You’re standing at the front of an auditorium packed with people, delivering the keynote speech. Yes, there are some fresh, innovative points you’re making. And true, the way you’re delivering them is both creative and organized—the sweet spot. When you practiced in front of the mirror, you both looked and sounded confident. But now, looking out into the audience, you see so many smart, talented and creative people. Anyone out there, you think, could deliver this presentation, and probably do it better. You hope no one asks questions. You feel like an imposter.
You take your child for a well-visit with her doctor. The doctor tells you that your child is well-adjusted, healthy and happy, and that you are doing a wonderful job. But all you can think about is the meltdown you had last night when you saw the piles of toys on the floor and sippy cups in the sink. To top it off, your child is actually wearing yesterday’s clothing because you haven’t gotten around to laundry for a week, and when you rinsed out the breakfast bowls, you had a sneaking suspicion that the milk was spoiled. How could you have missed that? you berated yourself. A good mom wouldn’t have served spoiled milk. Your meltdown ended with a bar of chocolate and two glasses of wine in front of re-runs of Desperate Housewives, all the while thinking about what a horrible imposter of a mother you are, and that perhaps you are literally the worst parent in existence.
You’re interviewing for a new job. You’re writing a novel. You’ve signed up to be the Team Coordinator for your child’s dance team. You’re auditioning for a part in a play. You’re the doctor taking care of this child whose mother seems to have it all together, and wow, her daughter is wearing the cutest outfit ever. You’re asking a question of the confident keynote presenter who has managed that magical combination you covet of creativity and organization. Her presentation is fresh, innovative, and all you can think is that you should give up the slot to deliver the next keynote presentation because you could never do it this well.
These feelings are all too familiar for many of us. These feelings are the tell-tale signs of Imposter Syndrome.
Imposter Syndrome is that feeling we get when we are doing or being something that matters to us, something that challenges and excites, yet we can’t stop feeling unworthy and not enough. We can’t stop thinking that there are so many others who could do it smarter, faster, funnier, more naturally. Others are doing this work with ease; were probably born to do what they are doing. What are we doing even trying? Stephen King couldn’t have Imposter Syndrome, we think. Gwyneth Paltrow couldn’t have it. Brené Brown? No way does she have it. That sweet mom who lives down the street where all the kids always gather? She must be doing something more right than you, you think as you sit alone in your quiet house and pour a fresh cup of coffee. She’s the natural mom. You’re just the imposter.
I don’t know many people, particularly women, who don’t suffer from this particular malady in at least one aspect of their life. Still, I’m often surprised at the people who, under the cover of wine and darkness, express their symptoms. They are accomplished, confident, talented people who outwardly show no signs of the disease.
“You feel that way?” I ask after she makes her admission.
“Yes,” she replies in a hushed tone. “I feel like I’m just faking it,” she continues, “and that someday someone will tell me I have to stop.”
“Yes, me too,” I say, “every time I write something, I feel that way.”
“You?” she asks with surprise.
“Yes, all the time!”
And then we both tear up with empathy.
Many people believe Imposter Syndrome arises from feelings of unworthiness or insecurity. They suggest that the more we work on the “three selfs”—self-love, self-respect, self-confidence—the better the chances we will heal from this horrible disease. That once we feel confident and secure in ourselves, the disease will heal right up.
God, I hope not.
While it is always important to work on building up the three selfs, I don’t think Imposter Syndrome is truly a disease—not in the way we understand disease as something we seek to rid ourselves of. Rather, I think Imposter Syndrome is a positive sign that we are connected with, and feel ourselves acutely as, soul.
As eternal souls, we understand the temporary, fleeting nature of human life. As timeless souls, we see the short-lived nature of the roles we play. Our souls know that life is a play, and we are all actors. What is 40, 60, 80 years to a soul? Just a blink of time. And so, as souls, we joyfully, but temporarily, play the part of the driven, bold executive. We dress-up as a disorganized, spoiled-milk-giving mom, and we look forward to the days of being the car-pooling, coffee-for-the-10-year-old mom. We wear, for a while, the mask of a struggling artist. It’s exciting, says our soul, and there’s much to learn and experience in every single temporary role.
Truth: there will always be someone else out there who could do what we are doing. But none of them could do it the way we do it. There are always others who could write a book that touches on the same themes, or paint a picture of the same bridge. But no one sees the bridge quite like you do, and no one could express the way the sunlight highlights its beauty quite like you can. There are always moms who seem to do it more naturally, but you’re still the one your children go to when they’re hurt. (And besides, you learn, all the kids go to her house because she bakes them cookies, and you’d go too if you knew there were cookies.)
Remember. Our souls came here, not to become one thing and perfect it, but to learn and grow and evolve through the many roles we play in a single lifetime. We are always becoming, but we never become. We are always evolving, but we are never fully and finally evolved. From our personal roles to our professional careers and creative outlets, we are all simply souls-in-body, playing around with different characters to see what there is to learn in this one, or that one, or maybe that other one for a while. To our soul it’s all play, it’s all dress-up, it’s all Shakespeare.
To be in touch with the truth of our role-playing nature is to be in touch with our soul’s presence. To feel like an imposter is to remember that we are only visiting this place called Earth. To feel like an imposter is to remember that our soul wanted to try some costumes on and see what life looked like through them. To feel like we’ll never get it right, or perfect, is to remember that that was never why our soul chose to come down into a body in the first place.
We are all imposters. Feeling this truth is a sign of good spiritual health and heightened spiritual awareness. Imposter Syndrome is not a disease. Imposter Syndrome is our soul keepin’ it real.
Deliver the presentation. Raise the kid. Write the book. Take the job. Paint a picture of the bridge. And when Imposter Syndrome strikes, don’t let anyone, not even yourself, tell you that you must boost up your self-esteem to the point that you rid yourself of the nagging feeling of merely playing a part. For if you do that, and you succeed, you will have a very difficult time shedding the role when the times comes, when the play ends, or when the learning has ceased. And that time will come. And that role will have become like a straight-jacket. And the struggle will come with unnecessary, self-inflicted pain.
Instead, next time Imposter Syndrome strikes, remind yourself that this feeling is a wonderful reminder that we are not the roles we play, nor the characters we inhabit. We aren’t supposed to be. We are our eternal, timeless soul.