Sitting on the floor at Esalen in coaching training, I shared how confidence in my writing had dropped and imposter syndrome set in. I had been writing and publishing blog posts every month or so. It took some confidence to start, but I felt that if my writing helped someone, it was worth it, which gave me the confidence I needed.
If I told you I would post my articles and then forget about them, I would be lying. I checked to see how many people read them. I couldn’t let go of it. The numbers were small, but it made me happy to know people read my posts and hopefully found them helpful.
And then, something unexpected happened. I published a post, and for once, I didn’t track the views. I went on a meditation retreat. When the retreat ended, I logged back into my accounts, and what I saw shocked me. An online leadership magazine saw the post and tweeted about it. While I spent four days in silence, thousands of people were reading my words. More people saw my writing, and I was excited. And I suddenly didn’t feel good enough. My confidence was gone. I felt like an imposter.
As I told this story, I was grappling with my inability to take the next step. It was as bad as the first time I published my writing, worse even. Now I had readers, what if my next article wasn’t as good? What if these people read it and are disappointed, or that I have nothing to share. At that point, it had been a couple of months, and I had not published anything at all.
The leader of the training, Peter, sat on the floor next to me and the difference between us felt huge. He is the writer of a WSJ bestseller and has published hundreds of articles for HBR. In many ways, he was where I wanted to be.
He put a hand on my leg and said, “Every time I publish an article on HBR, it is the number one article that week. And then one article wasn’t. It wasn’t even in the top 10. I felt like I had lost my gift. I couldn’t write.”
As he told this story, it became clear that my lack of confidence wasn’t due to having a broader audience. And his doubts weren’t associated with his set back. We both had unrealistic beliefs. I believed that my writing couldn’t be valuable to thousands of people. He thought that if his article wasn’t the best article on HBR every time, he was no good. In both cases, we could no longer match how we identified ourselves with our experiences. We both had a degree of imposter syndrome.
There are three techniques I have found that can help you deal with imposter syndrome.
1. Cultivate new ways of seeing yourself.
I was a writer reaching a few hundred people. When that changed by 10x, I wasn’t sure I could be that new person. Peter was always the writer with the top article on HBR, and when he wasn’t, he doubted if he ever was. A small amount of success can be as scary as a small set back. Both call into question the narrative we have about ourselves.
We often suffer from the end-of-history illusion. This illusion is the idea that, while we have achieved significant growth in the past, we are not likely to change in the future. Early in my career as an engineer, I still saw myself as a Jazz musician. I wasn’t always a Jazz musician, but I grew into that identity over time as I played in college. As an engineer, I didn’t feel like I would ever grow into that identity. Of course, I did. And over time, my identity changed to be a product leader and now a coach. But as I crossed into each new area, it felt like it wasn’t me. I had to change my story to allow for a new identity.
It is also hard to see ourselves in a role if we don’t have examples. This need for models is why diversity is so important and why the barrier VP-elect Kamala Harris broke is so meaningful. It is hard to see ourselves in a role if we don’t see others like us doing it. We can break through that barrier by having a broader view of our own identities and seeing ourselves in multiple ways.
2. Don’t judge your insides by other people’s outsides.
Part of the challenge of imposter syndrome is we feel we are alone. We compare how we feel on the inside with how others appear on the outside. We tend to think that everyone else has it all together. The truth is we are all balls of emotions, thoughts, and anxieties. We handle it the best we can, and it can help to know that other people are probably feeling the same way, despite what it may look like on the outside.
When Peter told me his story, I suddenly saw him in a new way. I still saw him as the writer and coach that I admire, but I also saw that he had the same fears. It helped to normalize my concerns. All too often, we see examples of how we think we should be. And we assume that those people are wholly confident and sure of themselves. They aren’t. We all have frailties and doubts. And the reason those doubts are so crippling is that we assume we are alone.
3. Feel awkward, and do it anyway.
Trying new things is always challenging. Growing is uncomfortable. We can’t avoid the feelings of awkwardness or discomfort. What we can do is acknowledge them, embrace them, and act anyway. When we are transitioning from one state to the next, we are in a liminal state. Liminal states are points of ambiguity. These points can feel disorienting and can make people feel like imposters. This uncertainty is how it is supposed to feel when stretching and growing. Being uncomfortable doesn’t mean you are an imposter. It means you are right where you should be.
Gaining confidence and getting rid of imposter syndrome is not an unrealistic belief that you can do anything or are perfect. That is hubris. Confidence comes with humility, realizing you are changing and growing, and that is ok. The feeling won’t go away. The opportunity is to embrace it. Feel the discomfort and act anyway.
As you can see, I have gotten past my writer’s block. And every time I post, it still feels weird, and I still question myself. Even now, hitting publish is a small act of courage. But it doesn’t stop me. I write and publish anyway, embracing the discomfort and pushing forward to the next challenge.