Imposter Syndrome

How to Push Back Against Imposter Syndrome

How can you combat the feeling that you're not good enough?

Posted Jan 17, 2020

 Photo by Daria Shevtsova from Pexels
Source: Photo by Daria Shevtsova from Pexels

Most of the successful public speakers I know suffer from some form of imposter syndrome. It’s often not something that they feel comfortable talking about, but it’s there, lurking in the wings as they wait to go onstage. Or it sits with them after the speech in the hotel room, as they wait for sleep. Or it comes in right after they’ve accepted a gig for good money—that little voice in their head that says, “How do you possibly think you can do that well?”

It’s a party crasher, a mood killer, a joy snuffer. In its worst forms, it can be paralyzing. And of course, it can make your life miserable when you’re actually giving the speech if it shows up, takes you out of the moment, and makes you start questioning yourself midway through your talk.

Where does it come from? The typical sufferer is successful, hard-working, and highly responsible.  Thus, in your mind, there’s some level of knowledge, or perfection, or standard of achievement that you’re aware of—and you’re also keenly aware of the endless ways in which you might fall short of that perfection. Speeches can always be better, delivery can always be more impassioned, and audience response always more heartfelt.

And so you double down on your craft and work to make it better. But strangely enough, that little voice of “who do you think you are?” doesn’t go away. In fact, from many conversations with speakers over the years, and with my own wrestling with the demon, I’ve come to the realization that no amount of hard work will silence the imposter police. Because no matter how much work you do, you will always be upgrading the standards by which you measure yourself. Public speaking, like many other businesses, is too much of a moving target ever to hold still long enough for you to nail down perfection and stomp on it.

Add to that the increasing pace of change in all things human these days, and the sad truth is that the imposter syndrome is like that mechanical rabbit they put in front of the dogs to keep them running. We’ll never catch it.

So what can we do? Listen to Jeff Bednar and Bryan Stewart. They conducted a study of college students suffering from imposter syndrome to see what, if anything, could be done to help. And what they found, as the Internet likes to say, was surprising.

You would think that working harder to get better would still the Imposter Syndrome Devil, but it doesn’t. Instead, the students who found social validation outside of their fields of study got relief. Because imposter syndrome is all about being afraid people won’t like us if they find out who we really are (i.e., not as good as we seem to be in our field), then joining a club and making friends outside of the area of concern helps us feel generally more acceptable and less like everything depends on that one area of expertise.

So, speakers—take up a hobby. Join a club. Take on a charity. Join a circle of people who don’t value you (or not) for your public speaking, but rather for your other sterling qualities, or even just because you show up and help out.

Maybe, just maybe, your new circle of friends or activity will broaden your perspective and make that debilitating little voice in your head a bit less audible. Who would have thought that the way to relief was outside of your field of expertise?

And when you’re talking to your fellow speakers, allow yourself to be human. Talk about your mistakes as well as your successes, your imperfections as well as your amazing achievements, and thereby give your colleagues and competitors permission to do the same. It will be a relief to everyone.