Impostor Syndrome vs. Beginner’s Mind

I was talking recently with a woman who wanted to apply to an arts conference. She was excited by the possibilities, and wanted to submit her application ASAP, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. She didn’t have the long resume of other participants. She didn’t have mastery of the art form. She felt like an impostor. Despite the fact that this arts conference is the very place to learn from others and to gain that mastery she so deeply wants, that impostor feeling was stopping her cold.

I have seen this over and over again in the arts. I’ve felt it myself. “I’m not REALLY an expert.” We tend to underestimate our own knowledge, accomplishments, and, when it comes to negotiating, our dollar worth. When I did a little digging, I found that “impostor syndrome” is found to affect high-achieving women more than men. (As if high-achieving women needed one more thing to feel anxious about. Prescribed gender roles are a bitch.)

From the Wikipedia article on impostor syndrome, high-achieving women were found to display these traits:

  • Diligence: Gifted women often work hard in order to prevent people from discovering that they are “impostors.” The “impostor” women may feel they need to work two or three times as hard, so over-prepare, tinker and obsess over details, says Young. This can lead to burn-out and sleep deprivation.
  • Feeling of being phony: A woman with impostor feelings often attempts to give supervisors and professors the answers that she believes they want, which often leads to an increase in feeling like she is “being a fake.”
  • Use of charm: Connected to this, gifted women often use their intuitive perceptiveness and charm to gain approval and praise from supervisors and seek out relationships with supervisors in order to help her increase her abilities intellectually and creatively. However, when the supervisor gives her praise or recognition, she feels that this praise is based on her charm and not on ability.
  • Avoiding display of confidence: A woman dealing with impostor feelings may believe that if she actually believes in her intelligence and abilities she may be rejected by others. Therefore, she may convince herself that she is not intelligent or does not deserve success to avoid this.

Does this sound like you? Working overtime, yet still not confident? Working hard to charm everyone in your path, but tamping down your own achievements? Thinking it’s only a matter of time before you’re found out? It’s so easy to fall into this trap.

Then there’s beginner’s mind. This useful little mantra comes from Zen Buddhism, so you know it comes from a place of deep mindfulness, or to put it another way, chill, baby.

Beginner’s mind means putting yourself in a place of not knowing, and being ok with not knowing. I had an acting teacher who used to say,  Not knowing means being open to possibilities.

“The more I learn, the less I know.” -George Harrison, The Inner Light

“Not knowing is a great place to be.” -Johnnie Hobbs, a wonderful acting teacher I studied with in college.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind, there are few.” -Shunryu Suzuki, author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

All three of these quotes come from someone trying to tell the world something: a songwriter, a teacher, an author. The most profound thing they’ve come to tell us is, forget what you know! It’s befuddling, it’s contradictory, it’s absolutely right.

Two philosophies of not knowing. Impostor syndrome comes from a place of anxiety and baggage. Beginner’s mind comes with no expectations, only a sense of openness and freedom. Guess which one lets us learn and be happy?

So apply for that conference, or job, or project. Go forth with your crazy brilliant ideas! Flail around! Fail, even! Forgive yourself for failing. Ask for help! Be open to receiving help! When you think you know it all, begin again! And again, and again, and again. Remind yourself, gently, to have beginner’s mind.

Are the light bulbs in the photo worthless junk, or brilliant ideas for the taking? Depends on how you see them.


Photo: Berlin, NJ Farmer’s Market, by Gina