Today I’d like to share my understanding of the subject of imposter syndrome. Both from personal experience, as well as from working with other people. For, I have come to the conclusion that imposter syndrome has little to do with ‘not being good enough’ as many believe.
No, my sincere belief is that it’s actually all to do with ‘being too good’ – being too much, too loud, too big for our boots.
The ugly duckling
Far from being a failure, I believe that imposter syndrome stems from sensitivity and human kindness, and a fear that if we shine too brightly, others will be burned. Assuming that to be true for most of us at some level, it makes sense that at some point in our life we make an unconscious decision to shrink or hideaway. At that moment, we create what I’m choosing to call the ugly duckling. And that ugly duckling lives inside us until the time comes when we find a way to reach inside and reclaim our wholeness once and for all. That’s when we can shine and thrive in confidence, certainty and peace.
For me, I can trace evidence of this back to a childhood memory when I was about seven years old. I was at school, and it was a typically English, damp wet day. Everything was cold and grey outside, which in turn made the lights in our classroom seem brighter than usual. I remember rather liking the contrast that afternoon, and feeling cosy, safe and warm inside.
A drawing competition
That particular afternoon, in place of normal lessons, our teacher (Miss Vickers) announced we were to have a drawing class instead. We were to stay sitting at our desks and, so long as we were quiet, we had the freedom to create whatever we liked using the crayons and felt tip pens that were being handed out. After we’d all settled, Miss Vickers left us to our own devices, instructing us to be good and carry on until she returned.
I’ve always loved art and was soon wrapped up in my own world, busily creating a picture of a swan swimming on the river. My mother had recently taught me a fool-proof way to create a realistic image of a swan. First of all, I drew the number two, as an outline for the head and top of the body. From there it was simply a matter of filling in the details. It was the perfect opportunity for me to practice what she’d taught me, and in turn, create a work of art I could take home for her – so I made extra sure to do my best, adding bulrushes, grass and flowers for colour and detail.
On her return, Miss Vickers made her way around the classroom, surveying our handiwork. She stopped at mine and patted me on the back. “Well done Melanie,” she said with a smile “I’m sure your mummy is going to love that picture!” Blushing and squirming with embarrassment, I remember feeling deep-down pleased and proud that I had done a good job.
After she’d done the rounds, the teacher took her place at the front of the classroom to thank us for being such good children and to congratulate us on our creativity. She then said that as a surprise, she had a prize for the best picture! All eyes were on Miss Vickers as she made her way over to my desk (I was at the back of the room) and held up my drawing so that everyone could see it, announcing me as the winner. Blushing ever redder and hotter (my fair skin, ginger hair and freckles meant that I would colour up very easily) I still remember feeling proud, despite my embarrassment, imagining now how happy my mother would be when I handed her the picture and told her I’d won a prize.
Little did I know that this warm feeling of love was all about to change in an instant.
The ground opened up
Looking up at our teacher as she turned around so that everyone could admire my artwork, I noticed a few of my classmates scowling at me and whispering together. One of them suddenly thrust her hand in the air and wailed “but Miss Vickers, it’s not fair. Everyone knows Melanie is the best at art, it’s obvious she was going to win. None of us stands a chance when she’s allowed to take part in a competition. There’s no point and it’s just not fair!”
At that moment I felt the ground opening up, swallowing me down into black nothingness. I wished it would actually happen in real life so that I could escape the excruciating shame I was feeling.
So far as I had been concerned, up until then I’d simply been having fun and imagining making my mother smile. I’d been lost in my world, creating something that was deeply precious to me. The shock came when I saw the pained expressions on the faces of my friends. Girls and boys that I played with every day and who at that time were my entire world. I hadn’t meant to hurt them! I couldn’t bear to see them crushed and deflated.
It was all my fault. I had been the one to make them feel useless, all because I had enjoyed doing something that came naturally to me… so now I was the one who was crushed. And I was also the one doing the crushing – this time to myself. How dare I show off like that. Why wasn’t I paying attention to my friends? Why hadn’t I considered their feelings?
The ugly duckling is born
I decided never ever to let that happen again. And so, I became the ugly duckling in the famous song.
All through the wintertime, he hid himself away.
Ashamed to show his face, afraid of what others might say
I began to shut myself down. I stopped being my best self and instead started messing up in classes. Not enough to fail completely, just enough to fit in. To be accepted. So that I didn’t stand out. So that my friends stayed happy.
The true root of imposter syndrome
This, my friends, is what I believe is the true root of imposter syndrome.
We become accustomed to hiding our uniqueness. We’re scolded if we get too big for our boots. Praised for our selfless acts of kindness when we let others who are deemed less capable win the race, the game, the competition. So we dumb down, dim down, shut down – in order to be accepted. To succeed. To be loved.
Over time we foster a deep-seated belief that we’re not good enough, creating masks that comply with what’s expected of us. And we carry on living that way, working our way up our chosen ladder of success, thinking we’re doing the right thing – until the niggling doubts start to rumble, poking at our fears from deep inside. “What if I get found out? Do they realise I’m not good enough? What if I’m rumbled as a fraud?”
You are good enough
Dear reader, let me assure you right here, right now. You absolutely ARE good enough. You always have been. All of us are. We’ve simply been taught to believe that we’re less than the magnificent beings we all are when we’re firstborn into this world.
Imposter syndrome has nothing to do with being found out for not being good enough. It has everything to do with answering our inner call for living in truth. It’s about claiming and sharing our own uniqueness; shining our talents so brightly that others are inspired (not crushed) and engaged (not dismissed) by our example. It’s through being our true authentic self, that we automatically invite others to do the same.
This is what authentic leadership is all about. Wherever we choose to lead, in business, in family, in friendship, in service… parenting, mentoring, caring, serving, teaching, inspiring. It matters not. We each have our own talents. So, let’s learn how to shine our unique gifts and celebrate our shared individuality together.
It’s time we let that Ugly Duckling become the swan it was always born to be
Not a quack, not a quack, not a waddle or a quack
But a glide and a whistle and a snowy white back
And a head held noble and high
Say who’s an ugly duckling?