Go Love Yourself

A New Kind of Imposter Syndrome

A New Kind of Imposter Syndrome

You've probably heard of imposter syndrome.

But what's that inexplicable feeling that something is off?

That you're meant for something more?


By now, most of you have heard of imposter syndrome. Even if it’s a new term for you, you’re going to know exactly what it is about as soon as I describe it.

Imposter syndrome is feeling like a fraud, even though you are qualified and successful. It’s having a suspicion that one day, not long from now, everyone is going to find out you’ve just been fooling them. They’ll realize you don’t actually know what you’re doing, come tap you on the shoulder, and escort you out of the building. Imposter syndrome is the inner critic voice in your head saying, “You’re not ready. You don’t belong here. It’s already been done – why even try? You’re not enough of an expert to do that. Just who do you think you are?”

This is the official imposter syndrome. The imposter syndrome that was named in the 1970s and has been studied for years by psychologists. It’s real and legitimate and affects many people every day.

But lately I’ve noticed a new kind of imposter syndrome coming over the horizon. This new version is less about feeling like an imposter in your work and most about feeling like an imposter in your life. It’s the sense that you’re not really following your authentic path. You feel there’s something more out there for you, even if you aren’t quite sure what it is.

At the beginning of Daring Greatly, Brené Brown quotes Teddy Roosevelt talking about the credit going to the man in the arena. That man (or woman!) might be criticized and marred by sweat and blood, but he is living fully. Nothing is holding him back.

When you’re living an imposter life, however, it’s like sitting on the sidelines when you know your spot is in the arena. There’s a part of you screaming inside to jump up, run down the stairs, and climb into the fray.

But every time you even think about daring greatly and vaulting yourself into the arena, the inner critic inserts itself, admonishing you to be grateful for your safe seats with clear view of the action. It tells you the arena is for professionals and you don’t know enough to get in on the game.

So you stay in your seat. But the nudge is still there. The feeling that something is a little off doesn’t go away. You have an unexplainable ambiguous longing for more.

I felt this way for many years. Although I enjoyed my jobs in corporate HR and leadership development, I always questioned if it was the right environment for me. I had little interest in being a top-level leader even though people told me I had the potential to get there. I wrote things in my journal like, “I’m fulfilling the expectations, but I’m not living to a higher calling” and “Part of me feels at home in the corporate environment and another part of me has always felt like a fraud here, like there’s a piece of me bottled up and screaming to get out.”

I wasn’t living a fake life, but I wasn’t living one completely aligned to my personality, desires, and mission either. I ignored the nudges of my true inner voice because it was easier to stay in my seat on the sidelines than jump in and explore the uncertainty of the arena.

Two things happened that finally gave me the courage to dare greatly and leap into the arena of my life. First, my true inner voice stood up and yelled at me. It was a very woo-woo moment. I had a development conversation with my manager and in the middle of telling her I wanted to be a director, lead a team, and be involved in strategy, a voice came to me and said, “YOU ARE LYING RIGHT NOW.” I kid you not.

Second, my job changed to something I knew I would hate. I found out the morning of my 37th birthday. My entire body had a visceral reaction, screaming from every pore, “NOT THIS!”

It was the best thing that ever happened to me. I no longer had any interest in staying in my seat after my job changed. It wasn’t a matter of if I was going to make a change, but when.

I didn’t have to get in the arena, though. I could have moved to another section of the stadium. There would have been a different crowd and a new view of the action. It would have appeased me for a while, but I knew that moving seats was just a distraction from my true desire – to dare greatly with my life.

Five months after my job changed I turned in my resignation. Six months after that, I left my corporate job and became an entrepreneur. Today, two years later, I’m a speaker, coach, and writer that guides women to let go of expectations and create their own rules for life. In other words, I help women reconnect with themselves and manage their inner critic so they can get in the arena where they belong.

The official imposter syndrome doesn’t go away when you get in the arena (sometimes it even shows up more!), but it’s easier to manage when you know you’re living a life true to yourself.

The time has come. Leave your imposter sitting on the sidelines and climb into the arena. It will be messy and wonderful and you’ll learn more than you ever could in your ringside seat. You’ll be in the action of your life. And you’ll never look back.

Reflection exercise:

The first step to getting in the arena and daring greatly with your life is to reconnect with yourself and get clear on you want. Not what your parents, boss, spouse, friends, or entire culture expect of you, but what you desire.

One of my favorite ways to uncover your desires is continuous writing. The process is simple: Choose one of the prompts below, set a timer for 7 minutes, start writing your response to the prompt and don’t lift your pen from the page until the timer goes off. Write whatever comes up for you. Don’t filter or worry about grammar. Just write. Here are the prompts:

  • What I really want is...
  • My dream for my career is...
  • I want to impact...
  • Daring greatly means I would...

After you finish writing, read through what you wrote. Underline anything that sticks out to you. What messages came through? Did anything surprise you? Repeat the process as many times as you like with any of the prompts. You’ll uncover new information about your desires every time. And when you know what you want, you can get in the arena and act on it.

Do you suffer from the new Imposter Syndrome? Tell me about it in the comments below!


New Imposter Syndrome Heather Whelpley is a speaker and coach who guides women to get out of their own way so they can love life and change the world. Heather has led workshops with thousands of people on imposter syndrome, perfectionism, and writing your own rules for success. She is currently writing a book on how high achieving women can let go of expectations and create their own rules for life. Prior to owning her business, she worked in corporate leadership development and human resources for ten years. Heather lives in Minneapolis and loves exploring farmers markets, breweries and anything outside. Like the good Minnesotan that she is, this time of year Heather alternates her time between practicing hygge and cross-country skiing.