Have you ever felt paralyzed with fear… then motivated, passionate, and on fire… and then been forced to slow down? Freeze. Go fast. Go slow. That was me this week. I was stuck at the door with impostor syndrome, then roaring forward with momentum, and then needing to slow down. Slowing down to find a smoother, more balanced, pace wasn’t easy. But it was right.
Frozen with Impostor Syndrome
This weekend, I attended the Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference. It was my first writer’s conference, my first opportunity to share my writing with other authors. REAL authors. They write for National Geographic, Sunset Magazine, and the New York Times. An entire display table covered with dozens of books written by the faculty and attendees of the conference greeted me as I walked in the door. I almost turned tail and ran back to my car.
I felt like an impostor. What in the world was I doing amongst REAL authors? I have a book bubbling in me, but at that moment I was convinced it was crap. I felt unqualified, a fraud amongst talented, brilliant shining stars of the writing world who have their s**t together. My sister is the real writer of our family who has three books out for submission. Three! What if I’m found out? I was terrified that the moment any one of them saw my writing, that any chance I might have had for my book would evaporate like fog under the sun. I felt shame.
It was a serious case of impostor syndrome. According to the American Psychological Association impostor syndrome means feeling like a fraud and that any little mistake might result in the loss of status, job, esteem, or belonging. Up to 82% of people suffer from impostor syndrome according to a recent paper by Dr. Dena Bravata, senior affiliate of the Stanford University Center for Primary Care and Outcomes Research. Impostor syndrome is especially common in high achievers, in women, and in underrepresented groups. Check. Check. Check. Yup. That’s me.
I didn’t run back to my car. I did what I do when I walk into a room full of school superintendents (which in my area are 80% white men in suits). I tapped into the deep well of my strength in body, mind, and heart.
Body: Physiology (easiest) – I adopted a confident, proud body stance. I breathed deeply and slowly. I raised my chin and opened my chest. I looked people straight in the eye. As I shifted my body, there was a corresponding palpable shift away from fear and anxiety towards purpose.
Mind: Cognitive appraisal (medium) – Next, I shifted my mind. The narrative that I’m not a writer is just one of many possible stories. When I’m in the impostor syndrome mindset, I fall prey to my own negativity bias. This is a natural cognitive bias baked into our brains through evolution – negative things disproportionately impact our judgment. We are primed for survival and thus our fear and failures, our weaknesses and faults, are felt more keenly and quickly than our strengths and successes. In fact, the fear center of our brain, the amygdala, has a direct sensory connection via the thalamus that bypasses the soothing benefits of wisdom from memory or cognition. When that direct path from our senses to our fear is activated, our survival instinct takes over. We fight, take flight, or freeze.
Thus, I bypassed that survival pathway and looked for other true stories to tell myself, ones grounded in my strengths and successes, ones that tap into the wisdom I gain from memories of my best self, not my negative self. I’ve written science curriculum and white papers. I write this blog and also a travel blog with a devoted following. I co-authored a book, Composing Science, about the role of writing in the science classroom. The feedback I’ve gotten on my book from the people in my book group has been really positive. I know that the feedback these REAL authors can give me will be invaluable to my growth and progress. With these new stories, my negativity bias relaxed and I saw my whole self more clearly. I’m not an impostor. I can be a fellow writer. I am a peer.
Heart: Allowing & Breaking the silence (hardest) – Finally, I let the fear and shame run its course. Emotions are temporary, passing thunder clouds against a blue sky. They will pass. Moreover, I know that impostor syndrome is a thing. There’s no shame in it if 82% of other people feel it too. So I walk into the conference. “Hi! I’m Irene and I have impostor syndrome but I’m showing up anyway. Let me tell you about the project I'm working on.”
I’m not trying to get rid of Imposter Syndrome. I’m getting good at it.
Slow is Smooth. Smooth is Fast.
Lo and behold, I make friends. I share my writing and (gasp!) people love it. Faculty and fellow attendees encourage me. I’m treated as a peer. They love my book idea. They can’t wait to see it on shelves.
Like a Porsche, I've gone from 0 to 100 mph in 5 seconds. I’m on fire! I’m thrilled! I want to run to my computer and write write write. The voice in my head say, “Let’s get this book out there. Now. Find an agent. Today. Pitch a publisher. ASAP.” It’s definitely my achiever voice talking to me. That voice who said the path to approval, attention and affection was paved with awards and accolades.
But two things slow me down and hold me back like two balls and chains locked tightly to each ankle.
First, I have relationships that matter to me. Over the weekend, I’m staying with my best friend and business partner Tutti. I so rarely make time to soak in the warm bath of her friendship, and she needs my love right now. So I ditch half of the conference in order to spend time with her. At first, I’m frustrated, feeling pulled between two things that matter to me. When I’m with Tutti, I’m itching to get back to the conference. When I’m at the conference, I’m itching to get back to my best friend. The pull between work and kids often has the same feel.
The solution was to stay present. I made a choice to slow down and allow the weekend, both sides of it, to refill the well of my reserves. Friendship refuels me. Passion and purpose refuels me. Both. When I’m with Tutti, I luxuriate in fellowship. When I’m at the conference, I live into my passion. Staying present is the right choice.
The second thing slowing me down is strategy. I meet with my book coach right after the conference and gush about my energy, the positive feedback, and connections I’ve made. She says, “Flat out, you’re not ready.”
Oof. It’s like a deer jumping out into the road right in the path of my achiever's Porsche. I swerve. I knew that if I let my coach's words land on top of me, if I let them activate my amygdala through the direct survival circuit, I’d feel crushed right back down into the terror of the impostor syndrome I felt at conference door. Instead, I let her words land in a bowl in front of me. I slow down. The feedback is now outside of me like a thought swirling in Dumbledore’s pensieve. My negativity bias does not get the better of me. I get curious.
“You have all this momentum right now," my coach continues. "You made all these connections and created believers and fans. We want to harness that. Let’s use that energy to make your work impeccable. Irresistible.” The feedback sinks in. This doesn’t have anything to do with my character or ability or identity. This is strategy, pure and simple. The message in the pensieve says that the best plan of action towards my goal is not to race forward throwing caution to the wind. Slowing down now will allow me to win the race in the end.
My coach’s words coupled with my luxurious soak in friendship reminded me of a phrase often used in military officer training:
“Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.”
Life is better lived when it’s smooth. Neither fast nor slow. Smooth.
When I stay present to rare opportunities to indulge in friendship and time with my kids, I’m more joyful at work. When I live into passion and purpose at work, I’m more joyful at home. My whole life is more irresistible, more smooth, and more worth living. The balls and chains that I first thought might be dragging me down were really reminders to live smooth. Get moving, but not too fast. Be present. Savor. Do the irresistible thing, not the rushed thing. Like taking that Porsche through a drive down long, winding, gorgeous country roads, the pace matters.
Thus my wish to you today is to smooth out the pace of your life. Nourish the strength in your body, mind, and heart if you’re frozen to get moving again. Slow down by staying present if you’re going too fast. Speed up with passion and community if you’re going too slow.
By going smooth, may you shine bright in everything you do.
The article from the American Psychological Association offers seven great tips for managing impostor syndrome. It’s definitely worth a read.
The theory behind letting feedback fall into a bowl in front of you rather than on top of you (or inside of you) comes from the research on psychological distancing. This article by Dr. Alicia Nortje offers a fantastic in depth review of that work with ample insights on how to apply this principle to your work and your life.
My online course, Leadership Boot Camp, is now available and open for enrollment! The first two months are completely FREE. It’s all the leadership training you wish you had, but nobody ever covered: impostor syndrome, managing overflowing to do lists and email inboxes, navigating difficult conversations, letting feedback land in a bowl, understanding your cognitive biases, and so much more. Twenty minute videos delivered to your inbox each week for six months. Plus there’s monthly live Zoom sessions to build the habits and practices to make the lessons stick.
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