Banish Impostor Syndrome by Designing your Superhero (Self-Awareness)

How to create an alter-ego with the confidence, courage and capability to tackle that exciting (but scary) new job that your brain wants you to believe you aren't really up to...

Impostor Syndrome
Photo: Flickr/Spiced Coffee

What is impostor syndrome?

If you are a human being, and you care – even just a bit – about what other people think, you have almost certainly experienced Impostor Syndrome.  It is insidious.  It can be debilitating.

…And it is completely false.

Impostor Syndrome
Photo: Flickr/Spiced Coffee

Experienced more frequently by women, and usually when you first move into a new role, especially if it is a more senior position, the feeling of being a ‘fraud' who's about to be ‘found out' can be overwhelming.

Even the most overtly confident individuals experience it – you aren't alone!  Tara Millette wrote an excellent piece on this a few weeks ago, you should definitely have a look at that.

Psychologically, impostor syndrome occurs for a number of interrelated reasons:

  • You are moving into a new role where there will be a learning curve – so you're highly attentive to the areas of knowledge or skill that you lack, precisely because you want to be effective and make a good first impression
  • You ‘self-schema‘ hasn't caught up with your most recently developed skills and competencies – so you don't yet view yourself as being qualified for the role
  • You've spent time admiring those in similar roles, even being coached or mentored by them, and suddenly you are one of them – you're a little overwhelmed
  • Your brain is reacting to impending change by trying to protect you from it – “change is dangerous” (thinks your reptilian brain) “get away from here!” – so just to make sure you don't get too comfortable, your inner critic starts trying to persuade you it won't last long

Don't worry – we'll get to the superhero bit in a minute…

But first, some practical tips:

  • Remember – nobody else is thinking about you – they're all thinking about themselves!
  • Write down your daily successes – you'll soon find there are many
  • Be grateful for – and take ownership of – praise when it comes your way – it will, and you deserve it!

Design your superhero!

Now I can't take any credit for this idea – I picked it up from an interview of Todd Herman by Tony Robbins (you can listen to it here).

Lego Superheroes
Photo: MaxPixel

First, you need to be in an environment where you can safely have some fun with this – I suggest that isn't in the workplace where you feel like an impostor!

Step 1:  Visualize somebody performing exceptionally well in the role

Find a quiet spot, close your eyes, and imagine the most successful individual you can, nailing the role in question.  They've got it figured out, they show up to work and hit it out of the park!  Based on what you already know about the role, visualize the specifics of these successes – how would it look?  How would it feel?  Where does it occur?  Use as many of your senses to bring this to life as possible.  Give yourself at least five to ten minutes on this.  Work through some of the big objectives and projects you know the person in the role needs to deliver.  Imagine the highly effective relationships that are in place and flourishing – with peers, with the boss, with clients.  Imagine delivering the flawless presentation, the perfect pitch, the supremely successful product launch…

Step 2:  Write down the skills and competencies of this ‘made-up' individual

List of Skills
Photo: StockSnap

Take a pen and paper, and jot down all the things that come to mind in response to the question “what skills and capabilities did that individual have that made them successful?” particularly as it was perceived by those around them.  How did it look from the outside?

Were they outgoing?  Smart?  Humorous? Analytical? Decisive? Supportive of others? Visionary? Good with numbers?

The list should be as long as you can make it.

Step 3:  Focus on the ‘difference makers'

Not all skills or competencies are created equal.  Thinking back to Step One – which of the items on your list made the biggest contribution to success?  Focus and narrow down until you have 3-5 skills.  Refine them if you need to – sometimes there is an alternative skill that covers more than one – like gregarious could combine outgoing and humourous.   Rank them from most important to least.

Step 4:  Build your ‘super-powers'

Create a table with each of your difference-maker traits at the top of each column.  Underneath, write down any information you can that would help you ‘wield' your super-power.  In the podcast I referred to above, Todd Herman talks about how he bought a pair of non-prescription glasses, because he knew to be successful he needed others to see him as ‘smart' and all the smart people he knew wore glasses.

Do gregarious people tell jokes?  Do analytical people memorise facts and figures?  How would somebody else know whether you had these characteristics or not?

Step 5: Give yourself ‘permission' to play the role – don your costume!

Once you are clear about how someone would behave if they were qualified to be successful in the role, JUST DO IT!

Logically, you know that you have the qualifications and the skills – it is your subjective emotional brain telling you that you don't.  It is protecting you from ‘danger'.  But if you are just pretending… well that's not so scary.

If you need to, you may want to use a prop – like Todd's glasses.  A small (unobtrusive) symbol or stance (Tara talks about a power pose) that you know about, but nobody else does, that allows you to ‘assume' the role.  To get into character.

You might carry something with you, or push your (real) glasses up your nose, or you might just know deep down that you're wearing your lucky underwear – it doesn't matter to anyone but you!

Step 6: Practice and have fun

The fabulous thing about this exercise is you aren't actually faking it.  You are simply creating the conditions where you can give yourself permission to assume the characteristics the role requires of you – that you were capable of anyway, but you were doubting and second-guessing.

And the more you do it, the more it becomes a part of who you are and what you do – you just need to embrace the discomfort of assuming your new role as though it was an unfamiliar superhero costume and eventually it will become second nature – thereby fooling your brain into accepting what it previously saw as a threatening situation.

This won't make impostor syndrome go away forever – but it will give you greater confidence in how to handle it next time it rears its head!
I am a human systems futurist committed to making organisations and individuals more effective through the power of mindful, insightful and proactive leadership. I fundamentally believe that all people have the potential within them to achieve greatness. With my insights into the way systems work (and how to change them), how people communicate, and the way our own brains work (or don’t work) I strive to unleash this potential for the benefit of humankind.