Make Peace with Your Mind
A very common example of the ubiquitous nature of the critic is the phenomenon of “imposter syndrome” — the feeling that you don’t deserve to be where you are in life. It’s estimated that 70 percent of people have imposter syndrome. How many times have you been in front of a class, or asked to give a presentation as an authority on some issue, or invited to perform in a concert, or picked for the best sports team, and felt like a fake? Or what about those times when you have gone for an interview where you are supposed to present yourself as a specialist and felt like an imposter?
Imposter syndrome commonly appears as the voice that says, “Who do you think you are?” This voice of self-doubt and deprecation haunts multitudes. It even appeared to the Buddha on the night of his enlightenment. When I first heard that, I thought, “At least I’m in good company!” For a more contemporary example of how ubiquitous this pattern is, Meryl Streep, the most Academy Award–nominated actor in history, said in an interview, “Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?”
Sometimes that feeling of fraudulence comes when you actually get the job. Have you ever felt that if people only knew who you really are, you’d be found out, they’d be disappointed, or you’d be fired on the spot? Whether you are a janitor or CEO, you’re susceptible to this feeling of being a fraud.
Toward the end of his life, Einstein admitted that he felt like “an involuntary swindler.” Almost every renowned figure has had their own version. “I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people,” John Steinbeck wrote in his diary in 1938. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has said, “There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud.” And, of course, if we listen to the whispers or taunts of the inner critic, we will firmly believe we ourselves are a fraud, that we don’t deserve to be where we are.
People often get that feeling in relationships too. Perhaps you land the relationship or partner of your dreams. And as good as that is, you are plagued with a haunting feeling of anxiety that takes the form of “If they only knew what I am really like, they would leave.” Such self-diminishment can actually jeopardize the very relationship we care about if we believe those thoughts.
For me there is nothing like being a mindfulness teacher to spark this sense of being an imposter. How often have I showed up to teach a class on meditation or given a lecture on patience, when one hour prior, I was sitting in traffic on the freeway, frustrated about the state of traffic and anxious about getting to my class on time? I was not looking like the picture of serenity many students would expect. I was not floating on clouds as I sat there inhaling exhaust fumes! Or I could be giving a lecture on how mindfulness helps develop a moment-to-moment attention and how that improves memory and spatial awareness. And yet, before going to that class, I had to spend fifteen minutes retracing my movements that day because I couldn’t, for the life of me, find my keys!
Fortunately, I have learned enough about mindfulness to know it is not about being perfect, but about how you relate to and stay present for each moment’s experience, with a kind, wise attention. And for me that sometimes means being present to anxiety, frustration, or confusion, just as it does for anybody else on the planet.
What if you were to believe you were the right person for the job or the perfect choice for your soul mate? How would it feel to stand at the front of an audience and know you had every right to be standing right there, with authority and confidence? Can you imagine taking your place in the boardroom and knowing you have every reason to be there?
It is possible to overcome imposter syndrome. Here’s how:
Step 1: Use mindful awareness to recognize imposter syndrome when it is operating. As soon as we see something with mindfulness, it can no longer hold us in its spell the same way it did when it was unconscious. Recognize imposter syndrome when it is operating. As soon as we are aware of something, it can no longer hold us in its grip the same way it did when it was unconscious. So although it can be painful to notice the pattern of imposter syndrome, doing so is the start of freeing yourself from its shackles.
Step 2: Start to pay attention when those undermining thoughts are operating. Try to detect the voices that question your authority, experience, or ability. Notice what they are saying. It’s only when we see those thoughts clearly that we can begin to distance ourselves from them and limit their impact.
Step 3: Question the thoughts themselves. These thoughts don’t have a monopoly on the truth, and the less we believe them, the more they will wither on the vine. We can begin to shift away from focusing on them or believing them, and instead focus on something that is more true, present, and positive.
Step 4: Begin to remember your gifts, experience, and talent, which stand in direct opposition to the self-doubting thoughts. Since the critic is so pervasive, it’s important to balance its taunts with an objective perspective. Instead of listening to all the reasons why you shouldn’t be giving the presentation or getting the job, turn your attention to the unique set of strengths and skills you bring to any situation, person, or team. It’s essential to keep doing this, to ground your perspective in reality, not some distorted view.
Copyright ©2016 by Mark Coleman. All rights reserved.
Mark Coleman is the author of Make Peace with Your Mind and Awake in the Wild. He is the founder of the Mindfulness Institute and has an MA in Clinical Psychology. Mark has guided students on five continents as a corporate consultant, counselor, meditation teacher, and wilderness guide. He lives in Northern California. Visit him online at www.markcoleman.org.