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Imposter syndrome is a shame game

Imposter syndrome is fear of shame.

Shame is the feeling you have when you think that you are bad.

I feel impostor syndrome if I am afraid that someone will discover that I am a flawed person. That I am bad.

They will find out that I am a bad person because there was a time when I was responsible for a bad outcome, or I because I don’t have enough experience or because I have no “right” to be in the place that I have.

I feel afraid that I will be shamed for being what I am. 

When I feel ashamed about a situation or project that failed it’s because I buy into a narrative that I should have been able to ensure a successful outcome.

When I feel ashamed that I don’t know something it’s because I buy into a narrative that knowing the answer is the most important thing.

And that if I fail in this, I am a bad person, I am flawed.

This is ridiculous.

Uncertainty hikes imposter syndrome

Many of us work in highly uncertain situations. It’s challenging, it’s exciting, it’s unpredictable. 

Uncertain situations result in unwanted or sub-optimal outcomes simply because uncertainty means it is not 100% guaranteed that you will get the outcome that you are looking for.

Uncertain situations cause failure but not because we are bad, not because we don’t know what we’re doing.

Guess what? These days we tend to find that there are more and more uncertain situations. We are likely to feel as though we fail more often. When the outcome of the situation is not what we wanted we perceive it as failure. We take it personally – “I failed” and we feel shame because we think it’s not just our actions but it’s our own worth that is bad. It’s what has caused the failure.

Even though we know how to do things and we know how to act and we do know how to do our jobs, we still blame ourselves for inevitable failures caused by uncertainty.

When we feel that we caused failure we feel that it was caused by our own innate uselessness. This makes us feel incredibly vulnerable to self-shaming and shame put upon us by others (oh yes, it’s not just in our heads, we’re socialised to shame each other too).

Being brave all the time is exhausting

Every time we feel vulnerable, at risk of shame, we have to draw on courage to keep showing up.

Every. Time.

If we buy into shame, if we agree that we are bad when bad things happen, we will get exhausted by living in uncertainty. Any factor outside our control could pitch us into shame.

The answer to imposter syndrome is guilt or acceptance

When something goes wrong, it doesn’t make you wrong. If you genuinely made a poor decision it doesn’t mean you are a bad person. It means you did a bad thing. And then the right thing to feel is guilt. Yes, you caused it, but no, you are not flawed or worthless. You recognise what happened and your part in it. You apologise, you make it right, if you can. You take the punishment if it’s required. But you, the person? Not bad. Not flawed. Just human.

When a poor outcome happened despite all your best efforts, this is the moment for acceptance. You tried, it didn’t work. Time to move on.

Don’t mistake your actions for your worth. Don’t buy into narratives that require perfection. Don’t play the shame game. Don’t follow others into it.

If I make a mistake I say sorry. If things go wrong I don’t beat myself up (and I don’t let others beat me up either). I don’t let that fear of shame make me hide myself or my work.

And that, my friends, is the path out of imposter syndrome.

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