Living The Fake Story — Can You Overcome the Impostor Syndrome?


Its pitch dark in at 16:00 PM in November in Finland.

I remember myself waiting in a conference room at a glass office building in Espoo less than an hour drive from Helsinki. My anxiety was at its highest and I noticed that there were no conference calls phones in the room. It was designed in a minimalist way.

I was there to meet the president of Nokia. At that time Nokia was controlling 43% of the mobile phone market worldwide. This Finish conglomerate succeeded in transforming itself from a company that sells televisions, boots and wood to becoming the world leader in the emerging marketing of cell phones outdoing the pioneer of cellphones Motorola. They were a huge success story. An unexpected hero from a land that is not known for technology leadership.

And here I was. Suppose to discuss with the president my ideas.

The anxiety overwhelmed me to a point of almost paralysis. Do I really have something new to tell him? Doesn’t he have access to top notch consultants and advisors? What if he will say that ideas are stupid or that they thought about it already. What if he will dismiss me outright. All I wanted was for this meeting to be over before it even started. What did I get myself into? Why am I here? I bet you he will discover in the first 5 minutes that I am a fake. I was terrified.

These thoughts were not new.

When I was in front of audiences evangelizing customer experience in the early days when no one was speaking about it, similar emotions will take over and control my thoughts. They were terrifying and paralyzing. It took tremendous efforts to overcome them go on stage and deliver my message.

Struggling with those thoughts were common for me. And the worst part was I was scared to share them with anyone. They weakened me and often discouraged me from reaching higher. When my first book didn’t perform as I expected I used this lackluster performance as a proof that these thoughts were correct. When I would receive a rejection, I would immediately file those rejections in the affirmation drawer further strengthening my fears of being discovered as a fake.

Later in my life I discovered that I wasn’t alone.

In fact, there was a name to this phenomenon, the imposter syndrome. The concept was first described by Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes from Georgia State University in a 1978 article, entitled “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention”. It describes the psychological phenomena of a person doubting their skills and accomplishments and living in a sate of being exposed as a “fraud”.

Those who experience an impostor syndrome tend to live in a story separated from the facts. They will discount their skills and accomplishments and declaring them a matter of luck. They will compare themselves to others and see their performance as inferior. If a sign of success will appear to distort their sense of fraud, they will immediately attribute it to external factors such as luck, help from others or a one-time success and by doing so will reaffirm the broader story they live in which is they are not as capable as people believe they are.

Research shows that this syndrome is prevalent among women who often attribute success to teamwork and external factors while man attribute success to their own skills and capabilities. As I discovered the phenomena, I was still ashamed of my thoughts. While there was a name to the condition, I still failed to address it or lessen the emotional burden it imposed on me. I was living in that story and didn’t let anything penetrate it or change it.

At the end of that meeting with Nokia president I was invited to conduct a workshop for senior executives at the company. It was a success. He liked my ideas and found them important enough to share it with his top executives. And yet, I was left wondering. “What was so special in what I said?” “Why did he like them?” I was sure that if he didn’t catch my fraudulent persona, I was sure going to be exposed by one of his executives. I wasn’t. in fact, the workshop led to a series of engagements with Nokia.

The facts were very different than the story that ran in my head and filled all my body. People were demonstrating appreciation and commented on the inspiring nature of my messages. But my head was running a story that was directly influenced by my emotional listening lens. It completely clouded the facts, enveloped them with a shade of doubt that led to anxiety. I wasn’t facing the facts and therefore the real story of my life now. I was living a distorted story highly colored by the dark shadow of negative emotions.

Removing The Impostor Story — Authoring the Authentic Story

It is unclear why we develop an imposter syndrome. I do believe today that most of us experience this anxiety at one point in our career or life. We do get this sense of anxiety that we are not qualified for what we are about to perform. The impact of the imposter syndrome can be debilitating. It leads some people to depression and others simply do not enjoy performing the task at hand as they are too busy thinking about their fears and how to contain it. Even if success hit them at the end, they will discount it and seek affirmation that it was merely a fluke. Definitely not who they are.

Under the impostor story lies a true story ready to be discovered.

This is a classic case of living in the wrong story. A story we didn’t author deliberately (I assume most of us dislike the impostor anxiety, of course). A collection of negative emotions from inferiority complex to low self-esteem can easily lead us to reach this point of defaulting into the wrong version of the real story. These emotions take hold of our perception of reality and shape them to a painful version that directly impact the quality of our life. It sometimes feels as we are victim of emotions beyond our control this is exactly the moment when the emotions write our story.

The outcome is a story of paralysis which stop us from reaching higher and thriving in life. This story needs to be written.

In rewriting the story to overcome the impostor syndrome, there are several tools available to us.

Imposter is distorting the truth

To start reauthoring this story, we need to first be aware of it. Recognize the pattern and recognize the burden it imposes on us. You need to catch those thoughts as soon as they start emerging in your head and recognize that they are affecting you. Be in the moment and call it what it is. Don’t just try to dismiss these thoughts call them by their name so you can address them better. Know that you are not alone and many people including the person to your right and to your left have probably experienced it before or better yet might be experiencing it right now.

Your role is real

Know that your contribution to projects, achievements and success is real. (Make sure it is, first.) recognize that you are a true contributor. Even if it is in a small way you were there in the right time as the right person to make the success happen. When you are not sure, take the following step. At the onset of the project, start a list of your contribution. From project management to helping to shape the vision of the project to counting the measurable results. Be clear about you contribution and do not belittle any suggestion or insights that were implemented. None of those are too small. And no, they weren’t necessarily would have been brought up by others. You saw it. You called it. This is your real role in this project. This is your contribution, and it is real. Every role matter and every job make a difference. As long as we approach it with the purposeful way to make a difference and be true partners in success.

The Impact Your make on people

Instead of just evaluating your skills and accomplishments from your perspective, review the impact on others. In all my books I argues that the viewing life through the lenses of the recipients of our work provide us often with true appreciation of the impact we create. If they are inspired, delighted, appreciative, motivated, satisfied, expressing gratitude, then we touched someone. Those expressions are the mirror to the efforts and creativity we out in they demonstrate the impact we can create and better yet, should inspire us to keep on going with the genuine superpower we have to create positive impact in people. If you do not have a direct contact with customers, look to your colleagues or family members as recipients of your actions examine your impact through their eyes and experiences. Seek feedback from them and specifically ask how your actions impacted them. Seeing your success through the eyes of the recipients can be rather empowering and enlightening. Your will be surprised how small acts that you would probably take for granted will means so much to them. For you it is a small act for them a big gift. Why? Because they needed it right then and there. And you were there for them. Remember, you have power that they need, and you can make it happen for others.

Embrace, don’t dismiss the compliments.

When someone is sharing their appreciation, do not sit there with terrifying thought of “here comes but…” sometimes there is no “but” there is just sheer appreciation. And even if there is no “buy” we tend to dismiss it as “they were just courteous. They didn’t really mean it” that’s not a way to live. If you did something of significance “and remember significance is in the eye of the beholder, then there is no reason to dismiss their genuine gratitude. Let’s this gratitude sink in. embrace it. Absorb it. Let it refuel you and let it dilute the negative impostor thoughts. The best antidote to those negative fraud thoughts are positive thoughts of gratitude coming from people you have touched and impacted.

Unfake it to become real

Its not easy. After years of dismissing our power and impact, claiming everyone else could have done it just as well, it is hard to see the beauty of our work and discover the real story that is hiding behind the mask of negative emotions and low self-esteem. I am struggling too, with pausing and listening to the compliments. Allowing them to sooth the anxiety and let my story be shaped to the real place it belongs. I am making the effort because I know that leaving with the fear of being a “fraud” doesn’t help anyone. I am not enjoying it. People are not getting the best of my performance and overall, everyone loses. One of my little tricks is keeping “thank you” emails and reviewing them in times of doubt to reauthor my story at the moment and gain the power to bring my best to the next challenge.

I never discussed these thoughts before. They were very private. I decided to share them because they are hopefully going to help some readers re-evaluate the power that the impostor story have on them. The impostor story is not the real story of you. It is being authored by default, because you are not taking care of authoring the real story. You are discounting aspects of your real story such as accomplishments and positive feedback and let emotions fill in the blanks instead. It is classic case of listening with negative listening lenses potentially amplified by the history listening lenses of someone who in the past dismissed your skills and deflated your motivation. Take those lenses out of the story and reshape it to stand on the real facts. Your skills, your accomplishments, and the feedback you receive from others. Those are the true components of your story. And they will craft the real story that can allow the real you to shine through.

Note — Book In Progress please share in your comments — wat did you like? what is missing? and do you have an example you thing should be added? Thank you.

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