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Living with imposter syndrome

Lisa Caldwell - CEO, LMC Leadership & Coaching

Lisa Caldwell is the CEO of LMC Leadership & Coaching. She has a passion for supporting the success and development of others through growing their skills and knowledge, with ongoing mentoring and coaching. Lisa shares her vulnerability in this guest blog.

It wasn’t until recently that I learned of the term “Imposter Syndrome”. After reading this description from the Harvard Business Review article Overcoming Imposter Syndrome, I realized this is exactly how I view myself.

“Imposter syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. ‘Imposters’ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.” – Gill Corkindale, Harvard Business Review

All my life I have battled with feelings of not being good enough, with fears of judgment and embarrassment.  Although I have come to realize it is not in my nature to let these feelings hold me back entirely, it has certainly caused me to hesitate in moving forward.  In fact, I have been known to live in a place of self-doubt, worry and anxiousness for an extended period of time.

I decided to research who else struggles with this condition and found that many celebrities also suffer from imposter syndrome. People like Sheryl Sandberg, Tom Hanks, Lady Gaga, Emma Watson, Natalie Portman, Padma Lakshmi, Jodie Foster, Harold Schultz, and Helen Mirren, to name just a few whom I admire for their tenacity.  I was very surprised and no longer felt entirely alone. I thought if these remarkably successful people struggle with this syndrome, maybe I’m not so different.

Lisa Caldwell in grade 4.

After a great deal of reflection over the last year, I have come to realize that it wasn’t one specific event that caused the development of feeling like an imposter, but a number of events over the course of my life.  In fact, as is the case for personality trait development, these feelings of “not being good enough” started to develop from a very young age.  Looking back at my younger years, I considered myself for lack of a better word “awkward” and I was never able to feel as though I fit in with a sense of belonging.  I didn’t have female friends close to my age until I was in my teens and by that point, my social development was at best immature, naïve, and from a male-dominated perspective.  Being the only girl, with 2 brothers and 4 overprotective, relentlessly teasing uncles within 12 years of my age, my points of reference were unlike most female children my age.  Moreover, add in a low-income family status, buck teeth, and lack of style or fashion, it is now very clear to me how this syndrome was developed.  In fact, my favorite nursery story, which I connected with most and read far too often was The Ugly Duckling

Fast forward to my pre-teen years, my family’s economic standing improved and we moved to a more affluent neighborhood.  I had to move schools in January, half way through the grade 7 school year and it was during this time I realized what bullying is as I was on the receiving end a great deal.  Kids can be very cruel.  Remember I mentioned that I did not know what fashion or style was, I didn’t do my hair, wear makeup or have fancy brand name clothes.  Going outside for recess was actual torture for me.  I would do whatever I could to stay inside and when I was forced to go outside for recess I would try to hide in the bathroom.  I am very grateful that when I went to high school, I met and connected with a great group of friends.  In fact, there are 6 of us who remain in close contact to this day and I consider these ladies my dearest friends and advocates.

So you may be asking why I share this back history with you.  I have realized my life purpose is to not only support women to overcome their imposter syndrome but to help mitigate any damaging perceptions from developing in our female youth early on in life. By understanding how we develop our personality and the framework surrounding our experiences, we can begin to acknowledge and reframe the beliefs and perspectives we hold of ourselves.

It took me many years to acknowledge the feelings and fear that attempt to hinder my success.  I first had to identify and acknowledge what I was dealing with, in order to develop ways to overcome these feelings and the fear associated with them when they surface.  Acknowledgment was necessary in order to help grow my self-awareness and recognize the impact these aspects were having in my life and relationships.  Around the same time, my self-discovery and awareness were taking place my daughter was approaching her teenage years. I began to notice in her many similar habits I had during my adolescent years including a negative self-perception. I realized that I did not intend for my past personal struggles and conflicts to be projected onto her.  However, as parents, we tend to unconsciously teach what we have been taught and experienced, whether it is good or bad.

When my daughter was 8 years old I recognized that she was entering the awkward pre-teen phase, similar to my adolescent experience, which had caused me to build a very negative self-image that I struggle with to this day.  I also recognized the signs when she stopped eating, as I had suffered from anorexia in my teens, and immediately took action to help her understand the ramifications of her actions. I shared with her the damage I did to my immune system during that time and how I still live with the consequences.  As an adult, I didn’t want my daughter to struggle with an unhealthy relationship with food as I have for many years.  I also did not want my daughter to experience this challenge on her own when I could teach her a different approach and ways to overcome her own anxiety and fears. Working with my daughter to help her build a confident and positive self-image has paid off.  Watching her become a strong independent, capable woman is a true gift and a testament that the cycle can be broken when we start paying attention early on in development.  When my daughter turned 15, my father made a comment that she is just like me, but as the grown woman I am now (at the time I was 43).  His recognition of the confidence I was ensuring she built in herself was the greatest compliment!

I consider myself a strong woman who has accomplished a great deal thus far in life.  Although it has been a constant struggle to acknowledge my accomplishments and believe in my own value.  I am the first to admit I am not perfect, but I am also learning to be very proud of my progress.  I recognize the importance and willingness to continually learn and grow to become a more confident person with the ability to mitigate internal judgment and fear while letting go of the tendency to compare myself with others. I have learned that I am capable of improving to overcome whatever obstacle or barrier that is set before me.  My approach has transformed from being overly self-critical to allowing more self-compassion. I have learned the importance of self-care and creating intention towards future improvement for greater success while celebrating achievements along the way.

Lisa Caldwell, CEO, LMC Leadership & Coaching

Living with an imposter syndrome mindset, never completely goes away for me.  When a trigger pulls me back into the negative feelings from my past experience, I sometimes think – I’m not good enough; I’m not enough, or there are so many other people smarter than me, and my opinion doesn’t matter. To overcome this thinking when it happens, I have developed techniques to identify, manage and reframe my outlook and not let self-criticism hold me back.  A couple of strategies that support reframing when a negative mindset surfaces is learning to identify the feelings, be more forgiving of myself, and focus on what this experience is trying to teach me.  I have also come to realize that perfection is a myth and doesn’t exist for more than a single moment in time because everything in life is constantly changing.  What one person defines as perfection may not be the same for another.  Instead, I have learned to strive for excellence, knowing I have attempted to perform to the very best of my ability.  Understanding that the process of learning through this journey of life is continuous.

Every person will face extreme amounts of stress at some point in life.  In fact, when COVID struck, my husband and I were both laid off from work within a week of the pandemic being declared.  I was devastated as my assistant and I were the first employees to be laid off in the company where I had been working for over 22 years. My job had become my identity over this time investment.  A couple of months later I was let go from the company, which followed shortly with my son being severely injured while going through the Green Beret program in the U.S. Army.  The combined fear, judgment, and embarrassment I was experiencing from these situations within a short timeframe were my undoing. All of these sudden and emotional situations destroyed my confidence and my imposter syndrome resurfaced with a vengeance. There were days I struggled to get out of bed and interact with my own family.

It wasn’t until my adult children, who I am so proud of, conveyed the same phrases I have encouraged them with over the years when they were down or struggling. It was through their encouragement they reminded me that I do have the emotional resilience to make it through this “bump” in the road of life and I know I will be stronger for surviving it!

The longer a person has lived with a certain belief, approach, or way of thinking, the more difficult it will be for them to reframe their mindset. In times of stress, we tend to revert back to the behavior that has been reinforced for a very long time and is a part of our unconscious thinking.  Change of this significance takes time and is a continuous process with practice and intention.  The good news is change is achievable when we reframe our outlook to include compassion without judgment of ourselves and others. I continue to live with an imposter syndrome belief and have learned to recognize it quicker when it resurfaces, as well as, turn it off quicker resulting in a happier outlook and well-being.  This is where coaching and accountability to reframe our mindset really are effective.

It is with this growth intention I decided to pursue my dream of opening a leadership coaching, consulting, and training business. I am following what I believe to be my purpose in life – to help support others, especially women, face their fears, build their confidence and let go of the internal judgment and fear that often holds us back from pursuing our own dreams.

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