Fear of negative evaluation and relearning how to play

As we discussed last week, imposter syndrome occurs when there is a discrepancy between your performance and your beliefs about your performance. I differentiate between two types of imposter syndrome: anxiety-driven imposter syndrome and developmental imposter syndrome. Anxiety-driven imposter syndrome occurs when you have the skills to perform at the level that is expected of you, but you feel anxious about your skills anyway. Developmental imposter syndrome occurs when you have the potential to perform at the level that is expected of you, and you feel anxious about the process of reaching that potential.

Developmental imposter syndrome

Developmental imposter syndrome shows up in any area of life where there is an opportunity for learning. It is the opposite of playing. In the process of learning, there is a discrepancy between what you know and do and what you have the potential to know and do. If you experienced a relatively safe childhood educational environment, this truth was so fundamental to your growth process that you didn’t notice.

Each day that you showed up to second grade, for example, you assumed that you would engage in some activity that you may or may have ever heard of before. If your teachers and parents gave you reasonable guidance and boundaries, let you make mistakes, and reinforced your effort, you were ideally able to learn and grow without anxiety. Under these conditions, the uncertainty of what you don’t know is a real opportunity. Unfortunately for many, a biological vulnerability to anxiety and the way your parents and teachers respond to mistakes can mean that you already felt anxiety in some areas of life by second grade. If this is the case for you, try to bring up a compassionate attitude to that younger you and let’s also try to notice the parts of your life that were still anxiety-free.

Everyone has some areas of life that at some time have been anxiety-free, because most of the time in most areas of life growth in children and adults occurs naturally. When you were exposed to enough words, you eventually learned to talk. When you were exposed to reading, you eventually learned to write. When you had space to move, you developed the coordination needed to run, dance, and play sports.

You didn’t know on the first day of second grade what you would know by the last day of second grade, but you likely trusted that your environment would support you while you learned and trusted that your mind and body would be up to the task of whatever your environment demanded. If you didn’t anxiously check on your learning process or avoid tasks that required persistence to master, you progressed through the developmental tasks of childhood in a non-linear, curious way, using trial and error to master the skills.

By middle school, you had social awareness of your aptitude and how it compared to others. The combination of the development of abstract thinking plus puberty plus increased social awareness means that your natural capacity to learn and grow through curiosity and trial and error was likely challenged by the pressure to fit in by this time.

How well you managed the pressure to fit in depends a lot on your biological vulnerabilities and strengths as well as the demands of your environment at that time. If the pressure gave you anxiety and the urge to either check on your performance or avoid performing, you likely began habits to manage your anxiety that have made it worse and worse over the last decade or five. Notice how reasonable it is to have the urge to check, neutralize, or avoid challenging or uncertain tasks when you don’t know whether the way you perform will end in harsh judgment and rejection. There’s nothing wrong with that response or urge to respond, expect that if you do it rigidly, it will make your anxiety about performance worse.

As always, it is not circumstances, but our responses to circumstances, that predict our flexibility, wellbeing, and happiness. Notice also that comparatively to childhood, you have a lot more choice over with whom you live, work, and play. If your developmental imposter syndrome (that is, fear of the discrepancy between who you are now and who you have the potential to become) is prominent because you are actually being judged harshly and routinely criticized, then your anxiety is signal, not noise. We should talk more about who is judging you harshly and how you can cope with or escape that criticism.

Let’s talk more in group about what happened for you, what you did to survive it, and how to create more flexibility among responses that are no longer helpful for you.

Questions for reflection about developmental imposter syndrome and developing playfulness 

Can you remember when your developmental imposter syndrome started?

In what areas of life performance (such as school, work, friendships, professional relationships, romantic relationships, hobbies, activities of daily living) are you hyperaware of the discrepancy between how you currently perform and your potential to perform?

What do you typically do when that hyperawareness, preoccupation, or anxiety shows up (examples include avoid, worry, fixate, distract yourself, abuse substances)?

If what areas of life performance (such as school, work, friendships, professional relationships, romantic relationships, hobbies, activities of daily living), are you able to relax into who you currently are and enjoy the process of growing with curiosity? In other words, in what areas of life are you able to play?

What’s the difference between the areas of life about which you have serious, hyperawareness of your performance v. the areas of life about which you can play?

After reflecting on a time in your life where you could approach performance in some areas of life with playfulness, what types of responses would you like to commit to and practice in your daily life now to increase your capacity to play?