I’m Brian and each week I publish content on personal growth. Sometimes it will be things I’ve learned in my own growth experience, but most times I’ll be answering readers’ questions about personal growth. Send me your questions, and in turn, I’ll do some research & interviews and humbly offer the best advice I find.
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Q: You mentioned how my imposter syndrome can result in procrastination or overpreparation. Can you talk about how that happens?
Have you felt imposter syndrome before? A couple of weeks ago, when we talked about whether it was you or your ego in the driver seat, I mentioned that our egos like to be really good at stuff.
Imposter syndrome is this funky thing that happens when you are actually good at something, but you don’t feel like you’re as good at is as other people think you are. It’s as if you’re running a racquet and you’re in constant worry that one day, that racquet will collapse.
Here’s a quick definition of imposter syndrome in more technical terms:
Imposter Syndrome is a psychological pattern in which one doubts one’s accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud… 70% of people experience imposter syndrome at some point in their careers.
Imposter syndrome is different from the standard “fake it until you make it” in that imposter syndrome impacts people who have already made it in a big way. People like Neil Armstrong, Michelle Obama, and Tom Hanks have all had bouts with imposter syndrome.
If people who’ve achieved that level of success feel imposter syndrome, it’s a pretty normal feeling for any of us to feel the same. But, it could also be worth learning how to defuse imposter syndrome a bit, because it’s probably slowing you down.
Imposter syndrome takes up a lot of emotional energy and physical time, both of which you could be investing in your business, relationships, or personal life. It can also drive hesitation and prevent you from taking on opportunities that can propel your success.
This is how imposter syndrome might be negatively impacting your life:
You live in a fairly constant state of paranoia that people will discover that you aren’t as good as they think you are. 😟
Your stress levels are up because you’re trying to achieve perfection. 😰
You’re trying to be superman/superwoman in all aspects of your life so nothing falls through the cracks. 🦸♂️
You attribute your past successes to luck and therefore hesitate on opportunities that you feel you are underqualified for. 🍀
You discount positive feedback that you hear from those close to you. 🤥
If all of those weren’t bad enough, imposter syndrome can send you into some very interesting cycles of procrastination and overpreparation.
How are my procrastination and overpreparation driven by my imposter syndrome?
If you spend a lot of your time overpreparing for things or procrastinating things to the last minute, you’ll want to pay attention to this section. A lot of this research comes from Dr. Pauline R Clance who researched this stuff back in the 80s. What she found was that:
Imposter syndrome drives us to overprepare or procrastinate achievement-related tasks
The results of our overpreparation and procrastination feed more imposter syndrome.
It’s a cycle called the Imposter Cycle. Here’s how it works.
Think about an achievement-related task that you’ve been given in the past. Any task will do, but here are a few examples:
Taking a test 🎒
Giving a presentation at work 🖥
Playing an open-mic night 🎷
Writing my next newsletter article (this one is completely hypothetical of course)
Given that I feel like I am an imposter, I don’t feel qualified to be completing that task. I really don’t want to fail, because I don’t want other people to know that I am unqualified. So I can take the procrastination or overpreparation path.
If you procrastinate on that task, then you’ll rush at the end of your procrastination habit to cram in the work you have to do or wing the whole thing. In this situation, no one knows that you procrastinated except for you. When the task goes well, a normal feedback-loop would boost your confidence.
But in the Imposter Cycle loop, you discount the positive feedback that you receive because you know that you procrastinated or half-assed the task. You start to feel like you’ve fooled people, yet again and didn’t earn that positive feedback.
The next time you receive a task, you know that this could be the time that you fail and people figure out that you’ve been a fraud the entire time. So your ego kicks and does one of the things it does best… it avoids the task and procrastinates again.
This creates a see-saw battle between procrastination and imposter syndrome that is challenging to interrupt.
Given the same high achievement task, you could respond by overpreparing. The overpreparation cycle is, in my humble opinion, more detrimental to your mental health because it doesn’t matter what the results are… your ego will use the result to fuel your imposter syndrome. Overpreparation has two potential imposter cycles.
Overpreparation Cycle 1: When faced with a high-achievement task that your imposter syndrome says you’re not qualified to do, you overprepare. When the results of the task are positive (you do well on the task), you use that to support the fact that you weren’t qualified in the first place and that the overpreparation was justified. This fuels your imposter syndrome and you overprepare again next time. This is what it looks like:
Overpreparation Cycle 2: Similar to cycle 1, you receive a task and overprepare. In this case, though, you do not do well on the assignment. Maybe you bomb it even. This fuels evidence that you aren’t good enough and that, even with the overpreparation, it wasn’t enough. You don’t even deserve to be in the room, the school, the company at this point. So the next time you get an assignment, you overprepare again, maybe even more than last time. This is what it looks like:
When it comes to overpreparation, whether your feedback on the assignment is positive or negative, you’ll use it to fuel your imposter syndrome. Can you think of examples when one or both of the above cycles happened to you?
In the cases of both procrastination and overpreparation, your stress level increased, the impact your time negatively, and they’re energy sucks.
Would you be interested in decreasing your stress, increasing your energy, and creating more free time? Me too! So let’s chat about some ways to counter imposter syndrome.
Three things that can support you in countering imposter syndrome
1. Focus on getting it done, not getting it perfect.
I hold a record at my old accounting firm, CBIZ. If you were ever in public accounting, then you’ll know that CPA firms pay associates a bonus for passing the CPA exam ASAP. The bonus decreases every year you don’t pass. Most people take the 4-parts of the exam over a 9-12 month period and you need a 75/100 on each test to officially pass the overall test.
My younger, more arrogant self felt that studying for anything for 9-12 months would feel like torture, and I opted to take all of the exams over a 3-month period, which my managers informed me was insane! I just figured that I could pass on a cycle of 2-3 week cram sessions, followed by taking a test.
Let me be clear, it was a grueling test-taking method. But, my final scores were: 77, 79, 86, and 90. As I write this, I can remember the feeling of opening up my envelope and seeing those scores. It’s one of my “I can’t believe I pulled that off” life moments.
The point is, I could have studied way more and gotten higher scores. My ego wasn’t and still isn’t proud of a 77 in tax. But it doesn’t matter, because I’d have the same CPA license as everyone who scored 99 on all the tests. There was no need for me to study at a 99 level if the 75 was good enough. Being perfect would have had zero additional value to me, yet it would have taken way more of my time.
One way to combat imposter syndrome is to focus on getting tasks done instead of getting them perfect. When you can focus on getting something done, you’ll relieve the drive to overprepare and the pressure that can lead to procrastination.
No one expects you to be perfect, except for you. Even if your parents were the original culprits of that perfect standard, you’re the one maintaining it today. Any drive to be perfect, superhuman, “the smart one,” or “the perfect one” is in your control right now. That’s a powerful place to be… if you can choose to let them go. Imagine how much you’ll accomplish if nothing needed to be perfect.
2. Change your language to the definitive positive
Another thing that you can do to combat your imposter syndrome is to change your internal languaging that surrounds it. Our minds are powerful and how we communicate with ourselves internally has a direct impact on results.
Changing your language to the definitive positive involves catching yourself when you make statements that insinuate potential failure, provide a backdoor, or create space for indecisiveness.
For example, instead of saying “I think I can write that book” I’d tell myself “I can write that book.” Whether I end up writing the book or not is my choice, but we all have the power to write a book. It’s a clear “I can.”
Another example is instead of saying “if I can make it on time” I’d tell myself “when I make it on time.” The “if” that we use internally can support internal doubt (“if I can make a million dollars” or “if I have kids”). Changing my language to a more definitive “when” says that that action or event will happen. We remove the internal doubts and it makes it easier for me to stand in my own personal power: my ability to accomplish whatever I’m facing.
Here are some more examples:
3. Collect the evidence that you are pretty friggin awesome!
If no one has told you yet today: you’re friggin awesome!
If your imposter syndrome is flaring up, you won’t believe that. But you are! A really powerful method for countering any imposter syndrome is to gather the evidence that you are enough, you are talented, and that you are accomplished.
It means making a list of all the times you took on a challenge and succeeded. Those times when your back was against the wall and you came out on top. Or those times you thought the world was going to end for you, and it didn’t.
Make a list… an ongoing one… that you can refer back to whenever the imposter syndrome starts to flare up. I’m sure there are dozens of examples for you. Include older ones and more recent ones.
Here are a few of mine that I’ll share in hopes that it will inspire you to make your own list:
I held a 3.7 major GPA in college while working 30+ hour weeks 🏆
I studied for and passed all of my CPA Exams in less than 60 days 📚
I excelled at one of the fastest-growing startups on the planet for 3+ years 🚀
I’ve been able to talk my way out of multiple misdemeanors 🚨
I lived in the Bay Area for $450/month for years! 🏠
If you want more examples, you can ping me, but this isn’t about me, it’s about you. Your list is just as good as my list. You’re awesome and I think it would be awesome if you had a list of evidence to back that up. If you can’t think of evidence, call your best friends and ask them; they’ll tell you all the times when you weren’t full of shit.
CHALLENGE: Make a list of all the times you weren’t full of shit. Share it with Brian if you’re feeling vulnerable.
There is a software created by a friend of mine called Hype Docs that tracks things like this over time. One day, that software might even send you a text to remind you that on this day, 8-years ago, you accomplished XYZ. It’s pretty cool and you’re welcome to give it a try.
Fun fact: this week’s newsletter was a practice of me applying everything I said above. I committed to not overpreparing, procrastinating, or overediting for perfection. I committed to finishing this before 10 PM instead of 1-2 AM. It’s currently 9:44 PM. Thanks for being a part of my growth!
That’s it for this week! Hit me up if you have any thoughts, feedback, or insights to share.
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Not bad, but honestly, this is just another article. It seems like articles like this are written by people that know, but don´t fully understand what it feels like to deal with issues like this. Don´t get me wrong, it is good, but doesn´t help me find a solution to this problem. The solution presented, as always, is just an elaborated way of saying "remember that you can do it", "keep a positive attitude", "just get things done", and if i could keep a positive mindset and get things done, i wouldn’t read articles like this.
Sorry, i´m just tired reading the same "solutions" over and over again, just to eventually end up searching for answers.
This is a really great article! I've been getting a bit sick of the stress that comes along with procrastination, so thought I best get to the bottom of why I am procrastinating in the first place. Only just recently have I realised it's probably a consequence of imposter syndrome. This is the first article I've read which truly resonates with how I feel. Not only that, it gives great tips for how to address it. I'll definitely be giving Hype Docs a go. Thank you :)