How to Overcome the Impostor Syndrome
Updated: Sep 13, 2019
About a decade ago I had one of my strongest experiences of Impostor Syndrome. Demotivated and bored at work, craving excitement and drive, and frustrated by the lack of a concrete sense of direction in one of my main passions, salsa dancing, which had started to take over massively, I said 'yes!' to opening a Salsa club with my then business partner.
This was it. We thought, we are passionate social dancers who are not just socialising at the clubs, we are not just dancing the dance, we are constantly thinking about it, debating about it, experimenting with it, practising daily, analysing technique, thinking about music, collecting music, travelling to congresses, taking lessons, buying DVDs, doing courses, doing private lessons... We live Salsa! And because we live salsa, we crave to get better at what we do so we can enjoy it more and more. How great would it be if we had a platform that would allow us to achieve this. However, the London scene at the time was not in a position to offer what we needed in the way we needed it. Opportunities for performing and teaching, which are conventional salsa paths, felt limited and out of reach to us, and so we thought, never mind, we are going to choose ourselves, and we are going to create our opportunities ourselves.
This was the beginning of a journey that lasted a decade which led to TNT Dance, the first
exclusively Salsa On2 club in London which revolutionised and altered the London Salsa scene and which became known across Europe with strong connections with the States. The how and the whys are another story, but it was also the beginning of a deep personal struggle.
You see, in my default settings, I am shy, and shy meant that I was about to face a conflict. If you are running a salsa club and you are at the beginning of it, as any new entrepreneur knows, you have limited cash flow. This means you are not yet in a position to hire someone else to do work for you, you need to do it yourself. As you have to do everything, it also means that you potentially need to learn new skills. One of those new things I had to learn, was to stand in the middle of a group, and teach.
I still remember it to this day. We were at my business partner's house, he was going to be my audience, and I was supposed to practice teaching the first four basic steps of Salsa. Within my first attempt, I turned around and said to him, eyes wallowing, ‘I feel like I want to hide at that dark corner behind your couch, crawl into a ball, lick my wounds, and cry’. This feeling lasted two years.
What was happening? What was causing such a pain in my experience, and why was it so
difficult inside my head to stand in front of a group and teach something I was already doing really well, I understood very well, I was able to break it down so well, and was able to spot what another person needed and corrected them accordingly? What was going through my mind?
Clarity came over time, as in the moment, one tends to go only through the motions, and
apparently one of the main reasons I was going through my struggle was that I was operating with two conflicting fixed ideas, what it means to be a teacher, and what it means to be a professional dancer. You see, I grew up in Greece and the way the country operates is that you are not permitted by the government, at least back then, to have an income in these professions unless you have official qualifications. Teachers go to universities, and dance teachers go through rigorous vocational training and exams, and then get a government licence to teach, so there are no unregulated professions.
Dance teachers also look a certain way, which means 'they are meant to be doing this', but I did not look that way, and so how could I possibly conceive I could be a teacher, and specifically a dance teacher? Of course, nothing of the sort crossed my mind before I agreed to partner for the club, but now that I was on the other side, I was faced with this
Moreover, the idea of social dancing did not exist in Greece when I was growing up, and if
there is only one ‘valid’ type of dancer, how can anyone accept they are all these other kinds of dancers and how can one be happy with their label if they are not part of the beautiful and bendy and extremely thin? So then I must be an impostor, in what I dearly love doing, prancing around pretending to be a dance teacher, pretending to be a dancer, pretending to be an expert while I was also still learning (and experts don’t do that – in Greece in my time there was no established norm of continuous education past university), was still working on my technique (it’s not perfect, not fluid enough, not feminine enough, if I still need to be working at it, it must be flawed, so students and other teachers will be looking at me critically), and was still expanding my vocabulary (if I am still learning, yes, definitely an impostor).
It was the only explanation, and it was a crippling one, as every time I would have to stand up and teach, and every time I had to talk about what I do as a salsa teacher and salsa dancer, I was overwhelmed with stress and anxiety, that at some point, someone is going to come and call me out, shame me or humiliate me, and I will be an outcast in the eyes of the scene. So what I was thinking was ‘I don’t want to do this, I don’t want to do this, please, let there be no students today’ and of course, this was affecting my energy, my presence, how I was coming across to the students, and a job that I had the potential of doing really well, I was unconsciously sabotaging it.
Today I know I am not alone in this. If you are reading these words, you might have also
experienced it yourself, and be in the apparently 75% of the population who experience
Impostor Syndrome some time in our lives, with higher rates for women. As Phil McKinney says, the Impostor Syndrome ‘doesn’t know career, title, socioeconomics, identity, history’. It had been affecting him for 25 years while he was working as a CTO for Hewlett Packard, it affected Lou Solomon as a CEO, it affected Portia Mount who is Senior Vice President for global marketing and chief of staff at the Center for Creative Leadership and now an Executive Coach, and it has probably affected more people in your immediate surroundings than you might be aware of.
Impostor Syndrome is universal, and its effect tends to be heightened anxiety, stress of whether you will meet people’s expectations, amplified self-doubt, fear you will be found out, fear of failure, self-sabotage, perfectionism, addiction to work, severe procrastination, and even panic attacks. Lou Solomon in her TEDx talk mentions that it is not possible to get rid of it completely, though what I believe she means is that given the right circumstances, it can potentially resurface, but what one can certainly do is to manage it differently.
The Impostor Syndrome also looks to be tied to what we believe success is and what it is supposed to look like, as Rita DeRaedt who is Product Designer for Google in San Francisco, mentions in her own talk. As you probably have heard before, we are constantly bombarded by the media with images and ideas of what ideals (could) look like in all areas of life. Success is one of them, and what we tend to see is the finished product and the polished image of a person who has reached a certain level in their career and exhibit confidence through it. What we don’t get to see is their blood, sweat and tears in getting there, or hear about their stories of effort, the mental battles they had to fight to get there, how long it took them to overcome certain obstacles, the work they had to do to keep believing in themselves, the personal sacrifices they had to make and the price they had to pay in their physical health and in their personal
The cherry on top is our constant fascination with geniuses, people who get it at the speed of light (always?), say the right thing at the right time (says who?), make the right decisions and execute with precision always (always?), and have everything they could ever dream of
because they bent the rules (lose boundaries?), do not hesitate (never?), and never make
mistakes (really?). So, if we have to struggle for things, surely it doesn’t count, even if we
achieve in our struggles, we must be not good enough, and so if anyone attempts to praise our accomplishments, surely they do not in any way compare with the person who is just winging it next door and isn’t batting an eyelid, which means we can deflect the praise.
In short, we are setting ourselves up for a life of struggle, inner conflict between who we think we are supposed to be and who we really are, and suffering.
The good news is, though, we can use the Impostor Syndrome as a force for good as opposed to allowing it to cripple us.
So what can we do? How can we manage this syndrome if it is currently part of our experience?
There are a variety of tools and strategies out there but here are some which can help you lay the foundations in place.
1. Understand we are inside an entrepreneurship learning journey
If you are an entrepreneur who has just launched their business while you are coming from a different background and have limited knowledge or expertise in your new field, what you are most likely experiencing is the vulnerability of the learning journey. It is pretty tough often for adult learners of all kinds of disciplines and all levels to allow themselves to be in a position of uncertainty which learning really requires, and which also implies potential failure when something has to be tried and tested first.
But we tend to forget that we have been learning all our lives, since the day we were born, since we started to walk, since we went to school, and every time we are faced with a new situation. The gap of feeling we don’t have it in line with the identity we think we should be matching, that is the learning gap, and all we need to do is to remember that we are in a process.
2. Accept that we are all just figuring it out
As Rita DeRaedt says, we don’t really have all the answers, no matter how much we try. It partly has to do with what answers we had before we arrived at our new situation and how much of the world we understand to that point. Our life is a continuous work of discovering new situations, adding to existing information banks either materialistic or mental, problem-solving conundrums we are facing, and experiencing what we have understood. The cycle is endless and keeps us energised. Even the people who appear to know it all, they too are just figuring it out, as it is part of the human condition, and we are all on very different paths. So we can just relax, and accept that we, too, are figuring it out, and that it’s OK.
3. People want to work with us as we are
If we were not suitable for the businesses we have set up, well, simply, we would have been
fired by our clients. People would not be interested to hear what we have to say, they would not be taking note of our information or advice, they wouldn’t be choosing our products or services, they wouldn’t be working with us. The best thing we can do is to allow ourselves to accept this, and keep improving on the areas that we can so keep on serving at the best way possible.
4. Question our beliefs
In my case, to overcome my impostor Syndrome I needed to be willing, first, to question, and then to actually question what being for instance a teacher really meant, whose idea it was and if only governments, Universities and official bodies can decide that or is it part of our human nature. It took time, conversations, thinking, and being curious about the world, but thankfully I realised it was the latter, as we are part of an ecosystem where parents of all species pass down skills to the next generation, human mentors pass skills and knowledge to their mentees, coaches pass down skills to their clients, and it’s a process which often takes years in the making, regardless and outside of the labels of professions. My students were indeed the next generation of salsa dancers, and them and I were inside the process of transmitting and accepting those skills, and so therefore I, too, was a teacher.
5. Compound our strengths
This idea is not always easy to accept, and often requires some work, but allowing ourselves to see where we are good enough and amplifying it, can strengthen us against the pitfalls of the Impostor Syndrome and help us cultivate resilience. By taking a step back and really seeing what it is that we do well, acknowledging it for ourselves, writing it down, and reminding ourselves on a regular basis is one of the best managing strategies against Impostor Syndrome.
6. Speak our truth
I never really spoke to my business partner and to our team of teachers about my Impostor Syndrome, even though in the research I did to write this blog, speaking your most fearful secret that you fear will have repercussions for your life if it gets discovered, was one of the recommended solutions. However, even knowing how much it has helped others, I still believe I wouldn’t have mentioned anything at the time as I instinctively knew we were all too young in our emotional understanding to really be able to support each other in such a way. Now that I am a coach, I very clearly understand that when dealing with beliefs, to alter them fast and effectively and save time, there has to be a specific approach, even including a separate special messenger sometimes, who will be able to communicate these new ideas with empathy and understanding so that the person's mindset can accept them and shift.
For me, for my pre-coaching life, I am happy knowing that I did become the person who was able to tell myself ‘you really learned this, and you are now teaching it from your own experience? Good for you! Keep doing that!’. My own efforts, long series of experiences over years, curiosity about 'truth' and learning, and willingness to consider different ideas led me to accept and fully embrace the fact that I am indeed (among other things) a teacher and that I am even more so a dancer, who has indeed worked professionally. It took a really long time, but I am glad I got there in the end. As for my post-coaching life, I know that decisions and experiences are and are going to be very very different and I am even happier because of it.
If you are struggling to feel authentic in your role and think you could benefit from professional support, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Constantina Stamou is a certified Strategic Intervention Coach, has trained with the Robbins-Madanes coaching school, is an NLP Master Practitioner, has attended Tony Robbins’ Business Mastery, and has a PhD in how we change the way we put sentences together as we grow older. Her work experience includes tutoring at her university, working for a charity, and entrepreneurship which has so far translated into the TNT Dance Salsa Club in London and her own Reformer Pilates Studio at Kensington Olympia, London, where she had the pleasure of working with her team of four teachers.