Yesterday I had a long overdue catch-up with a woman I used to work with years ago at BP. She’s been retired many years now, and at one time I was lucky enough to call her my line manager. Hardworking, ethical, kind, and compassionate, to date she’s one of the best bosses I’ve ever had. We got the polite pleasantries out of the way, in terms of where she’s settled, I’ve settled and what we’re up to these days, and then the conversation got much deeper and she said, “You know, when I think back to those times, I created so much stress for myself. I was always thinking I had to prove something. It was never enough to simply appreciate what I had achieved, I believed that each morning I had to wake up and do it all over again, like all that had come before had been erased.”
It’s hard to imagine that when I think of Brenda, always elegant in her designer suits, hair perfectly coiffed, she was the pinnacle of success. A young woman of color who had started as a secretary and worked her way up to a senior level leader at a large corporation. Her story is an incredibly inspiring one. And yet, here she was, suffering all those years with impostor syndrome, desperate to prove her worth.
We all have impostor syndrome
I admitted that I too, had suffered greatly at the hands of impostor syndrome. That nagging feeling in the pit of your stomach that you’re really a fraud. That eventually the lights will come on and everyone in the room will realize the mental equivalent of you sitting there with your pants down – that you don’t really deserve to be here, you have no idea what you’re doing, get the heck out of here. That kind of thing.
In case you were there thinking you’re all alone with this ailment, I have yet to have a single client who doesn’t have at least a small dose of this. Call it part of the amazing experience of being human.
It’s interesting how impostor syndrome manifests. In Brenda’s case it was surrounding herself with expensive clothes, handbags and jewelry. If she looked the part, then maybe she’d fool other people into thinking she was the part. I took a slightly different tack. I reckoned the key to kicking the impostor syndrome’s butt lied in beefing up my self-esteem. I sought out credentials and accomplishments I could tout to others so I could feel better about myself. She wore a mask of Chanel, and I wore a mask of credentials like any well intentioned over achiever.
It even spilled over into when I started my own coaching practice. It was never enough initially to work with a single client who needed help transitioning their career. I had to be traveling the world, reinventing organizations. My client list was everything to me. How many fortune 500’s had I worked with? Whose faculty was I on as a leadership consultant? How many executive coaching clients did I have? How much were my fees? I desperately chased these things as hard as I could. And when I felt I didn’t measure up (which was most of the time) I berated myself harshly.
the cost of focusing on proving
I rarely think about those things now. The wall of credentials in my office has been replaced by some pastel drawings I’ve done myself, and a print of one of Louis Wain’s award-winning psychedelic cats. My CPA certificate and master’s degrees have been relegated to the bathroom. Not to say I don’t value them, I do very much, and I leverage this expertise all the time in my coaching and consulting work. But I no longer think of them as who I am and where my value comes from.
When these types of things don’t define you anymore, it opens the door to sweet, blessed freedom. I shared with Brenda the story of a recent client I helped transition from bartending to working in tech sales. I wouldn’t have taken him just a few years ago. It wouldn’t have been BIG enough. It wouldn’t have been IMPORTANT enough. And yet, he’s now one of my clients I’m most proud of, as well as most grateful to have worked with. The experience of working with him was life changing, not just for him but for me.
When you let go of having to prove, you open the door to joy. I’ve thought about this a lot over the last couple of pandemic filled years. So much so that it’s forced me to question why I was doing certain things, working with certain clients that I didn’t enjoy. It’s allowed me to let go of things I was chasing, just so I could show the impostor syndrome ogre I was worth something.
What are you finding yourself doing just because you feel the need to prove? If you let go of whatever it is, what do you think would happen?
Shelley Pernot is a leadership and career coach who is passionate about helping her clients discover their strengths and talents and find a career that utilizes them. Reach out to me here for a free consultation to learn more about the coaching process and how it may benefit you!