Breaking Free from Imposter Syndrome
‘Imposter syndrome’ refers to the belief that, no matter who you are or what your qualifications may be, you don’t belong, or you’re not up to the task.
I’ve experienced this in almost every avenue of my life.
For thirteen years, I used to teach yoga. I think it took me seven or eight years to get over my imposter syndrome as a yoga teacher. Then, I became a meditation teacher and it started all over! At first, when I’d be invited to participate on a project or to join a teaching team, I’d feel honoured and excited. That would be short lived though. It didn’t take much time until thoughts of Why me? Do they know I’ve been tricking them this whole time? They think I'm one way, but I'm really not. And they're gonna find out.
It was almost debilitating.
Now, years later, I can see imposter syndrome more clearly when it shows up. I also see that I don’t buy into it. Don’t get me wrong, it still comes up – most recently around teaching the Work Life Challenge for Ten Percent Happier and recording on the Ten Percent Happier podcast. So many of my friends, colleagues and teachers that I adore have been on the podcast. What could I possibly have to share? What is so special about me? If I don’t catch these thoughts with my mindfulness practice, it can be pretty painful.
When it arises, though, I drop into the body.
Dropping into the body is my go-to. Mostly because the thoughts of imposter syndrome are just that: thoughts. If I believe them enough, they can swirl and swirl and suddenly become a kind of psych tornado that I can't get out of. So, as soon as possible, I try to remember my body: sitting or standing, maybe holding papers, if I'm about to go into a meeting or a presentation or something like that, remembering to breathe.
This doesn't mean that what's going on in the body at that moment is pleasant. On the contrary, it's probably going to be a reflection of what I’m thinking, so there’s going to be tension there. I might feel cold sweats, or tightness of the chest, or a shortness of breath, or however our body expresses that tension.
That doesn’t matter, though, because the point of dropping into the body is to come into the present moment, even if it feels unpleasant. Imposter syndrome is not anchored in this moment. The thoughts will be about comparing: maybe replaying another podcast episode of someone who I admire and getting lost in that, or maybe imagining a future outcome of some sort. Whatever it is, it’s not the present moment.
When I’m in my body, there is nowhere else I can be other than in this moment. And in this moment, I might not be comfortable, but I'm okay.
I can be with the discomfort because I’ve been with it so many times in meditation: for example, when I want to scratch that itch, but I'm not doing it. That might seem mundane, but in that moment, I’m cultivating a tolerance for discomfort. So when I'm in that presentation at work or that meeting, and I don't feel like it's going well, or I'm receiving feedback that is ‘constructive’ but feels critical, I’m leaning into discomfort using what I've built on in my meditation practice, so that I can look at it, or maybe switch my perspective to see it more as growth. Maybe I’ll prepare differently next time, or maybe I’ll integrate that feedback.
I used to be way more fragile and perfection-oriented. If it wasn't perfect, then it was a complete fail, and I would fall into a shame cycle that could last for days. Now, difficult moments may still be really uncomfortable, but I see that the discomfort is not bad; it's just something that I could learn from instead.
Imposter syndrome can be really painful, even debilitating. But it’s based on living in the head. When we drop into the body and start feeling whatever else might come along with the imposter syndrome, that is enough to create a little bit of distance. And with that, even though we might still hear the voice of imposter syndrome, we don’t have to believe it.
Dawn Mauricio has been practicing Insight Meditation since 2005. She completed Spirit Rock's Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation Training, Dedicated Practitioners' Program, and 4-year Retreat Teacher Training. She teaches with a playful, dynamic, and heartfelt approach people of color and folks of all backgrounds. Dawn is a co-founder of the True North Insight BIPOC practice group, serves on the guiding teachers council of True North Insight, and the leadership council for Sacred Mountain Sangha. She is also the author of “Mindfulness Meditation for Beginners."