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Success, Failure and the Imposter Syndrome

Success, Failure and the Imposter Syndrome

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” –Michael Jordan

It is easy to get caught by a negative, critical story about ourselves.  I imagine that most everyone does this, at times. I’ve noticed in my own life I can easily tell the story of my life as a failure – all of the things I’ve wanted to accomplish that I have not, all of my weaknesses and shortcomings; as well as my long list of regrets.  At the same time, I can just as easily tell a story of my life as a series of great successes and satisfactions – all that I have accomplished, as well as my family, my relationships and my work.

The “inner critic” seems to be the human condition. Perhaps it serves a positive role of keeping us out of danger by being on guard and suspect, or helping us strive to greater accomplishments.  And, for many people, it is just a bad habit, a constant running of negative energy that tends to limit and constrict presence, effectiveness and joy.

A problem with running the energy of our inner critic is that our body doesn’t distinguish between real pain and imagined pain.  When we feel bad about ourselves and judge ourselves, we can create conditions of stress and anxiety.  The tendency is to constrict and limit our ability to function openly and fully.  The inner critic can limit our ability to meet people fully and to find creative solutions in our lives and in the world.

The inner critic can sometimes lead to feelings of not deserving the successes we have achieved. The Imposter Syndrome refers to a condition in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments, and carry fear about being discovered as not deserving of their role or position.  Apparently this is a very common phenomenon in many walks of life – business leaders, graduate students and performers.  In my coaching practice, and in my own experience, it appears that a large percentage of people have experienced these feelings in a variety of forms.  I’ve heard that there is some evidence that the more successful people in business become, the more they harbor these feelings of being imposters.

The antidote isn’t to ignore our pain and difficulties.  As a human being, life will bring us plenty of pain.  The key is to become aware of the stories we tell ourselves, about failure and about success, and to label these as stories and to enjoy the stories, to not take them too seriously or get too attached to them.  In this way we can appreciate our pain and failures, and appreciate our joy and successes.

How do you do this?  One way is to practice being aware of your body and breath.  Meditation and mindfulness practice.  Also, pay attention to the stories that the inner critic tells, and label them as stories.  You may try journaling – tell the story of your life from the perspective of failure.  Then, tell the story of your life as overcoming difficulty, from the perspective of success.  Then try telling your story as a journey – a journey of discovery, of challenge, of developing more awareness and more compassion.

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Marc Lesser

Marc Lesser is CEO of ZBA Associates LLC, a company providing executive coaching, leadership development consulting, and keynote speaking services to businesses and non-profits. He is a developer and instructor of Google’s Search Inside Yourself program. Marc is a Zen teacher with an MBA degree and a former resident of the San Francisco Zen Center for 10 years. He is the author of Less: Accomplishing More By Doing Less and Z.B.A. Zen of Business Administration.


+ add your own
9:21AM PST on Nov 28, 2011

An excellent article. Thank you for posting.

12:52PM PDT on Oct 28, 2011

Good to remember they're just stories...

6:55AM PST on Feb 23, 2011

I am a fixer. I was brought-up to be one. It led me into a bad relationship with a person with BPD. When he wasn't critizising me, I was doing so. It is almost over (legal ramifications are still pending), but I see the error of my ways. I don't see the point in being angry that my upbringing put me in this situation. I just wished I would have learned this lesson sooner to avoid the years of pain it caused me.

12:20AM PST on Feb 20, 2011

Thanks for the article.

12:14PM PDT on Jun 9, 2010


3:13AM PDT on Jun 9, 2010

thanks for sharing

7:01PM PDT on Jun 7, 2010

This is a great article. I kind of wish I'd stubble upon it years ago thinking it could have saved me tons of heartache but at the sametime I get why it is coming to me at this time... I wouldn't have understood this before

8:39PM PDT on Jun 6, 2010

This article is very encouraging to me because although I realize that failure isn't the falling down it is the staying down, it is difficult to remain positive when you feel that you are in a slump. Looking at success and failure in a different way is helpful because I think our society's usual measures of what is success (materialistic, superficial and status-driven) can be very deceptive. When we compare ourselves to the tv images of 'beautiful people' we so often feel like failures in contrast. So focusing on the strengths rather than the weaknesses builds hope.

8:31PM PDT on Jun 6, 2010

Godd article

4:49PM PDT on Jun 6, 2010

The bit about paying attention to the stories and labeling them as stories is right on! Trying to will "self" to stop doing something is like trying to pick up a blob of jelly; the harder I work at it the stickier the problem gets. But just "watching" the inner critic and saying something like "Oh, it's you again" puts some distance between the emotion and the tape-loop. What a help this post was. Thank you.

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