Either Teddy Roosevelt or author Dwight Edwards said this, and I can’t trace exactly who did. Regardless, the words ring true.
If you suffer from Impostor Syndrome, you know this trap. You may have impressive credentials and exemplary accomplishments, but when you get around your professional peers, the comparisons start. “They are smarter than I am. More experienced. More educated. More influential. They know the recent developments and trends. I’m such a hack compared to them. I’m worthless.” In a heartbeat, you spiral down a rabbit hole of frantic fear and “compare and despair.”
Easier said than done, right? I mean, how do you resist the temptation to scan the landscape and size up everyone? What’s the option to not only trying to figure out where you fit in, but condeming yourself to the lowest spot in the food chain (which is what most sufferers of Impostor syndrome will compulsively, but illogically, do.)
Ignore your place and embrace your space.
In his book “The War of Art,” author Steven Pressfield describes the difference between hierarchy and territory orientation. Hierarchy orientation is our tendency to compare ourselves against others, determining a pecking order. It’s a natural default since most of our society operates on some type of chain-of-command structure. From childhood through adulthood, we stand in line according to some criteria such as height, last name, or order of appearance. But, as adults, we also do it with our skills and abilities, falsely assuming that we are pigeonholed according to some measure of adequacy and efficacy. By default, we assign ourselves a place in line, in a hierarchy of increasing worth and dignity as compared to other people.
In contrast, territory orientation is not dependent on others; it where you function at your best, at your peak, by yourself. It’s your personal space of fulfillment, your territory of excellence, your domain of joy. It brings you sustenance, deep satisfaction and a sense of purpose.
Every person, including you, has some territory of excellence, a space of distinction. And because it’s solely yours, nobody else’s is exactly the same. Your space is your space, and only you can occupy and control it. You dance in your own theater and perform on your own stage. You excel in some aspect of art, business, humor, stamp collecting, gaming, science, cooking, writing, fitness, or politics. You are great at SOMETHING.
Grasping the difference between hierarchy and territory is the trick to avoiding the “compare and despair” trap. It’s simple but not easy. You must choose to ignore your place and embrace your space.
For example, yesterday I was on a webinar to learn how to liven up my PowerPoint slides. Prior to the webinar, participants were invited to submit some slides so they could be critiqued/evaluated during the live broadcast. I submitted a slide deck from a recent talk I gave. When it came time to inspect my slides during the webinar, the expert very kindly told me they were awful (although he didn’t come right out and say it like that! He said they were not professional.) I did them myself, and I am not a PowerPoint expert, and after he identified the weaknesses, I agreed…they weren’t very good slides. And because he was brilliant, I welcomed his perspective. But I didn’t feel like a failure or let his opinion define me or undo me because I do know my strengths. I’m not familiar with PowerPoint, but I’m a pretty good speaker. A stage, a microphone and an audience: that’s my happy place, the space in which I excel. Knowing this makes it much easier to accept that PowerPoint is not my space. I wasn’t intimidated by the expert. Instead, I admired him and accepted his help.
If you can fully embrace your space, that is, fully acknowledge your greatness and skill in your specific circle of fulfillment, you will be less likely to be intimidated by the space of other people. You won’t be tempted to find a “place in line” or a spot in the pecking order. You’ll be able to appreciate others and admire their accomplishment. When you own your own greatness, you choose to bring to the world your unique and precious space of excellence, and not feel less significant than others.
And for goodness sakes, quit comparing!