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Maureen Zappala at Speak Up Women

How Impostor Syndrome Differs from Lack of Confidence

If you’ve ever felt “in over your head” or “not as smart” as everyone thinks you are, you may be familiar with Impostor Syndrome. It’s the chronic self-doubt and inability to internalize your success, in spite of massive evidence of that success. You may have a track record of accomplishments, awards, and qualifications, yet you simply feel like you don’t measure up.

Many people confuse Impostor Syndrome with low self-esteem. However, they’re very different. 

Self-esteem is a global view of yourself, encompassing all areas of your life, such as physical, professional, intellectual, and relational. Impostor Syndrome is concentrated on professional and intellectual accomplishments, related to your education and career.

Similarly, Impostor Syndrome is often confused with a lack of confidence. They are indeed related, but different. 

People who struggle with impostor feelings are typically very successful, educated and well respected by their professional peers. They are generally regarded as outstanding and competent in their work. It took confidence to get to that level. They got the training, applied for the position, and took on the responsibility. Those are all steps of confidence. 

So, impostor syndrome is not a lack of confidence. 

It is, however, a limit of confidence.

You reach a limit because something changes. You got a new job. You’re considering a promotion. Maybe it’s simply a new day. If you have a job that changes every day and each day is unscripted or even volatile, impostor feelings are chronic.

Years ago, I stood at the top of a black diamond (expert) ski run in Telluride, Colorado. I’m a strong intermediate skier, but definitely not an expert. I stared down a terrifying vertical drop and thought, “I can’t ski this! I’m not that good.” It was partly true. I had never skied such a steep slope. My skills didn’t measure up to this hill; but I needed to get down the mountain fast, and the flat beginner path would take too long. I felt stuck. Terrified, actually. I was experiencing a lack of confidence, which was legitimate because I truly lacked the skills.  

As I stood there with my ski tips cantilevered over the edge, I suddenly just decided to go for it. I jerked forward and launched myself down the hill. In a heartbeat, I was schwooshing and zigzagging down the slope, scared out of my mind. In a few short, and very intense moments, the slope flattened out and I skidded to a stop. I turned to look behind me at the slope I just traversed. “Wow! I just skied down THAT???? Did I really just do that? There’s no way I did that! I’m lucky to be alive here!”

That was self-doubt. I doubted the truthfulness of what I just did.

This is a key difference between lack of confidence and Impostor Syndrome: Lack of confidence stops you BEFORE you launch. Impostor syndrome goes with you AFTER you launch. 

I could have taken the longer, easier run instead. but I didn’t. I recall I felt terrified as I careened down the slope, saying to myself, “I don’t know what the heck I’m doing!” But clearly, I did know something. I did the very thing that I thought I couldn’t do. I didn’t do it with the style and beauty of a true expert skier, but I got down the hill.

The Impostor is not the person who says, “I don’t think I can do this.” It’s the person who says, “I’m not sure I’m doing this correctly now,” while they are actually doing it, and then looks behind and says, “It wasn’t all that great. I didn’t really do a great job. In fact, it wasn’t really me who did it.”

It bears repeating:  Lack of self-confidence stops you from stepping forward. The Impostor Syndrome accompanies you after you step forward, to poison your thinking as you are moving, and robs you of joy when you are done.

People who are immobilized by low confidence don’t hear the impostor voice because they don’t get to the point where they feel like a fake. They won’t move forward. In contrast, confident people move forward, dragging along the self-doubts and impostor feelings with them. They have just enough skill (although usually way more skill than they’ll admit to) to do something well, but then they’re astonished that they finished, and can’t enjoy the success. 

Successful people who feel like impostors had some measure of confidence or moxie or courage to get where they are. They just don’t believe it was their best work, and they were totally shocked when they were done.

If you are perched at the edge of some proverbial black-diamond ski run, and you’re thinking, “I can’t do this!” – consider this. The person who lacks self-confidence will always choose the green circle path. Be the other person, the one who chooses the black diamond. Even if it feels like a lack of confidence, it’s not.

Get comfortable with that apparent lack of confidence. It will probably never leave your side, but that self-doubt, where you discount both the truth and value of what you did…that’s the real demon. That thought pattern that will rob you of joy. When you finish your black diamond run, turn around and say, “Yes, I did it. It may not have been pretty, but I did it, and it was a great ride. Best of all, I know I can do it again.”

Learn more about Maureen and her journey at the Speak Up Women Conference.

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