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Imposter Syndrome Causes Burnout and Isolation, But How Do We Stop It?

By June 7, 2023One Comment
A pawn chess piece looking into a mirror. The reflection shows a king chess piece.

Photo by Ravi Kumar

Recently, while speaking to a group of leaders of color in education, I had a profound experience about imposter syndrome. 

Multiple people said that they needed to attend a Rockwood training because it would give them some type of credential, some proof that they had become leaders. 

As more people shared a similar sentiment, I realized they were all speaking to their lack of faith in their own leadership. I pointed out to them that they were in that room because they already are powerful leaders.

But even that can be hard to grasp for many people, like some BIPOC people whose leadership can be far outside of what has become acceptable. 

This is in part because the way we often think of leadership – one heroic person at the top, handling everything alone – can actually fuel imposter syndrome – the notion that we are not really the person who is supposed to be in a role. We don’t get to see all the other leaders experiencing the same hurdles, setbacks, and struggles as we do, and that makes it easy for those feelings of inadequacy and uncertainty to creep in and seem real.

While we are starting to talk more about imposter syndrome than ever before, we’re still ignoring that crucial part of the picture that I see often within myself and in my work with leaders: we feel like imposters not because we don’t know how good we are or how capable, but because we are often being asked to be a super-person. Someone who is able to be everything to everyone without breaking a sweat or asking for any support.

And because we experience constant critique while dealing with roles and expectations that feel impossible, when we go through periods where we think, “Is there something wrong with me?” it makes us feel isolated and that we need to do more to prove ourselves.

That goes on and on. The result? Burnout and isolation, two things that have serious and long-lasting repercussions on the wellbeing of our organizations, movements and communities and keep us sick and unable to achieve the transformative change we’re working towards in the world. 

One important aspect of having the impact we strive for, of bringing our world towards collective liberation, is doing this internal work of eradicating the negative voices inside ourselves. By doing so, we feel more powerful, more connected, and more joyful, all of which sustains us as we do this radical, important, emotional work. 

The only question that remains is: how do we do that?

Ways to Deal with Inner Doubt

I’m no stranger to questioning myself. Even though I’ve been the CEO of Rockwood for 8 years now, when I meet with people or speak in front of a crowd, there’s often a part of me wondering if they think I’m full of it, or if they’re questioning what I am offering, and why I’m in this role. 

The truth is that there is no quick-fix that will release us from our imposter syndrome. As leaders, we know that often, we will have doubt. We will be scared. We will feel like we’ve been found out: that we’re faking it and everyone can tell. And, we will learn how to move forward anyway. I have. 

Here are a few ways we can embrace ourselves as the fully capable leaders, drivers of change, and humans we really are:

  1. First, return to what grounds you and connects you to yourself. That could be a connection to your body through a body scan meditation, physical movement, or taking a few deep breaths. It could be a connection to your ancestors, your family, your roots. Or it could be as simple as keeping your purpose statement or an affirmation taped somewhere where you’ll see it, to remind you of who you are, what’s important to you and why you do what you do. For me, my inner critic is often about ego, so there’s something grounding for me in remembering my real place in the world instead of some imagined, bigger-than-life role I’m supposed to be in. I disrupt the lie that I need to be superhuman by focusing on the mundane tasks in my family life outside of work: taking out the garbage, washing dishes, even drinking water. Those simple things remind me that I’m still human and there is much more to explore when I am present to the moment I am in, whether challenging or not. 
  2. Second, connect to your people. As we often say, no one leads alone and no one ever has. It’s a sign of strength and authenticity to reach out to your loved ones, your friends, your mentors and coworkers and community. Let them remind you that the negative voice in your head is not telling the truth. Let them reflect back to you all the incredible work you do in the world that has an impact. By being open to input and vulnerable, you also make it possible for them to share their fears about being an imposter, and you might be shocked by who in your circle is struggling with this same fear.<A lot of my ability to shake that negative voice comes in relation to others. When my imposter syndrome is at its worst, it really helps me to listen, talk, and share something about what I’m going through. As a Leading From The Inside Out alum and Rockwood trainer, I’ve met hundreds of leaders over the years who are struggling with very similar experiences to me, and we’ve become confidantes. An external voice affirming that the imposter voice is not true really helps me get back on track. 
  3. Last but not least, let yourself off the hook. Be kind to yourself, give yourself room to not worry about doing things perfectly and just practice doing them in alignment with your core values and aspirations for the world. In my experience, leaders are often visionary and creative. We think way outside the box, and that can be even more true for people who are outside of the mainstream, like some queer people and Black women. Much of our thinking has not even been in the mainstream before, and keeping that in mind keeps me from getting tripped up by the fact that people around me may not fully understand what I’m envisioning. Instead of letting it make me retreat, I see it as an opportunity to bring out into the world an expression of something that perhaps hasn’t been expressed in this way before.

I know from my own experience that moving through imposter syndrome to a place of accepting myself and being myself feels damn good inside of my body. As leaders, doing this internal work can radically change us and the lived experience of people who work alongside us in our organizations and movements.

So the next time you find yourself questioning whether or not you deserve that seat at the table because of that negative voice in your head – or the pressure you feel from external or systemic forces – remember: there is only one expression of you on the planet, and no one else but you can be you

Focus on that, then go forward and lead. 


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Rockwood Community Call

India Harville

disability justice consultant, public speaker, somatics practitioner, and performance artist

April 25 | 12 PT / 3 ET

India Harville, African American female with long black locs, seated in her manual wheelchair wearing a long sleeveless green dress. Her service dog, Nico, a blond Labrador Retriever, has his front paws on her lap. He is wearing a blue and yellow service dog vest. They are outside with greenery behind them.