246: Rising Up Against Impostor Syndrome with Kate Arms

Rising Up Against impostor Syndrome

Impostor syndrome is something that most people have felt at some point or another. Intense people may feel this in magnified ways, as the world tells them they are not welcome as they are. Join us on this guest call to learn more!

Impostor Syndrome, also known as impostor phenomenon, is a term used to describe feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. It is often associated with being a member of an underrepresented group. It is common among high achievers, especially when they lack positive feedback from others. This can lead to reduced job satisfaction. High-achieving women are especially prone to impostor feelings when their personality traits don’t conform to gender expectations. People with neurodivergences and/or mental health conditions may also experience negative thoughts around not fitting in.

Feeling Out of Place

Impostor syndrome is a symptom of feeling out of place that can lead highly capable people to mask who they really are. Especially high-achieving professional women and people of color often feel judged in a professional environment, leading them to “tone themselves down.” So many smart people experience impostor syndrome and have a sense of self-doubt when it comes to their own achievements. We may spend too much time on negative self-talk that we develop negative feelings about our own good work. If we are suffering from feelings of impostor syndrome, the most important thing is to find ways to self-soothe and build connections.

Kate Arms is a return guest to the show. I’m thrilled to welcome her back for this guest call to discuss impostor syndrome and more. Kate is a classic overthinker, high achiever, and multipotentiality who exudes intensity. Her career has spanned being a lawyer, arts administrator, coach for gifted and twice-exceptional adults and parents of gifted and twice-exceptional kids, and an Agile Coach in a high-tech company. She is the author of several books and has experience in coaching, leadership development, and psychology. Kate is here to help us understand impostor syndrome and how to reduce our suffering within it by building more connections.

In this episode:

  • Kate defines impostor syndrome as “a group of symptoms clustered together to make us feel like we don’t belong”
  • Symptoms of impostor syndrome can include feelings of self-doubt, anxiety, hypervigilance self-consciousness, self-sabotage, perfectionism, and a sense of hiding who you really are
  • External factors that can contribute to impostor syndrome.
  • These symptoms pair with suffering to make us feel awful and ashamed
  • Root cause relief and symptom relief and work together
  • impostor syndrome boils down to belonging, connection, and a feeling of, “They won’t want me if they know who I really am.”
  • We are programmed (especially intense people) to think we are not welcome as we are because of childhood shaming, being told to “tone down,” and being too much or too sensitive
  • How the “mismatch” occurs and how to address it
  • The process of learning happens when we start out blissfully ignorant
  • The difference between identity and character vs. skills and experiences
  • We must to learn to be comfortable in being ourselves–even if it makes others uncomfortable
  • It’s hard to risk having the courage to overwhelm others with who we really are
  • We can build our sense of belonging through building our community
  • Feeling connection with at least three people in your group will foster your feeling of belonging


Hear the follow-up conversation with Kate in the Embracing Intensity Membership

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* Rough Transcript *

Ep. 246

Kate: At first I was lonely because there was like just me and maybe one person, and then the next community, it was like, okay, there’s one person from there and one person from there. But now I have this enormous social network spread across the globe because I picked the one person everywhere I went, who was my kind of person?


Aurora: Hello, this episode. The recording of our talk with Kate Arms on impostor Syndrome. This was a fantastic call! We had a fantastic conversation afterward that you can hear in the Embracing Intensity community at community.embracingintensity.com. Enjoy.

So welcome everyone. So excited to have you guys here for our last guest call for the year. And thrilled to have Kate Arms back. She did a talk on thriving with Intensity a couple of years ago and is here to talk about impostor syndrome, which is something that I think a lot of us experience. So, so glad to have you and welcome Kate.

Impostor Thoughts

Kate: Thank you. It’s really exciting to be back and to be talking.

And it’s fun. I realized I’ve never actually sort of put together a talk on impostor syndrome. I’ve talked about impostor syndrome with lots of people over the years. And I’ve helped people who are struggling with impostor syndrome in my role as a coach. But I hadn’t actually sort of put together what do I actually think about impostor syndrome.

So thank you for this opportunity and sort of the forcing function to use the language that we use in my day job of making myself actually put together. What do I actually believe about impostor syndrome? And what do I know about how to thrive and not so much? So what I’m gonna do is I’m gonna talk a little bit about definitions. Then I’m going to talk a little bit about why impostor syndrome seems to be such a thing for intense people, for women, for underrepresented groups in general.

And what it is about sort of pulling apart the pieces of where it comes from that gives us clues about how we can reduce suffering around it. So welcome to the Ride. So two words that really matter here are impostor and syndrome. And I’m gonna start with the syndrome part cuz a syndrome is this group of symptoms syndrome.

Feelings of Doubt

Kate: It’s a group of conditions or behaviors that cluster together. But they’re symptoms, they’re not cause. I think that that really is important because picking apart causation helps us when we come to trying to figure out what we can actually do to make things better. The impostor part is that sense of going into a space and feeling like if they actually knew who I am and what I’m bringing to the table, they would see right through me and they would know that I don’t belong here.

And it feels awful. It feels awful if it happens once. If it becomes a pattern of experience. It becomes debilitating because we stop trying because we stop feeling like we can ever fit in. The suffering when we get to that point is just enormous. And I use, we. When I talk about this because it’s part of my history. So, I’m not talking about something that just other people deal with.

I don’t experience the sort of identity crisis of I don’t belong anymore. But I do have that moment of I’ve been asked to do this thing and I don’t know what I’m doing. So I’m making it up as I go along and I don’t want them to see it through. And part of what I’m gonna talk about is how normal that is and how there’s actually nothing wrong with that.

Gender Differences

Kate: And so part of what happens with impostor syndrome is we start to shame ourselves for having this very, very normal experience of growth. So, the symptoms that we see clustering that get labeled impostor syndrome are anxiety and hypervigilance and consciousness, self-sabotage in the form of like not trying for things that we’re actually capable of doing.

So you may have seen data about how men apply for jobs that they’re like 50% qualified for. Women don’t apply for jobs until they’re 95% qualified. And that’s a gross overgeneralization, but that’s actually an expression of women don’t feel invited to the table far more often than men feel invited to the table.

That has systemic issues, and historical, and that’s part of sort of where this comes from. So we see perfectionism and we see sort of crippling, like, I’ve gotta get this right before it gets out the door. And just a sense of I can’t show up. As I really am, I can’t be me. I have to hide and mask and be who they want me to be because they don’t actually want who I really am.

And I, It’s so painful. It’s so painful. And so particularly for you, if you’re listening to this, just know that we get it cuz it is, if this is you, like it’s real and it’s painful and. No need to shame yourself for it. Cuz one of the things I’m gonna talk about is that it’s not your fault. And so that I think is really, really important when we get to how to handle it and how to improve peace when we talk about sort of diagnostic categories, for lack of a better word.

Suffering from impostor Syndrome

Kate: Around something like impostor syndrome. We actually have two things we’re talking about. One is suffering, like there’s that subjective sense of suffering. The other is this cluster of symptoms and it’s so, it’s these two pieces together. If you have these symptoms and you’re not suffering, then nobody’s gonna say you suffering from impostor syndrome.

You just have these. But most of these symptoms, Make us feel awful when we have them. And then the other thing that I’m gonna talk about a little bit is that there are two kinds of approaches to dealing with this experience. One is symptom relief, and the other is root cause analysis and root cause relief.

There is nothing wrong with only doing symptom relief. If we can do root cause relief, It relieves the need to do ongoing symptom relief. One of the things that happens when we get sort of deeply impacted by things is it can be really easy to say all of these things that I’m doing for symptom relief.

Should be more effective than they are. And if we can’t, if we don’t have the capacity to do root cause relief, the symptom relief is always gonna be temporary. And so I think the biggest thing in terms of self-compassion around here is just to know that once you get to suffering, all of the paths forward are valid.

What you have capacity for is what you have capacity for. And so if this is something you struggle with and you need to self-soothe, all of the self-soothing techniques that work in general when we’re suffering are valid places. And some of them are mostly healthy meditation walks, exercise, going out with friends, and connecting with people.

The First Step is Soothing Ourselves

Kate: You know, we’re coming into winter as we’re recording. And so, you know, lighting a fire and wrapping up in a blanket with a hot mug of hot chocolate, totally, totally fine. Some of the things that we soothe ourselves with are not so healthy if we don’t do them in moderation, alcohol eating. But all of those things can function as symptom relief.

The other thing that can function as symptom relief is getting together with a bunch of other people and complaining. This is like, it sucks to feel this. And that starts to point towards some of the things that will end up being possible for root cause solutions. So impostor syndrome happens at the intersection of individual and social.

Experience. And so, it’s a question about belonging and connection. It’s that piece of they won’t want me if they know who I really am. They won’t want me if they know what I’m really capable of or how little I’m really capable of. And so the stuff on the left, on social inclusion. If we actually feel socially included, we don’t experience impostor syndrome.

We experience all of the things that might trigger us to feel like we’re impostors. But we don’t actually feel like we’re impostors because we’re included. But if we’re excluded, we feel it. And the things that we get excluded by, that make us feel unwelcome. The big thing in the middle here that is really important for thinking about this community is the intensity.

Examining the Social Context

Kate: We might get excluded and many of us have a history of being excluded because of our intensity. The other things that make us worry that we’re not worthy. We might be unskilled, we might actually not have the skills to do what it is we’re being asked to do. We may be in fake it till you make it kind of land.

The other thing that happens, and this one I really wanna sort of land on a little bit because people forget about it, is we have unconscious expertise. Sometimes that makes us doubt what we are capable of. So how do we get there? We get there from the bunches of experiences that we have. So if we as a child have teachers.

Or parents or other adults around us who say, We expect more of you from than that, or You should know better than that. That’s shaming. You should know better than that. If we don’t actually know better than that, if we haven’t actually got the capacity to do that yet, we’re actually not being seen and we’re being excluded because of who we aren’t.

We’ve been given conditional acceptance at our skill level. On the other side is, if we’re more skilled than people expect us to be, then we get the, you intimidate people or, Don’t question my authority, or just keep yourself down. Like, don’t try and shine too bright. Who do you think you are to be saying that? Kinds of things.

Rejecting Our Natural Genius

Kate: And we get excluded once again for who we are, which is a person who is that skilled in things. And then the intense experience comes with the why are you so much calm down, You’re too sensitive, you’re too much you’re not enough self-control, you’re too much expression. All of those pieces and every time it’s a, you are, or a, don’t be.

We get that we are not welcome as we are programming and languaging. That builds up over time and it becomes a pattern of thought. And when that. Matches with the experience of, I actually am stretching into something that I don’t know how to do. And if that gets mirrored with the language that we’ve had from our experience in the past, that we have to be better than we are.

It brings up all of that past history. We’re not gonna be accepted if we see if we are seen as not perfect yet. And the same on the other side. If we come in and we. For instance, that we’re gonna volunteer in a situation and we walk into a not-for-profit organization. That is chaos.

Because you know, lots of small not-for-profits are in fact chaos organizationally. And if we walk into one and we have some people skills and some relationship skills or some technical skills for putting in computer systems that might run something that needs to get tracked, we might come in as the newbie and feel that other people are threatened by the fact that we have skills.

Persistent Self-Doubt

Kate: So it’s that mismatch between what we’re willing to show up with, whether it’s our skills or our weaknesses or our level of expression, or our level of sensitivity, and what we think is going to be welcomed. That’s where the gap is. And so it’s that mismatch, which means we have two ways of addressing it.

One is by internally looking at the mismatch and going, Okay, let’s gather some information about who I really am. So if I’m an unskilled novice, instead of thinking that I’m winging it and I don’t know what I’m doing, I can actually say, Okay, I have this relevant skill and this relevant skill and this other relevant skill.

I’ve never applied them in this situation, but I’m smart and capable of learning. I have to go through a process of learning and we can get really real with ourselves about it. It’s not all or nothing. It’s improvising with previously acquired skills in a new setting, and human beings are wired for learning.

Thank goodness. If we’re on the other end of things, if we feel like this is too easy, I’m phoning this in, it feels like it should be harder than this, then we have to look and sort of gather some information. Look at ourselves from the outside, look at what we’re actually doing. Is it actually that we’re so good at this, that we just do it habitually without thinking about it?

Because if it is, we probably went through a learning process. And particularly as adults, most of the things that we do, we actually have gone through learning processes of, and our process was we didn’t know what we didn’t know, so we were blissfully ignorant. Yay. It’s so nice to be blissfully ignorant.

Fostering a Growth Mindset

Kate: Then somebody was like, Oh, that thing. You don’t actually know that thing. So actually here’s some learning you need to do. That moment hurts. Particularly for intense people where we have that big reaction, we’re like, I dunno. Then there’s a process of learning and the first thing we do is we sit through this place of like, I don’t even know what I don’t know.

I’m so lost. I don’t even know what questions to ask. And then we are like, Okay, I get enough of a framework. I know what questions to ask; I know what steps to do; I have to work really hard, but I can, I can do it if I just go through it step by step by step by step. And then this is really hard work.

And then we get good at it, and we just see the problem. We do the solution. And that feels scarily easy because it clicks like a light bulb. It drops. And all of a sudden it’s like I was working hard, but I’m not working hard. And that memory of the last time I was blissfully ignorant, I was actually really ignorant.

Like the blissfulness makes us think we must be ignorant because we have this memory of having been reminded that we didn’t know stuff. So we have to remember and to actually acknowledge the things that we’ve learned, the things that we’re good at, the strengths that we’ve acquired with hard work, because otherwise we forget that they’re skills and we think of them as part of who we are, and we think of them as identity and character and not skills that we actually had to work to acquire.

Facing Our Fear of Failure

Kate: So if we’re intense and we experience the world intensely, all of this is more intense. But everybody goes through this. This is totally the human condition for intense people. We also have to deal with, sometimes other people are not comfortable with all of who we are. We have to learn how to be comfortable.

Being ourselves, even when other people are uncomfortable. And we have to give ourselves permission to be who we are and to be unskilled at modulation. Because the way to build those relationships over time with people who are uncomfortable with how intense we are, is actually for us to find a way to have all of our experience and to give ourselves permission to be all that we are.

And only express some of it. Not from a place of fear and hiding, but from a place of I don’t actually need to express all that I am all of the time, and I can be generous and kind about my impact. Without shaming myself and hiding myself because I’ve already embraced myself and oh my goodness, that’s hard.

That’s hard. So hard to learn because it requires over and over and over again having the courage to risk overwhelming other people or to risk other people being overwhelmed in our presence. and if we’re sensitive, we’re sensitive to their overwhelm.

Taking Risks

Kate: So it becomes this awful feedback loop where we’re,- if -I take the risk of them responding big and they’re uncomfortable, I’m gonna be uncomfortable because they’re uncomfortable. And I have to actually learn to breathe and learn to relax and learn to let it be okay and to know that we can all actually handle it. And actually, it’s not the end of the world, and that takes courage and practice, and it’s totally normal.

That we gather up the courage and we try. and it doesn’t go as well as we wanted it to. So we get scared for a while. So we have to do all of those self-soothing things like, you know, it’s ice cream and Star Trek for a while and then or whatever your escape world is, right? Until it’s like, okay, actually it matters enough to me that I try and have that relationship as my full self that I’m gonna try again.

At first, those are slow increments of progress with long recovery periods and as time progresses and we have the courage to practice. We actually get better and it takes less time to recover between, less courage to get ourselves in and things go better in the conversation. So that’s the process of working with ourselves around this question of impostor syndrome.

The other side, and the optional side, and the side that it is very hard to actually do if you haven’t already done some of the self-work, is to actually get into the places where the culture is shaming, where. People are not openly embracing of whatever the thing is, whether it’s failure or expertise, or intensity, and actually go into those conversations and going into those spaces and actually try to share.

Changing the Culture

Kate: Change the culture. Teach about what’s not being included. Work on helping expand the community sense of what’s possible. That is incredibly hard work and nobody has to do it. Everybody who has the courage to do it is taking on a burden on behalf of a bunch of other suffering people, and it’s work that I do.

And I do it in fits and starts based on how much capacity I have. I see everybody who ever speaks up. Everybody who ever says, hey, that was sexist, or, hey, that was maybe not so inclusive of people who have mental health issues or, hey, you know, maybe this age-generational thing is not such a big deal, and can we not actually like be us/them about it?

Every single person who ever speaks up about that sort of thing is part of my community of change-makers. Because that’s what it takes. The other piece that I think is really, really powerful on the social and community side. Is building your own sense of belonging by building your own community. And there are a couple of different ways that you can do this.

One is by using the, finding the code, words like intensity or twice exceptional or gifted or creative, or. Innovator. I work with a lot of people who think of themselves as innovators in my day job. Find the code words and then find your tribe and have a protective community of people where we’re in. Because we found ourselves because of these code words.

Finding Good Company

Kate: And so now we can practice in this safer container. Building communities. One of the things that I have discovered when I look back over my life is that for the first few decades of my life, and it really is decades, every place I went, I picked up. One or two people and they were all the twice exceptional people in the group.

I’ve picked up edge cases and so I, at first I was lonely because there was like just me and maybe one person, and then the next community it was like, okay, there’s one person from there, and one person from there. But now I have this enormous social network spread across the globe. Because I picked the one person everywhere I went, who was my kind of person, and so that’s fabulous and wonderful and really hard to manage because nobody will bring you soup when you’re sick.

If they’re several hundred miles away. But you know, thank goodness for technology that lets us all find each other and build those kinds of communities over time. And habits of keeping in touch that allows us to maintain them over time and space. Then sort of the next level is, if you have found some courage and some skill around modulation.

And some willingness to stretch, all of which is optional, but all of which can be developed anywhere you go. There’s this weird thing about communities where if you can get a one-on-one connection with three people in the group, your body starts to feel like I’m part of this group.

Small Steps

Kate: So if you started a new company, for instance, and you don’t know anybody, and you’ve got this- you know, the people that you work with every day, that may or may not be your people.

If over the course of a year you make a commitment that I’m going to invite somebody for coffee every two weeks. It may take you that whole year to find the three people that you’re like, Okay, I have a real connection. And you might find it in the first three coffees. But it’s actually something you can do to build a community without waiting for the community to say, Yes, we embrace you.

And that works anywhere as long as there are enough people for you to reach out and do it. So that’s sort of the high-level pieces of what we’re dealing with when we talk about impostor syndrome. Where it comes. Why it hurts so bad. And a whole bunch of things that we can do that slowly, incrementally over time help us suffer less.

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