Imposter syndrome sometimes hits us when we least expect it. One minute we’re strolling along, confident and courageous about putting ourself out there, and the next minute we’re overcome with overwhelming anxiety that captures our bodies and minds. The thoughts of self-doubt come streaming in.
Who am I to lead and influence others?
What right do I have to share my experience and wisdom?
Who put me in charge of this?
I recently had an anxiety attack that lasted about a week. The sensations were concentrated in my stomach and chest from the moment I woke up until I fell asleep. It’s the feeling I get right before going into a job interview, times ten. I had not experienced a sustained period of anxiety like this before, but I knew I could navigate my way back to safety.
For a long time I was afraid to be seen. Though I was too young to remember it now, during a preschool performance at my school, I failed to do my part. Facing a crowd of proud parents, I sat on stage in a row of chairs with my classmates. One by one we took turns standing up to do out part. When it came to my turn, I stood up, took one look around the room, looked down to shake my head, and sat back down. All I was supposed to do was say my name.
I was painfully shy as a child, which I did not overcome until my early 20s. That day in preschool may not have been the first time this happened, but the pattern of protection had already begun and continued into adulthood. Ask me what stands out most in my mind about my middle school and high school days, and I’ll tell you that I wanted nothing more than to blend in and go unnoticed. When I came up for first chair clarinet my senior year of high school, I dropped out of band altogether. I didn’t want to be seen.
Our risk-averse egos want to keep us small. So when we do extraordinary things, the nervous system sometimes picks up these changes as cues of danger, setting off an alarm in our bodies. This causes unpleasant sensations, such as increased heart rate, tightening muscles, or a nervous stomach. Our mind interprets those sensations as a sign that something has gone awry, and our inner critic shows up right on time telling us we’re not ready, not good enough, and destined to fail. These racing thoughts happen so quickly and so involuntarily, we get wrapped up in a story that holds us back.
We can easily spiral into a fight or flight coping mechanism or even begin to completely shut down. The domino effect is not our fault. Our body has good intentions–to protect us. We all have patterns of protection where our nervous system responds to perceived dangerous situations and reacts the same way every time. We can, however, break up patterns with good inner work.
“The ego desperately wants safety. The soul wants to live. The truth is, we cannot lead a real life without risk. We do not develop depth without pain.”The Hero Within, Carol S. Pearson
I had a breakthrough in my recent anxiety attack once I was able to connect the sensations in my body and the associated feelings with my past experiences.
What I needed most was to give little preschool Krissy a big warm embracing hug. Visualization is very powerful and has played an important role in my ability to overcome my fears and self-limiting beliefs. So I comforted her and told her that it’s OK to be vulnerable. I grieved her losses, because she hid herself for so long, avoiding situation after situation.
My process to return to safety wouldn’t have been complete without a visit with my inner wise woman through my active imagination practice. A mother figure to me, she lives in a cabin in the woods in a colorful house with all kinds of knick knacks and memorabilia from a well-lived life. She has long silver hair and wears a pink tunic and gold platform shoes–yes, she’s fabulous.
I sat down with her for some much needed quality time. She reminded me that there’s always a way. That I am resourceful and resilient. That my mind is limited in understanding how capable I truly am. And that I’m always welcome to come visit her for a hug and some hot tea.
The next day my anxiety reduced significantly, and two days later I felt back to normal. My inner critic and fear-based anxiety may become a regular visitor in my life as I continue to navigate unfamiliar territory, but I know how to partner with myself to heal, overcome, and keep moving forward.