Recognizing Impostor Syndrome and Not Letting It Stop You

I’m preparing to give a talk on Thursday to nonprofit leaders about building self-awareness and emotional intelligence.

These are vital skills many people have cultivated to some degree through personal development and professional experience. But our work building these skills is never complete. Every day presents a new opportunity to practice.

I accepted the invitation to present on self-awareness and emotional intelligence because these are really important subjects. And I love the challenge of presenting because preparing for a talk forces me to dig deeper into my knowledge and experiences. I always learn something new in the process.

To get ready for this week’s talk, I started by scribbling ideas on my whiteboard on a recent Saturday morning. Just look at my board. I was really excited.

Exhibit A: See, I clearly knew at least a few things about these subjects.

But when I sat down at my computer to create slides, I ran into what felt like an immovable object in the road. I was suddenly asking myself:

Who am I to talk about this? I’m no expert.

Despite having knowledge of the subjects, I was suddenly at a stand-still, second-guessing myself.


Sure, I thought, I’ve read articles and books on self-awareness and emotional intelligence. I’ve taken classes, done 360 assessments and written in journals since I was 9 years old.

But I’m not Brene Brown or Shimi Kang or Matt Tenney, who’ve each completed years of education and research, and published books on specific subject areas (respectively: shame, adaptability and mindfulness).

So there I was, typing at my computer, and my enthusiasm was thwarted by a feeling of not knowing enough. I suddenly felt the unrealistic but strong desire to stop and go read EVERY article and book on these topics before finishing my presentation. Do you ever feel this way?

But then I realized that endeavor would take like, 100 years.

I can’t possibly read every article or book. There are more than 10,000 books on self-awareness right now on Amazon.

If reading everything that has already been written about a subject is how you become qualified to speak about it, nobody would ever give a talk on anything.

So why, as I worked on consolidating, synthesizing and sharing ideas in my presentation, did I get stopped by the feeling of not knowing enough?

And that’s when it hit me: I was having a little clash with impostor syndrome.

According to Sheryl Sandberg in her book Lean In, impostor syndrome is “the phenomenon of capable people being plagued by self doubt.”

I’ve read about impostor syndrome in Lean In and also in Confidence Code. And I’m certain I’ve encountered it before, but I’m not sure it ever stopped me mid-sentence like it did on this occasion.

Being aware when impostor syndrome shows up, and being able to identify it and label it, helped me step back and remind myself of an important truth.

You don’t have to know everything there is to know about a topic before you can give a talk, teach a class or help others.

We’re all qualified to speak about our experiences and understanding of a subject. The sense we make of things and our unique experiences may not be researched and documented with footnotes, but that doesn’t mean our perspectives and ideas aren’t worth sharing.

Every single time I’ve pushed through self-doubt and shared my experiences and stories with others — despite not feeling expert enough to do so — at least one person has followed up with me to say I helped them.

I believe we’re all here to help one another. I’ll always be a student, always learning more, never satisfied that I know enough about anything. But if stepping out to share my ideas at a given time can help one person contemplate a little deeper, gain a new perspective, or try a new behavior that improves their life even in a tiny way, that’s a valuable thing.

So I reassured myself that we all have valuable perspectives to share, and that our knowledge doesn’t have to be complete before we can help others learn. Then I got back to working on my slides, and submitted them the next day — smiling as I hit “send.”

Have you experienced self-doubt like this before? If so, how have you overcome it? Share your tips in the comments; we can all learn from each other.

More about the session on Thursday

I’m honored to be an invited speaker for this session by one of my favorite organizations, ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership, as part of its five-part executive leadership series on mindful leadership. If you’re interested in checking it out, you can learn more here: Executive Leadership: Build Self-Awareness and Emotional Intelligence.

In a future post, I’ll share more about what I actually present in my talk on self-awareness and emotional intelligence. Want to make sure you don’t miss it? Subscribe here to receive an email when I make new posts (typically once every two weeks).


4 thoughts on “Recognizing Impostor Syndrome and Not Letting It Stop You

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  1. Thank you for this! As someone who has battled self-doubt throughout my life (despite numerous successes), I recognize all of this. Hearing people I admire share similar experiences is one of 2 things that have always helped to alleviate the often debilitating cycle of negative self-talk that can get started in my head. So thank you! I actually just listened to an interview with Tom Hanks last week and heard him share how, even after 40+ years as a top actor in the business, he still can convince himself that he’ll be “found out” as a fraud. The other thing that helps me tremendously is trying things I’m probably going to be crap at. Because my standards are already set so low for myself, I inevitably come out better than I thought I would. I can’t cook to save my life. Like, I could burn water. But I looked up a recipe for a dish I had at a restaurant not to long ago and decided to give it a go at home. Sure, it wasn’t as good as when a chef made it but I didn’t burn the house down or have to order take out (both real possibilities in my head). Contrasting these experiences with the often impossible expectations I put on myself for things I’m “supposed” to be good at creates a bit more balance in my self-image. Thanks again for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comments, Brian. Crazy to think that Tom Hanks sometimes doesn’t know how awesome he is. So glad he hasn’t let that stop him from showing up. And glad you haven’t either! Also, kudos on your recent success in the kitchen. 🙂


  2. That is crazy about Tom Hanks, but I’ve heard of that before from other accomplished people. It’s like the bigger you are the bigger the lie. The voice in your head can be your master if you let it.


  3. It would not surprise you to know that I too have worried about the “fraud police” catching up with me. The fear can cause us not to ask questions or admit when we need help. That ties in with the leadership concept of vulnerability – another of Brene’s key subjects. Thanks for the reminder to push through the fear. I try to remind myself that I always land on my feet and haven’t failed yet!


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