Impostor Syndrome, Courage and Curiosity
Leadership is tough. Brave leadership is really tough. But also worthwhile. You can lead from a place of “expertness” – the all knowing person who has all the right answers. I’ve tried this, and can I tell you, it is damn scary, very lonely, and frankly a lot of nonsense.
Because any teacher, parent or business leader worth their salt, knows that the more you learn the more you realise you have to learn. It is just not possible to be all knowing or to have all the right answers.
So, what happens when you fall into the seductive pit of “I am an expert?” Well unless you have the confidence of the single bull in the cow pen, you start to develop “Impostor Syndrome.” Impostor Syndrome if you haven’t heard of it before are the crippling feelings of inadequacy that persist despite external proof of competence. Impostor Syndrome has been my dark enemy for many, many, years and I still struggle with it today. In fact you can be guaranteed as you read this I am sitting at home repeating a gratitude mantra to myself to prevent me from falling into the dark pit of self-doubt as to whether I should have ever thought I was good enough to write a Newsletter about Restorative Practice and Themes. I think we all have it to some degree. The dark hours after an interview, or meeting, or class, when you rehash all the things you said and shouldn’t have, that you didn’t say that you should have, that you forgot, that you spent too long labouring that you… urgh - it’s exhausting!
One of the best ways to combat Impostor Syndrome is to accept that we are not experts in anything. We are just part of a team of people who have something to contribute and if you can get out of “I’m the holder of answers, knowledge and the right way to do this” and step into collaborative leadership which is curious and courageous, then you have a solid foundation to discover and create teams and projects and schools and families which will develop, create and pivot as challenges come their way. Talking about your Impostor Syndrome is a huge step towards this. You will be stunned at how many people of all genders, ages, cultures and backgrounds and of all degrees of success experience it.
There are ways to build this into your school or organisation. But be prepared, this will take effort and will be uncomfortable. Here are three of them which Brene Brown talks about in her "Daring Leadership" programme:
Name it: It's tough to do this, but the discomfort is short lived, mere seconds in fact. You might say something like: "That's one way of thinking about it, and you often have great answers, but you will lead more effectively if you can ask the right questions. We can work on this together."
Teach Curiosity: Make learning curiosity skills a priority. Like any skill, it has to be practised. I still work on this daily. Asking questions, and trying not to talk to much! There are three great books in the recommended reading list in our September Newsletter, on how to build curiosity skills (subscribe above to get this direct to your inbox).
Acknowledge & Reward the IDK's: Acknowledging and rewarding the "I Don't Know's" gives your team and children such immense power to be a learner, to be on a journey (growth mindsets) instead of in the "right" or the "wrong" camp (fixed mindsets). You can say things like "I don't know either, how can we find out?" Or "That's a great question, hey everyone, listen to this great question - what are your thoughts?" Or " Now that's a question which brings a fresh perspective, nice work - what do you need from me to follow that path?" Or " That's a brave question, thank you, I appreciate that. let's talk about this for a while."
Curiosity and Courage are my two central values. They are both hard. Curiosity requires me to give up expertness in favour of being an eternal student. To reduce my giving answers behaviour and instead ask questions like “tell me more”, “and what else?” and “how do you see this?”, and “what are your ideas on how to tackle this problem?” which inform and help others and myself to become more clear on what we have, what we need and how to go about achieving it.
Courage is even harder, it challenges me everyday to do the difficult things, to publish the newsletter, to reach out and ask someone for a referral or recommendation, to challenge a colleague who I believe is acting irresponsibly or who hurt me, or who devalued me. To tell my partner I feel less connected to him than usual, to say out loud, “I don’t feel good enough today”, to ask my son “how do you really feel about me getting married again?” and really listen to the answer!
When people are unconscious of their Impostor Syndrome thoughts they can easily fall into behaviours which are covert and hidden, to try and protect themselves by covering up mistakes, pretending to be a knower or expert in something that they just aren't, telling lies to themselves and sometimes others, and having cold clammy sleepless nights feeling the fear of “when will they catch me out and realise I’m an Impostor?”
The Harvard Business Review highlights why it is important to spend time learning about your Impostor Syndrome thoughts and understanding where they come from. (If you are interested - most of them come from our core shame and sometimes trauma, (see earlier Newsletter Articles for more on these areas). They note how a range of early life shaming messages can make some people more susceptible to Impostor Syndrome in later life. These messages are conveyed (with no malice, I should add) in schools, families and communities, when children are very young and they internalise these messages as they grow and develop into teenagers and adults. You can read the HBR article with great onward links here
For me courage and vulnerability certainly helps. These are not different things, they are the same thing, just different sides of the coin. To be courageous you have to be vulnerable. This is why when a child comes to a parent or teacher to say sorry, or is willing to just sit in the same room as someone they hurt and hear what they have to say, I am awed by how much courage they have. And, when it is a child who has no reason to trust any adult in their lives, who has been hurt, let down, rejected, scorned and humiliated most of their young lives and they still turn up in a room to face a person they have hurt and perhaps learn something very upsetting about the impact of their behaviour, I am hands down, straight up, humbled by their courage and bravery. And I tell them this. Don’t ever sniff at how much courage it takes a person to put their hand on a door handle, push it open and step into that place of vulnerability. And while we are talking about it, you don’t outgrow vulnerability when you get older. If you really practice courage then you grow towards it. Taking more risks, leading from the unknown with curiosity to learn.
In our Restorative Practices Training you can learn more about how shame and feelings of “not being good enough” impact a child’s internal world and external confidence. You will no doubt recognise your own shame behaviours and Impostor Syndrome scripts there too! You can also learn some of the ways in which you can combat it.
You can learn more about our face to face training by contacting me at firstname.lastname@example.org
LJ Sayers is a restorative practitioner, trainer, mum, partner, mediocre saxophonist and excellent chocolate quality controller.