The Shape of Imposter Syndrome
And how to change that shape to experience greater self trust
I’m not doing enough. How come this is easier for everyone else? I’m not cut out for this, I’m sure they’ll find me out soon.
Imposter syndrome, the insidious belief we’re undeserving of our position, that we don’t belong, is a painful drain on our mental energy and creative productivity. It sucks. And it has pernicious tricks it uses to perpetuate a vicious cycle. The more you doubt your abilities, the harder you try to keep up an appearance of competence. And this leads to anxiety, burnout, and low productivity, which makes you feel like more of an imposter!
I’ve spent enough time on this carousel for the both of us. As an engineer, as a project manager, as a lead, as a coach, as a friend. Honestly, just as a human. I’m not sure that feelings of self doubt ever go all the way away. But the hold they have over you, and their ability to sidetrack you, can certainly be overcome.
I can happily say that over time I’ve retrained my brain and body to stop the anxious spirals and refocus on doing the work. Not perfectly, but enough of the time to move forward and build momentum. And I’ve seen it work for clients too.
For all the pain it causes, imposter syndrome has good intentions. This is you, attempting to protect you, in the best way you know how. Maybe it’s time to learn a new way.
When we take time to acknowledge the progress we’ve made, we can create a virtuous cycle of gratitude and healthy pride. When we take time to feel the shape of fear in our body, and bring strength and love to that fearful part of us, we start to trust that not only do we belong, but we are stronger than the imposter syndrome. And it’s power over us dissipates.
So let’s get into some specific actionable steps you can use to boost your self compassion and disarm your imposter syndrome in the next 3 minutes.
1. Write down two things you’ve done RELATED to your field that you’re proud of
Hint, don’t stop at two if you get on a roll.
I say related, because they don’t have to be projects at work. I gained more belief and trust in myself and my abilities as an engineer (read: creative problem solver) when I fixed a friend’s bike rack on a camping trip with a stick and a string, than I did from most of my technical designs.
A stick and a string is all it takes sometimes
So here’s a timer for 1 minute, get writing!
If you have a picture of those things, pull them up when you’re done and relish them. If not, take a picture of them when you’re done writing.
2. Write down two things you did TODAY that you’re proud of
I don’t care how small they are. Actually the smaller the better.
And then do this every night an hour before bed when the internet turns off. Put a notebook or scrap paper and pen at the front of your favorite place to work and jot it down. Why two? Because three is cliched, and you can always do more. Remember this is an article about beating imposter syndrome, not being an overachiever, right?
Here’s your timer, get writing!
3. Find the shape of imposter syndrome in your body, and gently change that shape
John Wineland talks about the “occurring world,” the way you perceive the world based on your unconscious beliefs. Rosamund Zander playfully says “it’s all invented” in The Art of Possibility. She goes on to clarify with “What assumptions am I making, that I’m not aware I’m making, that give me what I see?” And Daniel Kahneman brings it all home in Thinking, Fast and Slow: “what you see is all there is.”
Imposter syndrome happens when we confuse our thoughts and assumptions about the world for reality. This is the cause of most of the world’s suffering, so it’s no surprise that imposter syndrome has its roots here too.
That inner dialogue I alluded to at the beginning — “I’m not doing enough…I’m not as good as the others. I’m not cut out for this.” — that’s your occurring world. Those beliefs and assumptions that you hold influence your perception of reality. And, they take a literal shape in your body. The mind and body are inextricable because… turns out they’re the same system. Software is just a whisper in the wind without hardware to run/store it on, hardware is just a pile of matter without software to bring it alive.
So the imposter thoughts have an associated “imposter” shape in your body. And while changing your self-talk is a common refrain, it turns out changing the shape of your body works faster. The body is often a point of greater leverage than your thoughts.
For me, imposter syndrome is a clenching of the belly, my shoulders rotate forward and inward, my neck gets weak and cantilevered forward. If I’m sitting in a desk chair, my butt slides forward and my back rounds. It may take some time to catch on to what your shape is, since as engineers we tend to stay up in our minds most of the time.
The practice I take to find the shape of confidence, of self trust, in my body, goes like this (no but actually, follow along):
While standing, gently pull your butt under you (not sticking out, not clenching), lightly engage your core, lift your chest, pull your chin in ever so slightly to center your head over your neck, and let your gaze find horizontal. Now let your shoulders slide down your back, release your chest, then let the belly get soft again. And THEN, work the inner dialogue. “I am a competent and hard working engineer. I’m doing my best and that is enough. I will find an elegant solution to this problem!”
Hi. Welcome to the present moment. We’ve missed you here.
Once you have a handle on this sequence you can add breath, if it didn’t naturally happen.
Inhale — the hips are pulled up by the core, the core is lifted by the chest, the chest is suspended by the neck, the neck, like the string of a balloon, gently pulled taut by the head held high.
Exhale — the shoulders slide down the back, the chest floats back to neutral, the core relaxes, the chin is help level.
Let’s do a few reps, here’s a timer for 30 seconds. We’ll repeat that sequence, with the breath. Let your breath out and relax to start. Now, deep inhale through your nose and work those shapes: butt, core, chest, neck, chin. Exhale — relax the shoulders, chest, core. Repeat.
The most important step in any change process is often getting clear on what’s currently occurring, so I’ll challenge you to work with that for the next week. What are the thought patterns, and body shapes, you take when you’re feeling self doubt? No need to judge, we’re just curious what these are, because once we know them we can dance and work with them.