In our fast-moving culture of speed dating, social media posturing, and a constant bombardment of marketing that requires us to look great, eat right, exercise smartly, and achieve success, a new malady has arisen that people are aptly calling impostor syndrome. Harvard Business Review defines it as suffering from “chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence. People who feel this seem unable to internalize their accomplishments, however successful they are in their field. High-achieving, highly successful people often suffer, so impostor syndrome doesn’t equate with low self-esteem or a lack of self-confidence.”
In other words, it’s often not a reflection of any real mistakes or failures, but it has to do with their perceived inadequacies. What this really means is that, regardless of the social and economic status or personal and business accomplishments achieved on the outside, a person can still feel like a fraud on the inside.
There is a daunting fear that “maybe others will find out who I really am.” A subconscious memory of a single moment—the second grader who stuttered reading aloud while his classmates laughed and mocked him, the seventh grader who tried to make some new friends but was ignored three times in a row—can become branded onto our identities. Instead of fading into a passing memory, it becomes the “truth” about who we really are.
Here are some tips to help you manage the moments when you find yourself sinking into the waters of these toxic thoughts and fears:
1. Consciously substitute “doing my best today” for “being perfect.”
If you are always comparing yourself and your actions to a standard of perfection, you will always fail. Substitute the phrase “learning as I go” for “making mistakes” and, if you find that you have made a genuine blunder, remind yourself that making a mistake does not make YOU a mistake. Slip-ups are a part of every human life, and we need to be able to rectify them without shaming or judging ourselves.
2. Don’t compare how you feel on the inside with how other people act on the outside.
I heard a story long before impostor syndrome was a familiar expression that went a little something like this: The great Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön was speaking about a time when she had been preparing a talk on compassion and kindness. She had gotten very upset when her granddaughter interrupted an intense lecture-planning session, then she had this thought: What if someone were taking a video of how she was talking to her granddaughter and showed it to her audience during her lecture on the gifts of compassion?
In generously sharing this story, Pema gently helped her audience see how everyone fails to reach their goals and aspirations. In these instances, our job is not to beat ourselves up but to compassionately bring ourselves back on track. Although she seems to embody the wisdom she teaches, she has the same imperfections as everyone else.
3. Talk to yourself the way you would to someone you love.
Learn the signs of “negative self-talk” so that when you begin to see it happening, you can benevolently correct yourself as if you are your own nurturing parent. “Whoops, there goes that self-talk about not being good enough”—such thoughts can redirect your negative energy. Remember, self-shaming is a HABIT, and our wonderful brains can relearn those patterns. When you hear that voice begin to criticize, GENTLY acknowledge that it is happening, and then, with kindness, consciously talk to yourself as if you are a person you love.
4. In the words of the great Wavy Gravy, “Remember we are all bozos on the bus.”
There is no other bus with the “successful non-bozos” on it. Everyone is a part of the same human experience. I repeat: There is no other bus than the “bozo bus” because it is the human condition, which each and every person on the planet struggles with.
If you are grappling with these issues, remember that you are not alone. When an expression like impostor syndrome becomes common in our culture, it is because it has struck a proverbial nerve in the many people who suffer from it. So breathe deeply and begin to build practices that allow you to pause and interrupt your cycles of negative thoughts about yourself: Mindfulness practices, meditation, yoga, and regular exercise can help; talking about your concerns with friends or mentors can reduce them and lead to acceptance. Let yourself just experience the “life bus” with all the other worrying bozos, and you will find out that they, too, contend with the flaws of their own humanity.
This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.