Lacking Self Confidence, or Impostor Syndrome?

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“What’s the difference between having Impostor Syndrome and having a lack of confidence?”

Great question, one I get all the time.

They are indeed related, but different. One can have a lack of confidence without feeling like an impostor. But the one who suffers from Impostor Syndrome will almost always feel a lack of confidence. They just don’t let it control them.

Years ago, I stood at the top of a black diamond (expert) ski run at Telluride Ski Resort in Colorado. I’m a strong intermediate skier, but definitely not an expert. I stared down a terrifying vertical drop and thought “There’s no way I can ski this! I will die.” But I wanted to get down the mountain fast. I thought, “I could take that easier green circle (beginner) path over there, but that’s 2 miles and it will take too long. My only choice is this black diamond.” My internal dialog tormented me. “Could I ski this? I’m a strong skier. I’ve handled high speed, quick turns, and crowded runs. I can control myself here enough to get down a few dozen yards, right? I don’t know! I don’t think so! This looks hard!”

I was experiencing a lack of confidence, which was legitimate. I was hesitating because my experience and “perceived” skill level seemed inadequate.

I stood there with the tips of my skis cantilevered over the edge. Suddenly, I just decided to go for it. I jerked forward and launched myself down the hill. In a heartbeat, I was skiing down the black diamond, scared out of my mind. In a few short, but very intense moments, I was on a much flatter blue square (intermediate) run.

I stopped and looked behind 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 sure it was ugly!”

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

This is the key difference between lack of confidence and Impostor Syndrome: Before and After. 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, the “Impostor” moves forward, dragging along the self-doubts and lack of confidence 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 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.

So, 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. The Impostor will almost always choose the black diamond.

Get comfortable with that 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.”

 

Maureen Zappala
Maureen Zappala
Maureen is the founder of High Altitude Strategies. She’s an ex-NASA propulsion engineer, turned professional speaker and author. She’s a semi-regular contributor to the monthly Toastmaster magazine. And paradoxically, is co-writing a book about Ohio State Football history, (despite being a graduate of U of Notre Dame). Go Bucks. Go Irish. Go figure.

5 Comments

  1. Ray Engan says:

    I loved the last line
    Go Bucks, Go Irish, Go Figure
    Sounds like a foundational phrase for a keynote.

    How do you know you are an imposter ?

    • Maureen Zappala says:

      Good question Ray. There’s a cluster of symptoms, that taken by themselves seem normal and common, but grouped together indicate what’s called “Impostor Syndrome.” In a nutshell, it’s the inability (or unwillingness) to connect the dots between your accomplishments and your skills. Despite having a track record of awards, recognition, and influence, you still think “I’m not as smart as everyone thinks I am.” And you feel like you have faked your way to success, and you’ll be uncovered as a fraud. It hits intelligent, educated, successful people most often, especially people in tech, science, performing arts, management, and entrepreneurship.

  2. Guy Burns says:

    Excellent thoughts!

    I still feel this often, I have spoken professionally nearly 800 times and when I received the designation of Certified Speaking Professional this year I still felt like an imposter.

    Go figure!

    • Maureen Zappala says:

      Yet, you don’t let that impostor’s voice hold you back. You are brilliant at what you do, and the evidence shows it. Keep skiing those black diamond runs!

  3. Nancy Beach says:

    “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.” This is a great tool for my toolbox.

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