Know that needling feeling at the back of your mind that you’re a fake, your success was good luck or an accident, and soon (maybe today!) everyone will discover your secret? Impostor syndrome is all too common among high-achieving women.
Actress Jodie Foster summed it up nicely, “When I won the Oscar, I thought it was a fluke. I thought everybody would find out, and they’d take it back. They’d come to my house, knocking on the door, ‘Excuse me, we meant to give that to someone else. That was going to Meryl Streep.’“
There are times when the intensity of self-doubt can be paralyzing, and talking to a therapist or coach can help. For other lapses in professional confidence, taking a more playful approach can be a powerful tool.
An American in Paris
A delightful anecdote at the end of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic illustrates this perfectly. Gilbert writes about an American striving to break into the French art world when he finds himself invited to a costume party at a castle filled with French aristocrats.
He spends a week meticulously assembling an elaborate ensemble, only to drive three hours to the party and realize he had missed a key detail: the theme of the party was “a medieval court”, and he was dressed as a lobster.
Much like the beloved protagonist in Legally Blonde, instead of running away in embarrassment, he rocked his costume, complete with red tights, face paint and giant foam claws. With all the confidence and charm he could muster, he bowed deeply to the assembled royalty and introduced himself as the court lobster. They loved him. He quickly became a celebrated guest of the event, ultimately dancing with the Queen of Belgium.
The Court Lobster Strategy
Our lobster friend could have turned right back around and walked out the door – I might have – but he didn’t. Instead of leaving riddled with shame and berating himself, he brought levity to the situation.
I’m voting that we reframe impostor syndrome and start thinking about how we can apply the Court Lobster Strategy in our own moments of self doubt.
As Gilbert describes it, “I have never created anything in my life that did not make me feel, at some point or another, like I was the guy who walked into a fancy ball wearing a homemade lobster costume.”
Similarly, in launching my business, I’ve struggled to reconcile my own insecurities with professional successes.
We spend too much time diagnosing women, whether it’s telling them they have impostor syndrome or an anxiety disorder. (Are these modern equivalents to the hysteria diagnosis our great-grandmother’s generation might have received?)
What I love about the Court Lobster Strategy is its sense of play. This recognition that everyone has those moments of insecurity. A recognition that this isn't some flaw or embarrassment to cover up, it's a very normal part of human experience – asking questions like, What if I fail? What if everyone laughs at me? What if I'm not old enough, smart enough, credentialed enough…what if I am not enough?
That you’re scared or having these doubts doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t move forward or that there’s something wrong with you. While it can be helpful to have a descriptor of what you’re experiencing (for google purposes, if nothing else), let’s not pathologize or treat the normal range of human emotion as psychologically abnormal or unhealthy.
Professional Anxiety Coach Dr. Tim Kershenstine says, “Pathologizing our insecurities can prevent us from experiencing our power in the face of self-doubt. Alternatively, we can build our confidence and feel empowered through a sense of playfulness and courageous action in spite of our moments of doubt.”
Instead of being totally destabilizing, these moments could ultimately serve as AFOG, or “Another F***ing Opportunity for Growth”. As Kershenstine says, “Courage only exists in the presence of fear.”
And courage works. Lobster friend could have panicked and left embarrassed, but instead he created a magical experience and potential professional opportunity for himself, ingratiating himself to France’s rich and famous.
The next time you’re struggling with professional anxiety, try the Court Lobster Strategy. Notice the feelings that are coming up and try introducing some levity: picture a 6 foot tall, gangly red lobster/man dancing with the Queen of Belgium. In my experience, it doesn’t make the anxiety go away, but it does take away a lot of its power.
A version of this piece was originally published by Forbes.