Public Speaking and the Impostor Syndrome

Your Past Doesn't Define Your Future

Often, when coaching new students in my public speaking and leadership courses I hear of their hopes and fears related to acquiring these new skills. They often voice absurd absolutes such as:

  • I can’t speak in front of a large crowd
  • I don’t have the experience for leadership roles
  • I’ll never rise to the level of a professional speaker
  • I’m just a middle manager

Truth be told, often our internal dialog is a reflection of our deeply held beliefs. When we reflect into our negative beliefs we often see them as shallow and powerless over our ability to change them.

Self-Doubt and Impostor Syndrome

Self-Doubt is lack of confidence in our own abilities and capacities. We fear that we essentially lack something, something necessary but not yet attainable. We unjustly fear we are not good enough. Often this psychological phenomenon is termed the impostor syndrome. Despite all of our external evidence of intelligence, insights and accomplishments we tend to perceive ourselves as unworthy. This unfortunate and incorrect belief is quite common.

Impostor syndrome was first coined by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 70’s. Their work showed that statistically more than 70% of the population has experience this feeling at one time or another. My practice as a public speaking and communications coach shows this trepidation to be a consistent affliction. If you doubt the existence of the phenomena, just check out this list of wildly talented and amazing people who report it: Tina Fey, Jodie Foster, Don Cheadle, Denzel Washington, Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep, Maya Angelou, Michelle Pfeiffer. This self-doubt is an entirely common human experience. Thankfully, these brilliant people did NOT heed this limiting voice but challenged it. You should too!

Choosing a New Positive Habit

We can choose to practice new habits, espouse new beliefs and grow in very new and positive directions. But no matter how lofty our goals — it is changing our own self talk that is vital. One exercise I use to begin on the path to challenging those beliefs is to own your inner critic. In this practice we:

  1. Give your negative internal voice a name
  2. Let is speak freely without censor
  3. Write what it says down
  4. Now address it by name and question its validity
  5. Ask is my negative internal dialog reasonable and sensible? Should I listen to it?

In this simple exercise we learn to question our own self-imposed limitations rather than blindly accept them as truth. This is a vital step in personal growth and a very empowering move toward the future.

Self-Compassion

Imagine how productive, kind and compassionate the world would be if we embrace the notion of self-esteem and self-compassion. Rather than wasting our energy on negative limiting beliefs we can move forward in life toward our highest aspirations.

We need to fundamentally recognize our own talents, skills and achievements. Of course, this requires we recognize limitations and opportunities for improvement — but not with our common counterproductive response of fear, denial or obstruction. We need to treat ourselves as we would like treated. Our culture and religions encourage us often to worry more about how we treat the “other” and not ourselves. It is my strong belief that we can’t rise to our best selves if we don’t start with treating ourselves with kindness and compassion. Only then can we expand this to all others. Once we arrive at this place of personal growth, it becomes much easier to embrace our infinite potential.

Now go out and create the world of your dreams, one thought and action at a time. Don’t let the impostor syndrome hold you back from your dreams. Believe in yourself, acknowledge yours strengths and opportunities for improvement – then with self-compassion, pursue your infinite potential with unending vigor. You are brilliant, now go show the world what you are made of!

6 thoughts on “Public Speaking and the Impostor Syndrome”

  1. I suffer from this deeply but every time I feel I have challenged my own self doubt and internal voice, one of my friends says something and my self doubt amplifies their bantering and I feel incompetent again. They mean no harm and don’t understand why I can’t “take it”.
    Is there anything I could do to combat this? My friends do not do this all the time and it is only small quips but I really do get oversensitive and they effect how competent I feel about things.

    1. Diana, Your feelings are entirely human and shared by millions people struggling to master the skills of public speaking and leadership. As I say in the blog post, I’d try to create a new habit by challenging your current beliefs and making every effort to move toward a new positive future of your own choosing.

  2. If people have that much self doubt, should they be speakers at all, anyway? Have you ever found someone that just isn’t trainable?

    1. Sandra, Thanks for your comment. I’ve met many students who didn’t have a sense of positive self-worth/self-esteem but none who can’t improve. Often this lack of belief can be a huge stumbling block in the world of public speaking. This is exactly why I focus helping students identify their inherent strength and question the negative beliefs that hold them from realizing their dreams of being better speakers. It is possible but you must challenge yourself.

  3. Yikes – impostor syndrome sounds scarily close to the negative internal dialogue that stops me from chasing my goals and improving my public speaking. Thanks so much for the tips on how to overcome this limitation!

  4. I used to be an “imposter syndrome” type of guy in the past but over the time I develop new habit and as time pass my shyness is almost gone. I am not the best at public speaking but I can do very well than before. And this blog helps me very much in my journey. Thanks!

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