Is it Safe to be Real? When tackling the Impostor Complex feels unsafe.

Tanya Geisler
Sep 7 · 4 min read

Those of us in the self-development space mean well. (I reckon that’s the first time I’ve ever said I’m in the self-development space, but I’m writing a book and if there’s one thing Big Publishing loves, it’s titles… but I digress.)

We really do. Or at least, I operate under the assumption that those of us in the self-development space mean well.

And in that meaning well, we can do harm. You know I’m talking about that chasm between impact and intent.

I am certain I have done harm when I have said things approximately (or quite literally) like:

Believe in yourself!
Take up more space!
Shine up!
Be bolder!
Step into your Starring Role!

I believe in those things. I want those things for you. Truly and deeply I do. And… they are insufficient.

If you’ve been around for any amount of time, you know as a Libran Leadership Coach, I am a little more than preoccupied with seeing the both AND of things. That life is not happening in the extremes, but rather in the spaces in between. I tend to see and dream in nuance. Frustratingly, I speak in nuance too. What others may perceive as wishy-washy, I assert to be discernment.

But maybe that doesn’t always come through. Because “ALWAYS,” I mean…isn’t that one more extreme? (See what I did there?) Even last week’s article: The answer is almost always: bring more of you, the “almost” in the title was an intentional linchpin word.

And here’s what I want you to know.

The Impostor Complex is highly concerned with you belonging. Or not belonging. Which is a fundamental need. Refresher: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs goes like:

  1. Physiological needs
  2. Safety needs
  3. Belonging
  4. Esteem
  5. Self-actualization

So it follows that you need to feel safe before you can feel you belong. And you can’t feel the fullness of your esteem and confidence until you feel you belong.

So… we can see how unhelpful it is when we see and say:

Believe in yourself!
Take up more space!
Shine up!
Be bolder!
Step into your Starring Role!

…in response to a crisis of the Impostor Complex variety.

Out of context — and it’s all about context — these are not simply incomplete directives because they don’t offer up a HOW. They are incomplete directives because they belie the reality that for some, it may simply not be safe to do so. Or it hasn’t been safe to do so up until now. And maybe it still isn’t.

In this instance, these confidence hacks are insufficient. This is not simply about shifting your mindset. There are real structural and systemic forces at play here.

So here’s what I want to offer up. Another lens.

It’s true that when I see diminishment and/or comparison and/or perfectionism and/or procrastination and/or leaky boundaries and/or people-pleasing running the show, I suspect that the Impostor Complex is in the house and I want to make sure you’re not hiding out in those coping mechanisms.

But/AND the ORIGIN STORY of those behavioural traits… may be that they come from your second most basic need: safety.

Diminishment is an entirely appropriate response if you have ever been targeted.
Comparison meant you always knew how you were stacking up. And how to modulate accordingly.
Getting it perfect may have meant you were spared some kind of punishment.
Procrastination meant you delayed getting it wrong.
Leaky boundaries meant you could shape-shift to fit into hostile environments.
Pleasing the people who hold power over you is just deeper wisdom keeping you safe.

See why these are such hard(wired) habits to break?

I sure do.

Let’s pause here and breathe together.

I see you.

And I am sorry.

I am sorry for every time you have endured a reductionist rah-rah quote that didn’t attend to the complexity of your lived experience and the emotions you endure.

Truly, I am sorry.

And I want to offer a little tenderness to those painful places.

What if…

Diminishment meant you valued humility.

Comparison meant you valued connection.

Perfectionism meant you valued excellence.

Procrastination meant you valued discernment.

Leaky Boundaries meant you valued generosity.

People-pleasing meant you valued inclusivity.

What then? What if these glorious aspects of you were not something to be fixed but rather to be calibrated… and then, maybe even, with time and care, to be celebrated?

What then indeed.

Maybe they only become a PROBLEM when we allow them to shut us down. To stay out of action. To doubt our capacity. To stay alone and isolated. And THAT’S when I’m a hard NO on your behalf to these behaviours.

When those behavioural traits are getting in the way of your good work. Your leadership. Your art. Your movement. Your activation. We need to call them out. That’s just true.

When those behavioural traits have been speed bumps on the road of your expansion, we need to know how to circumnavigate them.

But maybe we don’t need to eradicate them. Because they are PART of you. The discernment is in knowing when they are born of a good place and when they are getting in the way.

So I just want you to know why they’re here and for you to adjust your route — knowing why and where and WHEN they tend to show up. (Psst… usually on the precipice of your desires.)

And when the whole world wants to trivialize just how remarkable you truly are and you are prepared to buy into it, I will indeed remind you that you are made of stardust… you are literally the stuff of stars.

That much, I am certain I am right about. Without exception and without apology.

Tanya Geisler

Written by

Step into your Starring Role: Leadership Coach, TEDx Speaker on #ImpostorComplex. Book’s coming…soooooon.

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