Podcast: Is Imposter Syndrome Defining Your Internal Stories?

Sarah Elkins | Your Stories Don't Define You | episode 2

Imposter syndrome, according to Cambridge dictionary online, is "the feeling that your achievements are not real, or that you do not deserve praise or success."

Sharing a story at Tell Us Something, Helena, Montana, April 2017

Sharing a story at Tell Us Something, Helena, Montana, April 2017

In other words, when you're outwardly successful, but often feel like a fraud, like at some point everyone will know about the "real" you.

There have been major studies about this phenomena, and great articles have been written to describe outwardly, wildly successful people who suffer from it. The article says that a person with imposter syndrome attaches almost exclusively external factors to their success, e.g. I was in the right place at the right time, I was fortunate to..., the opportunity landed in my lap, etc. While they attribute their failures internally, e.g. I'm not smart enough, I wasn't paying enough attention, etc.

Then there are those who turn it completely around, the non-imposter syndrome professionals who attribute their success almost entirely to their own intelligence, beauty, savvy, etc., and their failures are all externally driven, e.g. he didn't want me to succeed, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, if only ---- had happened, etc. There's a Harvard Business Review article about overcoming imposter syndrome, placing the internal messages right up front in dealing with those minimizing thoughts.

I think there's a lot more to this. People who don't acknowledge the external contributing factors to their success, who describe themselves as "self made", are missing a major component of humility and humanity. No one is self-made, literally. But way beyond that, we have to consider genetics, family economic status, public utilities (if you're a manufacturer, guaranteed you use public roads to distribute your goods), education (even in the poorest communities, there are some fantastic, motivated educators), and access to mentors. Some people are driven by spite, so even a negative influence contributed to your success.

There are also those factors that contribute to failure: Do you acknowledge the internal factors? If you cannot take responsibility for those things you didn't succeed with, you're missing great opportunities for growth and connection with others. Blaming outside, external forces for failure means you do not acknowledge those moments when you were truly human. Where does that leave you?

Your internal messages come from all of your experiences, from your very early interactions, through your young adulthood. It's no wonder those messages are hard to fight; we're hard-wired to keep those messages, once they're placed in our heads. They've created pathways in our brain. It can be impossible to change them if you aren't aware of them, or where they came from.

I was walking through the open space of a friend's dorm with her, and two VERY tall basketball players stopped to say hello. One of them asked me out, and I said no thanks.

He put his huge hands on my hips and easily lifted me to set me down on top of a vending machine. I was in a sundress, the vending machine was very tall, and there was no way I could jump down.

I blushed deep pink and asked him to help me down. He laughed:

I'll help you down if you say you'll go out with me.

I shook my head no, and stared directly at his friend, the one I knew to be a nice guy.

Dude. That's not cool. Get her down from there.

He didn't, so his friend helped me down and apologized. When he put me down, I looked up (WAY up) at the culprit and said:

I. AM. NOT. A. TOY. Don't EVER do that again - to anyone.

They walked away, and I could hear the nice guy giving the other one a hard time. I was furious.

That wasn't the first time someone picked me up without my permission. As a matter of fact, it had happened many times. In elementary school, everyone wanted to give me piggy-back rides. In high school, I was asked to play one of the very young daughters in Fiddler on the Roof, though I had auditioned for a speaking, singing role.

Why? Because I'm small. I was lucky to pass 5' my freshman year of college; highly unusual for a girl to grow that late in life, but I did, and thank goodness. All I wanted was to outgrow my mother! But it's not just my height. When I graduated from college, I still weighed under 100 pounds. I couldn't find women's shoes in size 4.5 or 5, making professional outfits very difficult to complete.

I know this can sound really awesome, and it is in most ways; I am generally the most comfortable person on an airplane. Being small also means looking young, at least it does for me. The last time I was ID'd at a bar I was 41 years old. But when I was a professional in my late 20s and early 30s, looking young did not help me at all in getting others to take me seriously. In one meeting I was facilitating, a women in her 50s was dismissive toward me until I found an opportunity to share my age with the group. She looked at me, startled, and suddenly began to pay attention to me.

When a good friend recently heard about a trip I was taking, we were visiting about my expectations, and my concerns about it. I said: "It feels weird, Callie, like I'm just little Sarah from Montana, what do I have to contribute to this group?" I wasn't entirely serious; I know my value and I know I can make a difference in any situation. But that little voice spoke up, and it had to come from somewhere, right? She looked at me, a little shocked, and said: "Sarah. NO ONE thinks of you as little Sarah. NO ONE."

It took me a while to process that conversation; I had to dig into why I had that self-limiting voice still speaking to me. That's when I realized it has a lot to do with my size, and the way I was perceived because of it. When I meet someone and I'm sitting down, they are always visibly surprised to see how petite I am when I stand up. Clearly the way I'm presenting myself is much taller than my actual height.

Before my 20th high school reunion, I had dreams that I was in my old school, wandering through the halls saying hello to people. The weird thing was that I was much taller in my dream. I woke up a little disappointed, until I realized that's how I saw myself now, not as a physically taller person, but taller in stature.

A friend recently described himself as big and goofy, and I asked him where that came from, because that's not at all how I see him. He told me a story about having moved in 5th grade, and having to establish himself somehow in the new school. He found great success in being goofy; the other students responded to that silly, self-deprecating behavior, and he was able to make friends. Or, at least he could make his classmates laugh with him, rather than at him.

It got me thinking about how these childhood and young adulthood perceptions and words we used to describe ourselves - and others used to describe us - impact our current potential and success. It also got me thinking - again - about imposter syndrome and how to deal with it.

Up until recently, I thought I suffered from imposter syndrome. Now I'm thinking those internal messages are more an identity issue, a confidence issue. I attribute my success equally to hard work, experience, and introspection, and to the support network I have, the fortune of being born where and who I am, and to the relatively low-drama household in which I was raised. What I realized is that I'm not alone in feeling like a kid, like I'm just pretending to be a grown-up, and doing grown-up things. The other thing I realized is that I like that about myself, and those who relate to that sensation. It keeps us youthful, curious, adventurous, and optimistic.

What stories are you still telling yourself that are simply no longer true? Are those stories yours, or do they belong to someone else? Are you holding onto certain perceptions because they worked for you at some point? Is it time to let them go?

What are your thoughts about the difference between imposter syndrome, and self confidence?