Do you ever feel like your work isn’t good enough? Do you lack confidence presenting your design ideas? Do you find it hard to give yourself credit where due? This stems from the imposter complex. Find out how it can help us or hold us back personally and professionally.
Tanya Geisler is a leadership coach (CPCC) with a penchant for clarity and an abhorrence of the imposter complex. She’s coached hundreds of high-performers to combat the impostor complex, so they can step into the starring roles of their lives and achieve their ultimate goals. She has written The 12 Lies of the Impostor Complex (and One Truth), The Joy Pages, created Board of Your Life and the transformational Step into Your Starring Role coaching program, is a writer, has served as contributor and was featured in Canadian Living, and is an in-demand TEDx speaker who talks with great passion about the impostor complex, personal leadership, on all things joy, meaning and purpose. Her clients include best-selling authors, public speakers and rockstar world-changers.
It is her indomitable belief that if everyone knew their own unique recipe for their personal brand of joy, they’d hold the key to shining in their life, in their work and in their life’s work—and that really does change everything.
Colleen Gratzer: Welcome, Tanya! I am delighted to have you here. You’re such a motivating, bright and shiny individual. Everyone should start out their day with a dose of Tanya!
Tanya Geisler: Thank you, Colleen. I’m delighted to be here. Thank you so much for inviting me.
Colleen: I want to first off say congrats on being featured by OneWomanShop in their 2018 100 Best Sites for Solopreneurs list.
Tanya: Thank you. That was quite the honor. Thank you.
Colleen: You’re so passionate about helping others feel like a star and overcoming imposter syndrome. Where does that passion come from?
Tanya: What a great question. You just go right there. Where does that question come from? I think it’s like, I have this ability, and I think that most people that I work with have the same ability, to see what is available to people beyond what their own internal beliefs will allow them to see. Okay, so that was a really bizarre way of saying it. It’s like, you know, the kid from the Sixth Sense like, “I see dead people.” I literally feel like I just see the auras around people. I don’t actually mean an aura, but I mean I could see what the universe has carved out for people—and they can’t necessarily see it. And I think that most of us have this ability to do it.
But that gap between where somebody is and where they can be is a painful place. To be able to see that and to see people limiting what they believe they’re capable of is extremely painful for me to witness. So that’s where it comes from. It comes from this place to … It’s personal. It pains me, like I say, to see people not fully stepping in to their starring role. It actually does cause me pain. So it’s totally selfish. That’s what it is, that’s where the passion comes from.
Colleen: How do you define imposter syndrome? And how does it hold us back?
Tanya: Okay. So I always start here with a history lesson. It’s actually called the imposter phenomenon. That was the term coined by clinical psychologist, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes back in 1978. They were working with high-achieving, high-functioning women at the time. They noticed that these women seemed to be incapable of internalizing their success. Their failures, they were more than able to internalize, but any success that they had, they would chalk up to luck, or fluke or any factor outside of their own talents and skills and expertise.
So they would assume that all these other factors were at play. They were discounting their own contributions. That’s really the big difference between run-of-the-mill self-doubt and imposter complexes, where there’s like actually a proven track record, but you’re not believing it. So you feel like it’s just a matter of time before everybody finds out that you’re not quite as capable as you managed to convince people. So that’s how it shows up.
They spoke of it as an imposter phenomenon. Most people refer to is as the imposter syndrome. And even though SEO hates me for this, or my SEO hates me for it … I do call it the imposter complex because syndrome would mean that it’s a clinical diagnosis, which it actually isn’t. It’s an experience. It’s a phenomenon. It’s a complex. And it affects most people who are high achieving with strong values of mastery, integrity and excellence. I always say that that’s the good news. If you’re experiencing this feeling, then it means, by definition, that you have those strong values, and that’s a good thing.
Colleen: Oh, interesting. Okay. In your bio, I mentioned the term brand of joy. So how do you define brand of joy?
Tanya: My fundamental belief is that we are all governed by a desire to feel a certain way. That way that I’ve pinned down for myself is what I would call joy. But you might call it something entirely different. That’s why I say it’s a brand of joy, because it’s not … for me, joy is going to look different for you. And your word might be freedom. Your word might be happiness, or flow, or … It’ll have the same resonance. It’ll be: this is you at your best. This is you in pursuit of this feeling in all that you do.
So it’s no joke to really understand what our own, as Martha Beck would say, our own North Star. So for me to experience joy, I also need to understand what constitutes joy for me. Again, it’s a very individual, sort of DNA structure for each person. When we know what that is, it changes everything. It changes how we write, how we create and relate, and how we are … just how we go through our days. So for me to feel joy, I am super clear that I need to feel connected, I need to feel generous, and I need to feel gratitude.
Those are the three, what I call, underpinning values that support joy. So when I’m out of joy, which is often because it’s hard to walk around with this perpetual state, but I just do my check-in. Am I feeling connected? Am I feeling grateful? Am I feeling generous right now? And those are the three access points that I get back onto my joy superhighway. And let me be clear. It’s not a fluffy thing. My father passed away in January, and there was profound grief there, but there was also joy in the process of grieving, because I was able to access generosity, connection and gratitude. Even in these really hard moments, you can access your own felt sense of resonance if you know what constitutes that.
Colleen: So if we define our brand of joy, or whatever that brand may be, does that mean we won’t experience an imposter complex? How does that work?
Tanya: No. Knowing your brand of joy, and operating from that, means that you are in alignment. It’s the first place that I take people because, when we … and I’ll just use my Starring Role language because I have this program and the Starring Role Academy, which is a nine-month program … We start with brand of joy because we need to make sure that the goal that we’re setting is actually in alignment with our brand of joy. I think a lot of suffering comes from moving into and towards goals that aren’t actually aligned for us personally. This is why there’s so much discontent around success. We think it’s this one thing, but unless we have it kind of locked and loaded and aligned with our own personal values, which is what brand of joy is, we’re never gonna get there.
We need to understand and align our goals, our desire to step into our starring role, our desire to step into leader, business owner, whatever that thing is that’s going to trigger our imposter complex. We need to make sure that that stated desire and goal is rooted in our brand of joy. And once it is, and it’s locked and loaded and aligned, then you’re starting from a place of integrity. If you’re not starting from a place of integrity, nothing’s going to work, and the imposter complex wins.
Colleen: Interesting. So you said earlier that if you’re a high achiever, you’re more likely to experience the imposter complex, and you said it’s kind of a good thing. Are there other ways that the imposter complex actually helps us?
Tanya: The first thing is, just know, by virtue of the fact that you’re experiencing it, by virtue of the fact that you’re listening to one of the lies of the imposter complex, or you’re feeling shut down because of the imposter complex, and you’re in the question of if you’re a fraud, I need you to know that actual frauds don’t feel like frauds. Actual imposters don’t feel like imposters. That’s the good news. That you’re experiencing it means that you’re not. So that’s actually really helpful. But even as we know that, we go, “Oh yes, that makes a lot of sense.” It still does keep us out of action. It has three very specific things that it’s trying to do:
- it’s gonna try to keep you out of action,
- it’s going to have you doubt your capacity, and
- it’s going to want you to feel alone and isolated.
So that’s what it’s really kind of moving towards. The good news, other than the fact that if you’re experiencing it means that you’re high functioning, high achieving, with strong values, and have mastery of technique, and excellence, it’s also that this desire for mastery and excellence … This does keep you on your edge. It does keep you on your game.
The other thing is, you don’t experience the imposter complex in all areas of your life. You’d literally never get out of bed if that were true, but you do experience it in the places that are at your edge. For instance, I used to talk about this all time, I have a yoga practice, and I am decent. I have zero need to be an expert in my yoga practice, so I’m never experience the imposter complex there. In my parenting, in my speaking, in my coaching, in my writing, you better believe it shows up, because it’s there to remind me how much this matters. So when it shows up, you can rest assured that it’s here because this is something that is deeply important to you.
When you go there, you go, “Oh right, it is actually aligned with my brand of joy, and this is worth fighting through.”
Colleen: When we have these negative thoughts and these self-doubting thoughts, it really can affect how we talk to clients, talk to others, friends, family, and I think it can sometimes affect how they perceive us.
Tanya: Absolutely. Absolutely. Or don’t talk to them, right? Because if it’s trying to keep you out of action, that’s usually … I’ve mentioned that there are 12 Lies, but it is gonna show up in mostly the, “I’m not ready yet. I’m not ready yet, to have that sales conversation. I’m not ready yet to take on that kind of project, so I’m not going to.” Yeah. It absolutely shows up in these conversations, and it makes it hard for us to sell ourselves, because we’re not sold on ourselves. That’s really what’s happening here. We aren’t sold on our own selves.
Tanya: There are a couple different coping mechanisms that we go to to try to avoid feeling like the imposter. And those are procrastination and perfectionism, and people pleasing, and leaky boundaries, and comparison and diminishment. Diminishment is the one that show up … well, they all show up, again, not all at the same time—thank goodness—but really often in those sales conversations. That’s really the one where … or sales conversations or pitching ourselves. Whatever that is. That’s really where diminishment likes to show up, and keeps us from making the ask, and making the sale.
Colleen: Yeah. And I’ve experienced that myself. I think sometimes, especially as a creative person … I think creatives might actually be more prone to this in a way. We start doubting ourselves if a client questions us about our work. It doesn’t even have to be … it can just be a question, and I know I’ve sometimes taken it the wrong way. It’s just a question. I can push back. I can assert myself, but when I was just starting out, it was kind of like, “Oh, they’re questioning it. My work must not be as good as I thought.” Or maybe if they’re not responsive, you start wondering, “Oh, is it something I said or did. Maybe they haven’t gotten back to me because they don’t like my work.” So we go into these scenarios in our head, making up all kinds of ridiculous situations that aren’t even reality. At least that’s what I’ve done.
Tanya: You just spoke to lie number 3 of the imposter complex, and that’s that you’re either a complete success or a raging failure. It’s all or nothing. It’s got this really sort of binary thinking. It’s this or it’s that, and there’s nothing in between. You don’t hear back from a client, therefore they hate me, they hate my work … it’s super calamitous. And really, it’s like, no, they were on vacation, or you forgot to press send on it. It’s still sitting in your outbox.
We really like to catastrophize this. That’s the all or nothing competence extremities …
John Lennon says, “Part of me thinks that I’m a complete loser, and the other part thinks I’m God almighty.” Tina Fey talks about this too, but you’re either this … huge waves that you ride.
So one of the things that I just have people do, actually in all of the imposter complex work, is come back to three very specific set points. It wants to keep you out of action, then your job is to get into and under those beliefs that are holding you back. Those beliefs that are telling you that your client hates your work, therefore they hate you. So you’ve got to really challenge that. Really? Is that what’s actually going on?
Then the other thing is that it wants you to doubt your capacity. Your job is also to remind yourself of all of the times you have knocked it out of the park. All the times that you’ve been here before, in this crisis of confidence, and what you did next. So just come back to … I call it bolster authority thesis. Come back to all that you do know, and all that you’ve done, and the good work that went into what you’re doing.
And the third, where it tries to keep you alone and isolated, reach out. Reach out to your mastermind group. If you don’t have a mastermind group, get a mastermind group. Make sure that you are surrounded by people who can help continue to hold … the impeccable work that you are doing, so that they continue to remind you. Those are always the three things, and I’ll probably say those a couple more times throughout this, because that’s really what needs to happen.
We need to meet the critics, we need to bolster authority thesis, and we need to get social and assemble our cast.
Colleen: Yeah, that’s great about the mastermind group. I actually have a small group of colleagues that I talk to on a video call every Friday for an hour, and it’s been life changing and business changing. It’s such a relief to know that others are going through the same crappy situations with clients that you might be, or having some of the same business struggles, and that it’s not you, and you don’t take it as personally. It’s like, “Oh, it’s not just happening to me,” and then they are also the ones to remind you of your wins.
Tanya: Absolutely. We love to discount those wins because the ego wants to want more than it wants to get. It wants us to be moving onto the next thing. It is vitally important, particularly if you have a group like that, then make sure that they know that that’s one of your tells. Like, “Hey, folks. I’m gonna need help celebrating because that’s something I’m a little lousy at, so please celebrate with me.”
Colleen: Yeah, that’s a good point. I think I might have seen this in a tweet of yours, but there’s a saying that, “If you’re the smartest person in the room, then you’re in the wrong room.” But why wouldn’t we want to be the smartest person in the room?
Tanya: Well then, we’re not at our edge. We’re not at our edge. That’s what evolution is: to constantly be pushing ourselves to step into that you-shaped space that the universe has for you. So absolutely, continuing to grow at our own edges, and that’s where the imposter complex is going to show up. I actually do think that, back to your question, “Does it ever serve a purpose?,” I feel like, sometimes, if you’re not experiencing the imposter complex, then you might not be growing your edges in the way that you really could be growing your edges, which is, we’re here for a good time, not a long time, or something like that. So, I think that if you’re the smartest person in the room, then go to a new room where you’re going to challenge yourself.
I also think too, I actually didn’t use that quote, but I know it, and I totally get it. I think one of the things too, if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re not challenging yourself.
You’re not doing a deeper analysis of all that you know. I’ll use myself as an example. I’m super comfortable talking about the imposter complex all day every day, and I love it. I love it, love it, love it, love it, love it, love it. But at this point, I feel like I understand as much as I possibly can about it from my perspective. As a white, able-bodied, cisgender woman from the Western world, I understand this as well as almost anybody possibly can.
So now, I’m required to grow my own edges, and to try to understand how people of different perspectives experience the imposter complex. When is it the imposter complex, and when is it actually a micro-aggression or harassment that’s being dealt with? I need to understand how somebody experiences the imposter complex who doesn’t look like me, and who has a very different lived experience, and who’s been marginalized and oppressed in ways that I haven’t been. So this is a total edge for me. It feels very risky, and it feels like exactly where I need to go, because I’m the smartest person in the room when it comes to the imposter complex, when it comes to this perspective that I’m standing in.
So my job, if I’m to be in integrity with my work, and my body of work and the people that I’m here to help, I want to make sure that I have as much content and context. That I’m going to be the most helpful to people as possible. I might not be the right coach for everybody, but I’ll certainly connect people with the right resources.
Colleen: This might be along the same lines, but on your website, you say something really interesting. You say, “I’m a leadership coach, which is great, because you’re a leader. But we don’t feel like leaders,” so how does that … how did you come up with that?
Tanya: Well it was just the theme that I kept seeing. Pretty much every single person that I come into contact with, or let me just say this. If they’re on my website, then they’re seeking something that’s already inside of them. That’s just kind of how that works. If you’re looking for something, not everybody is coming to my site, trust me, and SEO knows. But all are the people who are are looking for … they’re wanting more visibility. They’re wanting to overcome their diminishment. They’re wanting to step into unshakeable confidence, so that means … I can already surmise that if somebody’s on my site, I know that there is a leader within them that is just busting to get out and needs some tools and needs some of what I got. So I’m pretty confident in that. I’ve been doing this for 10 years, and I know that. I know who the people are that are paying attention to my work.
Colleen: Well, you helped me about a year and a half ago to have a total ah-ha moment.
Colleen: It was amazing, because you started with a simple question about my title, and I was calling myself Graphic Designer. It was in my email signature, it was on my website. That’s what I was telling everybody that I did. But I’m also a business owner, and I have been for 15 years, and that’s what I would tell people. Just “I’m a graphic designer.” And you were like, “Well, why are you calling yourself just a graphic designer?” And when I explained all that I actually was doing, you were like, “You’re really more of a creative director, and with 20 some years of experience, you’re not just a graphic designer.” That really woke me up. I changed my title after that. I changed to Visual Brand Expert and Creative Director, and something that really reflected better what I was doing and, I think also, it not only changes people’s perception of what you do, but it adds value and really reflects it better.
But the vital lesson that you helped me discover was that I had a lot of self-limiting beliefs and this, “I’m not good enough,” mentality in the back of my mind all the time that I didn’t really realize was affecting my business. That was a result of a lot of criticism that I had growing up and then bullying I experienced in school growing up, and never feeling that I was the star of my own show no matter what or how much I achieved.
So, after you helped me discover that, a lot in my life and in my business actually changed. I cut off a lot of toxic personal and business relationships. I fired some clients that were just not … it was just horrendous to work with them, and I didn’t want to put up with that anymore.
I was even afraid of being on a video call the day I talked to you. That was the first day I had ever been on a video call. And now I’ve got a podcast, so it’s like I’ve been breaking out of my comfort zone quite a bit since then. So huge thanks, hats off to you because that really changed a lot. It really did.
Tanya: I’m so happy to hear that. Thank you for letting me know. That makes me so, so, so, so happy. I remember it like it was yesterday. I really, really do, because you just … and you know so very, very much. It was even just in your language, like, “just a graphic designer.”
Tanya: And the thing is, the moment you said, “Yes,” to the you-shaped space that the universe had carved out for you, because that’s what we do, then your business went, “Oh, finally.” And it kind of unfolded itself and made things … I’m not gonna say that they got a lot easier, but they certainly got clearer. Is this worthy of my time as this expert? Is this worthy? Is that relationship worthy? Right?
Tanya: So the moment you step up to meet yourself, then boy, oh boy, life sure steps up to meet you too.
Colleen: Right. Absolutely. It totally changed my personal and business life for the better. So if others, if any of the listeners, if they’re having any trouble breaking through imposter complex and any of these issues, how can you help them?
Tanya: Well, the first thing I would have them do is I would go on my site. There’s a quiz that will help you to decide which of the behavioral traits, the coping mechanisms and the imposter complex, might be holding you back. So again, those are procrastination, perfectionism, diminishment, comparism, people pleasing, and leaky boundaries. Each one of these tells a story about where we need to bolster certain aspects of our life.
For instance, if you are stuck in diminishment or comparism, that’s gonna tell me you’re having a crisis of presence. So you’re not really rooting into presence. And there are these three aspects of unshakeable confidence, by the way. Unshakeable confidence is the opposite feeling of the imposter complex. So it’s super solid, not at all wobbly. So we talk about unshakeable confidence as being this three-legged stool. Without all legs in place, things become wobbly. If you’re in diminishment or comparism, that points to you being in a crisis of presence. Procrastination, perfectionism, if that’s the behavior that you’re wrestling with, then you might be in a crisis of action. If you’re people pleasing and leaky boundaries, then you might be having a crisis of integrity.
Knowing which one that you’re in will help us to discern what needs to happen. Again, just remembering that the imposter complex’s job is to keep you out of action, doubting your capacity, and having you feel alone and isolated. So without even knowing what those behavioral traits are, you really need to get clear about what’s in the way. Like, “Why am I stopped here. I know it’s trying to keep me out of action, but why am I stopped? What are the beliefs that I’m believing about myself right now, or my capacity?” Or whatever it is. And then you need to go, “Okay, well here’s all the other times that I had felt this way. Here are all the times that I was uncertain, and I did it anyway, and I discovered that the party was on the other side of the resistance.”
Then the third, again, is to make sure that you are surrounded. That you have people that you can talk to… that you have people around you. So that’s another place. That how I help people. I’m a coach, so I’m that person that people can come to and make sure that they don’t feel alone in this. Or I’ve got a community. Like I said, the nine-month Starring Role Academy. That’s another place that’s this is the work that we do. But for starters, if you do that quiz, you’re going to discern which of these behaviors is in the way, and then there’s pretty specific action items that you can take to really root back in to, whether it’s presence, or integrity or action.
Colleen: Fantastic. Now, don’t you have a book coming out too?
Tanya: Yes, I am working on a book that’s actually taken a tiny bit of a detour because of this shift in direction. So it’s taken a tiny bit of a detour, but the work … Yeah, it’s almost overbaked at this point, but I do want to have other perspectives that are coming in that are gonna be part of the research that I’m doing right now. But yes, it is coming. I’ll let you know when that’s available for sure.
Colleen: All right, great! Well, thanks so much Tanya. I appreciate you coming onto the podcast. I think this’ll be really helpful.
Tanya: Yay! That makes me so happy. That’s what I’m here for. Thank you for having me.