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How reframing your anxiety this way can help conquer impostor syndrome

This executive coach says those feelings that you’re a fraud hit most when stepping out of your comfort zone. An “anxiety reappraisal” can help.

How reframing your anxiety this way can help conquer impostor syndrome
[Source image: bashta/iStock]

For many of us, our natural instinct when feeling anxious is to try to escape  the feeling entirely. We use relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing exercises, in an attempt to calm down and recenter. However, when our bodies are in a heightened state, simply trying to return to ‘normal’ can be difficult, if not futile.

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Turning anxiety into excitement might sound impossible, but it’s not.. ‘Anxiety reappraisal’ is a technique that acknowledges the elevated state you’re in and reframes the sensation, rather than suppressing it. In its simplest form, it’s telling yourself, “I’m not anxious, I’m just excited.”

Studies have shown that this reappraisal technique is a more effective way to regulate anxiety than suppression strategies—which are consistently reported as counterproductive. That’s why, when you begin to feel anxious, it can be helpful to actively turn that anxiety into excitement and use it as a tool to conquer impostor syndrome.

Don’t ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’

In an online questionnaire done as part of a Journal of Experimental Psychology study by Dr. Alison Wood Brooks, 85% of participants reported “try to relax or calm down” as their number one piece of advice for someone experiencing anxiety. 

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The “Keep Calm and Carry On” slogan, initially part of a World War II public safety campaign, reemerged in the 2000’s across t-shirts, posters, and more, and exacerbated our instinct to try to relax when faced with anxiety. But anxiety is the result of an aroused nervous system, and it isn’t easy to suddenly switch from a state of arousal to one of calmness.

Before you can begin reframing anxiety as excitement, the first step is to accept the anxious state you’re experiencing and fight that instinct to seek out relaxation. The same can be said for impostor syndrome as well. We have a tendency to ‘fight’ impostor syndrome (to avoid the situations where we feel inadequate), when—in reality—the first step should be acknowledging that impostor syndrome isn’t actually a bad thing.

Think about it this way: If you’re feeling impostor syndrome, chances are you’re stepping outside of your comfort zone. Studies have shown that stepping outside of your comfort zone isn’t just helpful for learning, it’s imperative. So instead of viewing impostor syndrome as a negative thing—a sign that you’re out of your depth or destined to be “found out”—start by reframing that feeling as a positive: a sign of an opportunity to learn.

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Pay attention to how you feel

While anxiety and excitement stem from two very different emotional states, the physical sensations of each are nearly identical. Performance anxiety may produce ‘pre-stage jitters,’ butterflies in your stomach, and an increased heart rate. Yet, doesn’t feeling excited yield the same sensations?

Moving from a state of anxiety to one of calmness is challenging because it requires both a physical shift and a cognitive one. When it comes to anxiety and excitement, however, the physical sensations are nearly identical—meaning less work is required because you only have to focus on the mental shift. 

Positive self-talk goes a long way

If you want to start transforming anxiety into excitement—and impostor syndrome into an asset—it’s easier than you might think. While feeling anxious, we often get stuck ruminating on negative thoughts, e.g. “I feel anxious,” or “I feel like a fraud.” Self-talk helps to combat this by instead saying phrases, such as “I feel excited,” either in your head or aloud. 

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Now, self-talk might sound cheesy, but research suggests that positive self-talk can help improve your coping skills for stressful situations, reduce depression, and even improve your overall health and well-being—so it’s definitely worth the effort. 

And if going straight from “I feel anxious” to “I feel excited” feels like too big of a jump, try something along the lines of “I’m looking forward to feeling excited.” As your body begins to move from a state of anxious to a more positive state, the excitement will build and the statements will become easier to say—and more believable—over time.

Reframe impostor syndrome from an obstacle to an opportunity

If you’re feeling like an impostor, you’re definitely not alone. It’s something I’ve struggled with at different points in my career, and I’ve worked with countless others who have experienced the same feelings. In fact, studies suggest that impostor syndrome is most common in high-achievers, which means—if you’re feeling like an impostor—this is great news!

Impostor syndrome is a sign that you’re doing something right. You’re surrounding yourself with people that you perceive as intelligent and accomplished, and you’re stretching yourself far beyond your comfort zone. Who better to learn from than these kinds of people? 

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Instead of zeroing in on the ways you feel “less than,” lean into the opportunity of learning more about the people around you and what they can teach you. It’s not a change that will happen overnight, but—much like hitting the gym or changing your eating habits—it’s well worth the effort. With time and practice, you can begin to teach yourself how to view these feelings as a sign of opportunity, feeling excited about them rather than anxious, instead of viewing them as obstacles to overcome. Who knows? You might even start recognizing the stirrings of impostor syndrome as a good thing. 


Kris Kelso is an executive coach, leadership advisor, and keynote speaker based in Nashville. He is also the author of Overcoming The Impostor: Silence Your Inner Critic and Lead with Confidence (Dexterity, January 19, 2021).


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