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  • Judy Sims

How to Uncover the Forces that Formed Your Imposter Syndrome

Where does your imposter syndrome come from? The short answer is everywhere. The long answer is… well, it’s complicated.

In her book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, researcher Valerie Young lists things such as working in an organization that feeds self-doubt, working in a creative field, being a stranger in a strange land, or representing your entire social group as causing imposter syndrome.

I think all of these reasons can be boiled down to one simple statement:

We feel like imposters because we’ve forgotten who we are.

Or at least we’ve forgotten some of the best stuff about ourselves. The kind of stuff we knew when we were little but have somehow lost sight of.

When you were two, you were your whole, remarkable self. You were full of love. You were fascinated by everything. And you didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about what other people thought of you. But as you grew older, you began to forget all the good stuff.

And slowly, you began to prioritize values about who and what you think you “SHOULD” be, over values about who and what you know you “COULD” be.

Should values are externally imposed upon us by external forces. They’re often superficial things others think we should be and do. They can be things like, don’t be disagreeable, don’t make mistakes… ever, don’t be bossy, and above all else, BE A GOOD GIRL!

Our should values play such a key role in shaping us because they come from so many different places.

Beyond our families and immediate networks, there is the community we’re apart of, be it ethnic, professional or geographic (think small town values vs. large city values).

They come from the institutions we’re exposed to such as our schools, legal systems and places of worship.

They come from the prevailing social norms around us. Is it okay to be gay? Is it okay to be irreverent? When is it okay to be dishonest?

They’re shaped by historical forces. The United States was created in rebellion. Canada was created in compromise. One could argue that our values reflect that, in both cases for better or for worse.

And finally, they’re shaped by the general landscape around us. Things like technology and entertainment can affect our should values. Just think how much Instagram and TikTok have changed things for teenaged girls for example.

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not a big fan of the should values. They’re external. They’re not a part of you the way your could values are.

And they’re insidious.

First, they are imposed upon us by others. But after a while, we begin imposing them on ourselves. And eventually we begin to impose them on other people.

So we say things like he shouldn’t do that, or she shouldn’t be that way, or they should have acted sooner or they shouldn’t think that way

Trying to adhere to the multitude of should values we’re subjected to is a big part of the reason we become imposters. We can never be good enough. And so our inner bad girl is born.

And this is the terrible thing about should values. They often teach us that it’s wrong to stand out. To express ourselves, to focus on being our best selves. But in fact, the exact opposite is true. We’re here to live our could values.

You’re here to fulfill a purpose.

You’re here to grow and contribute.

That’s your job!

It's time to do it.

How to find the should values in your life:

1. Who and how did you have to be to receive love in your family?

2. Who and how do you have to be to receive validation at work?

3. Consider the various communities, institutions, social norms, historical forces and general landscape that make up your world. How are you expected to behave, think and act to be validated within them?

4. List 3 to 10 possible SHOULD values that you hold.


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