how we have grown and why we are a better person today then years ago—stronger more resilient, more thoughtful etc.

    We can also stop looking at external achievements as the ultimate validation of our worth and instead focus on our character as an equally valid measure. And in fact, it is character that most people remember about us and in my opinion, it is what more hiring companies focus on over the long haul.

    Anyway, it sounds like your counselor is giving you some things to think on…..good for you.

    Enjoy the flowers of spring!


  2. dignitarysretreat Says:

    Great feedback, Jim. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: