Asking For More Podcast Episode 10: Impostor Syndrome and The Shame Sandwich

Impostor syndrome can hamstring your organization’s ability to respond to crises, advance DEIB goals, and adapt and innovate. It can isolate leaders, hinder solutions-focused collaboration, and drive a vicious cycle of overwhelm and burnout. Listen to this important episode and learn more about how to overcome impostor syndrome.

In this interview, we answer the questions:

  1. What does impostor syndrome feel like?
  2. Why do some people have impostor syndrome?
  3. What can organizations do to help people not feel impostor syndrome?
  4. How can you ask for more, despite impostor syndrome?
  5. How is impostor syndrome related to white supremacy?

Guest Bio: Reva Patwardhan

Reva Patwardhan is the founder of Greater Good Coaching. She supports nonprofit leaders who are not having the impact they want, and feel overwhelmed or like an impostor. She helps them stand fully in their authority, even when they don’t know what to do, so they get unstuck and moving with new clarity towards their vision. She has 20 years of experience in the nonprofit sector as a fundraiser, communications director, lobbyist, board member, facilitator, coach and diversity trainer. Reva co-facilitates small experiential learning groups with the Stanford Graduate School of Business. She chairs the Board of Directors at Rethink Media. She is a certified Integral Coach, and a member of the International Coaching Federation.

Reva’s Website

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Rough Transcript: Impostor syndrome and asking for more

Mazarine Treyz: Hello, everybody. Welcome to The Asking For More Podcast.

Today, I get to interview Reva Patwardhan. She is the founder of Greater Good Coaching. She supports Nonprofit Leaders who are not having the impact they want and feel overwhelmed or like an imposter. She helps build confidence, innovate and collaborate on the biggest challenges so they can make an impact. There’s 20 years of experience in the nonprofit sector as a fundraiser communications director, lobbyist board member, facilitator, coach, and diversity trainer. Oh my gosh. So many things. Reva co-facilitates small experiential learning groups with Stanford Graduate School of Business. She chairs The Board of Directors at Rethink Media. She’s a certified Integral Coach and a member of the International Coaching Federation. 

So welcome. Thank you for having me. So tell me if you please, I know we’ll both be speaking at the Montana Nonprofit Association Gather conference next week, what will you be talking about there?

Reva Patwardhan: So I’m gonna be talking about How Impostor Syndrome Impacts Organizations and why it is something that nonprofit leaders would, should pay attention to and would benefit from learning how to navigate.

What is impostor syndrome?

RP: Yeah. So most of the time people think of imposter syndrome as just something that happens inside your head. Right? So it can feel like feeling small or intimidated by the people around you. You don’t feel like you quite belong. You may like, obviously you feel like an imposter. So like if you are an imposter, then it’s part, part of your job is making sure no one figures that out. So there’s this extra mental load that is happening and emotional load that is happening for people who are experiencing it. That is what the individual feels like when they have imposter syndrome. And one of the things that I’ve been noticing in my work as a coach in with nonprofit leaders is that what it often gets missed by the person experiencing the imposter syndrome, as well as by the organization in general, is that a lot of times people feel anxious and intimidated and all of that for valid reasons that are organizational challenges and not individual challenges. 

Why do some people have impostor syndrome?

RP: Well, some people have it because I mean, you know, I will say maybe it’s, maybe it’s a self-selecting group of people, but I’m often amazed by who does have it. It is often not who you would think. It’s often someone who like I have clients who are very accomplished, very ambitious. They have done big things. They have founded organizations raised lots and lots of money. People who seem at, at the top of their game and then you talk to them and it turns out, oh, this person has in foster syndrome. How can that possibly be so it’s really kind of wild that how very common it is having said that I have met one or two people that seem to not who seem pre preternaturally confident, they’re awesome, amazing people. And they feel very settled in themselves and that’s awesome.

So that can also be a thing that is great to hear that exists in the world. But there is there are, so I think some of it is just, you know temperament and some of it is also environment and systems, right? So if you are different and or you look different, do you feel different? You have some sort of difference you’re carrying around with yourself in a, that is a non-dominant difference. So meaning you’re, you are not white, you are not male, you are not neurotypical. You are like all of those things. You are not straight. And you don’t see examples of people being fabulous, who look like you or people who are being celebrated, who look like you. That can be a big reason why people have imposter syndrome. If you walk into a room and it seems that everyone with influence in the room is somebody who does not share any of your identities.

Someone whose life experience you can’t relate to that can be an environmental reason for having imposter syndrome. I think the nonprofit sector is I think the nonprofit sector has some larger historical dynamics going on that also breed imposter syndrome and people who maybe would not necessarily have it. I’ve had clients who have never experienced imposter syndrome, except until they got into this one organization that they’re in, you know, and all of a sudden they feel completely incompetent. Right? And so what that often looks like in the nonprofit sector is the expectations that you must be, that the expectation of being superhuman, that one must be incredibly resourceful and do get all the stuff done with a minimum of time and overhead and cost and all of that. And that you’ll be able to do all of these different things and you don’t need to have time to learn your new job. You’re just gonna dive in and you’re just gonna sink or swim and you’re gonna do it. So there’s this whole history in the nonprofit sector of people doing things very little pay for no pay that that’s normal, the person who held the job before you did it, why can’t I do it? That is a real breeding ground for imposter syndrome very long answer to your question.

MT: No, that’s wonderful because that really leads me into, you know, I mean, the name of this podcast is asking for more and I really feel like you’ve named a lot of different things that help us understand why we’re not doing that. And if you have an imposter syndrome, that’s part of it, but it, you also kind of touched on different aspects of white supremacy in your answer. And I think it’s really important to discuss too. It’s like white supremacy is about perfectionism urgency, you know, individualism, like all the things that are named in as things that we can work on in organizational cultures, because we’re built on white supremacy, like our whole culture is so it’s like we’re coming through this water all the time. We just don’t notice it. So of course the nonprofit sector, it’s also built on that, but then there’s just to add a little layer of like puritanism, guilt Christianity, you know, all these things that are like, a sandwich of shame and fear. And people don’t wanna look at this stuff. Yeah, I don’t wanna eat that sandwich anymore. Doesn’t taste good. 

So I love that you brought up all these different things that are really part of a larger structural thing. And I feel like the challenge that we’re coming up against now, the nonprofit sectors are having a crisis of ethics. Like how, how do we say that we want black lives to matter? How do we say that we want, you know, equity in the workplace for racial equity, gender parity pay all that stuff. And yet still have, you know, 90% of the biggest organizations are snow capped, white male, stale, pale, and male, right. And then like, even if they’re led by a white woman, that’s not really that much better, to be honest.

How can organizations help people not feel impostor syndrome?

Like we know that we have to change the structures. Celebration is one aspect you mentioned, but what are some other things people can do?

RP: So I actually think that the goal is not to have people not feel imposter syndrome because I think that that particular experience is just, it’s a natural thing that a lot of people feel it’s kind of a, it’s kind of a a bummer part of the human experience. I think what I would like us to, to see us working on is how to name it as something that is not just about that individual. Cause what happens is when you’re feeling like an imposter the instinct is, and I need to keep everyone from finding this out. And then there’s other instincts like there’s a tendency for, to internalize blame for things that are not your fault. If you feel like a fraud and you’re not able, you’re more likely to blame yourself for not being able to keep up with a workload that is, you know that is genuinely a difficult workload for someone who maybe is new on their job.

For someone who’s still learning or maybe it’s just would be impossible for anybody. Right. and rather than being able to name that and externalize the problem, there’s a tendency to internalize it. So the first step in addressing all of that is to just name that imposter syndrome happens. It is not a problem inside you that we need to fix. Cause I think when we don’t look at the fuller picture, that’s what happens. It’s like, oh, you have imposter syndrome. You need to go fix that. Right. You just need to be more confident if you just had more confidence, then you would be able to do X, Y, and Z. That’s your main issue. Right. and I think a lot of times when people come in my first session with the client, that’s often the framework they’re coming with is if I just could get over myself then X, Y, Z, then I would be able to do all these things.

And it’s like, well actually I think you’re having a normal reaction. A lot of times I think you’re having a normal, valid, you’re having normal. Your emotions are valid. You are having an experience that is a common, normal experience people have. And wouldn’t it be great if we could just talk about it and name it? Wouldn’t it be great if we could say, you know what, I’m not feeling confident in my ability to execute on this plan and just to talk about that. Right. so I guess one way to think about it is there is there are often times where it feels where it makes sense that you don’t feel confident, but that doesn’t make you a fraud right? But it doesn’t really help to blame the syndrome. Right. or to blame or to make that the problem. 

What is behind impostor syndrome historically?

MT: If I can just give you some historical context again, just for a second. There’s a book called Work Won’t Love You Back by Sarah Jaffe. There’s another book by Peter Fleming called the worst is yet to come. And he also wrote a book called Resisting Work. And in his resisting work book, he talked about how over the last 40 years, since the eighties, essentially what we’ve done is we’ve basically taken big structural and societal problems and then individualized them and said, well, this person has a problem. Like you see this in the way that we talk about homelessness, this was irresponsible or this person has mental illness. Therefore they deserve it, and honestly when you see homeless it’s failure of the system, it’s not the failure of the individual.

HR departments were created to like fight unions organizing. And now that we’re seeing a rise of unions, I feel like we also need to lead talking about how people are pushing the blame for poor systems, poor management, but also just systems that never set up to help us succeed onto an individual and making that part of the shame and blame game for yourself. And like, that’s works out great for them. It can sell you more products. They can, you know, pay you less. Right. So I completely agree with you. It really shouldn’t be about the organization saying the individual, you are the problem. You have syndrome. It’s like, let’s contextualize this and that can take some of the shame away. You know what I mean?

RP: Absolutely Yes. And then what becomes possible is we can work together to solve these problems. And it may be a long arduous process. It may take a long time to address the issue. If it’s something like, you know it can be something is entrenched as like we have a 10 year grant that we’ve that we’ve agreed to do this ridiculous amount of things for this tiny little bit of money. You know, it can be entrenched major issues, but the starting point is let’s not pretend this was reasonable. Let’s stop doing that. It’s not reasonable because obviously people are falling apart and they’re not able to do it. And therefore, by definition, it is not really reasonable expectation. So let’s just start talking about that. And even if it’s a hard, gonna be a hard, you know, five more years or whatever, while we work this out, we can stop internalizing the blame. 

Stop Internalizing the Blame for Unrealistic Expectations

Reva Patwardhan

MT: Yes. I really appreciate you saying that and I feel like that’s worth repeating, I mean, to stop internalizing the blame for unrealistic expectations. Yes. Even if it was our own unrealistic expectations .

MT: We can always take steps to make things better and recognize when something’s not working. That’s so true. Like we have resources available to us. We have infinite systems that we could create. If we were rested enough, we don’t have to keep doing a nonprofit system that’s based in puritanism, that’s based in shame. That’s based in fear. That’s based, in lack, that’s based in power over and dominance, you know we could actually have a better system. We could have a better world if we are brave enough to name these problems. So I’m really grateful to you for naming this particular one. And you know, for someone who’s listening right now, who’s experiencing imposter syndrome. What would you say to them?

How can we ask for more despite impostor syndrome?

RP: So how can they ask for more in spite of imposter syndrome? I think it can start by naming the feeling right. And checking out if there’s a way to do that without criticizing yourself. Mm. Right. So what is it that you’re feeling? Right. And are you feeling anxious? Are you feeling doubtful? Are you feeling angry, hurt? What is the feeling? Because a lot of times that is going to that feeling is going to guide you to some kind of deeper truth about what you’re noticing, what you’re experiencing, so that you might name that and say it out loud, find a way to say it out loud in a way that doesn’t diminish you, that doesn’t blame all of that stuff. And invite collaboration, ask for help, ask for resources. And when I say I think a lot of times when people do that exercise and start out doing that exercise when they’re trying to name the feeling, it can be I think a lot of people are not used to naming emotions in a neutral way.

Right. And so that’s why it can be helpful to have support in some shape or form. Right. So naming emotion, it can be like an implication that there’s a problem with me that I feel this way. Like I feel like I’m feeling insecure about taking up too much space. Right., I’m struggling to come up with a good example of this, but I’ll just say it’s something I see a lot. And it can become in the shame. That’s the thing about shame is it can make it hard to locate your feelings. . And so I think in that instance, if you’re having a hard time really getting landing on a process of naming the feeling and finding the meaning behind it, you might then ask yourself, well, where is the shame? Is there shame in here and just check that out? Is there something I’m ashamed of? Am I ashamed of the fact that I’m anxious? Am I ashamed of the fact that I feel doubtful is, am I ashamed of the fact that I feel insecure? And if you can kind of separate out the feeling of shame from the other feeling that you’re feeling, that can helpful.

MT: I really appreciate you articulating that. I think a lot of what happens in our society is that feeling of feeling is shamed. Like we’ll stop when we try to not feel. And a lot of us are overworking to not feel yes. And it’s very rewarded in our society to do that. So I love that you begin with the feelings, I think that’s bell hooks would agree. Very powerful. I love that. And thank you for sharing that. I actually I encourage people who are listening, check out the wheel of feelings here. I made it into like giant magnets and I gave them out to my friends and family. And I was like, now you can name your feelings. Here’s the little tool, it’s always gonna be on your fridge and you can point through it and say, oh, that, and in the beginning you might just know, I feel mad or sad or happy. And then you, it gets into greater and greater nuances, or I feel anxious or I feel lonely, or, you know, you can start to get really granular with your feelings, but you first have to stop shutting yourself down when you feel. Yeah.

Emotions Wheel, Feelings wheel, impostor syndrome, naming your feelings
Here’s a feelings or emotions wheel to help you name your feelings and overcome impostor syndrome

RP: Yes. Just being able to name that can often lead you to, well, what’s happening, what it can lead you to either there’s something I’m needing or there’s something happening in the room that I’m assessing. And it would help me to just name that, like I’m feeling anxious. Well, what’s happening there. Why what’s making me feel anxious. Well, there’s somebody in the room that I don’t totally trust and it’s because of what they said yesterday. Right. But if you and that’s good information, those are your instincts, right? That’s good information that can guide you towards your next steps. It doesn’t mean you have to stay stuck in anxiety. It actually can be very empowering to just be able to say I’m feeling anxious and that is not a problem with me. It is something that I can take in and do something about.

impostor syndrome impacted by covid 19

MT: That’s so true. And I feel like if we’re gonna survive this time with multiple competing crises, you know, a crumbling medical system, COVID 19, still running around crazy climate crisis you know, et cetera, we need to be able to name our feelings and the people around us, so that there’s space for us to just let the feeling be there rather than moving on quickly to the next thing. And I think that a lot of grant proposals and nonprofits are set up for people to really just kind of like name the problem and quickly move to doing nearly just need to feel first. Yeah. Cause the feeling is information. I mean, it’s not it’s subjective, it’s subjective information and you can treat it as subjective information. It’s not you know, it’s but it’s still information and it’s information about you, right? Yeah.

MT: Yeah. You know, you mentioned shame a little bit and I wondered if we could talk about that a little bit. Like, you know, you also mentioned representation and how important that is. And I feel like a lot of white led organizations don’t really understand that, who get celebrated, who making all that stuff. So you know, I wonder how is that related to shame?

Do people feel more shame because they don’t see themselves celebrated and represented?

RP: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s a really deep question how that works and I mean, all I can share is just my own sense of having looked at that within myself. And other people may have their own different experiences of it. But what I have noticed is that when I have looked at you know, my own feelings of, so for me, one way imposter syndrome shows up is feeling small or insignificant and or intimidated. Right. And I am in all of those, I am comparing myself to an image. Right. And it’s an image I’ve internalized of. What, so in the context of being a leader, what a leader looks like, you know, and when I check that out, it’s, you know, I remember many years ago, I always had the sense of leaders being very tall. Like they had to be tall.

RP: Right. And and I I think I picked that up from just many, many years of having that image be, and I internalize, internalize the image, but once I realize it’s an image that I’ve internalized, I can start to let it go look for other images, realizing that’s all, it’s all just made up order. It’s a lie it’s some of it is made up and some of it is just a right. It’s just an out and out lie. Yeah, so I think that that I, that feeling of, I don’t really belong here. Somebody once said something to me many, many years ago when I was in a really vulnerable place. And they said just by virtue of being born, like belonging is your birthright. And that just feels very true on a fundamental level. It’s kind of, you can’t really argue with it. I’m here. Aren’t I, right. Yeah. And so the idea that there’s criteria for belonging that I don’t measure up, well, those are, those are the images around who belongs, that are held in the collective consciousness that we all internalize to some degree. And one way of getting more free from that is looking at that inside. Anytime, anytime you feel small or you don’t fit in just looking at that image.

MT: I really appreciate you sharing that. I have a friend from the nondominant culture who wears a veil and she she occasionally goes outside without it. And she’s like, wow. It’s like night and day how people treat me.

RP: And I think what a lot of dominant culture folks don’t understand is how othering it can be to exist in a body that isn’t white in American culture. Cause of all the images around that show, this is who a leader is. This is who gets to be in charge. So yes.

And that’s hard to deal with whether you feel shame or not. Yeah. Right. Yeah. because you can feel fully, you know, in love with yourself, but then you deal with, then you, you come to face with somebody who has in their mind an image of who belongs and who doesn’t and you don’t fit it. And so something comes outta their mouth yeah. To make that clear. And it’s easier to deal with if you don’t feel the shame, but it’s still there.

MT: Oh yeah. It’s subtle how we tell someone they don’t belng. I mean, it can be a simple question. Like where are you from?

MT: I really appreciate that perspective. And you’re actually reminding me of the book Collecting Courage that came out last year with Nneka Allen and some other folks from Canada talking about, you know, similar experiences to the ones that you’re describing. Somebody being like, oh, we wanted to hire you. But then this person like more like a leader, like literally saying that, and it was a tall way. Wow. Oh yeah. Goodness. Oh yeah, no, no. It’s in the book. It made me cry. It gave me goosebumps. People go to . They can see a playlist, but definitely by the book they’re coming out with a new workbook for it this year, which we’re gonna do an event around in November which I’m really excited about. But yeah, this is a problem that is extremely blatant. It can be just straight up what people say and as well as what they do. So for organizations that wanna do better with this, just, it sounds like what you’re saying is it’s not a quick fix. It’s something that’s endemic and that you shouldn’t push on individuals.

RP: It’s not about, you know, helping, I think we can work all sides of the issue. I think we don’t need to push individuals, but we do need to support them. right. And cuz it can be genuinely hard to exist in these spaces. Right. And we love our nonprofit. I love our nonprofit leaders. I think that they’re doing important work. Almost all of my clients are women are people of color or both. And I really believe in what they’re trying to do and I think they deserve support and need it. And so I think we support the individuals. But we all it’s, but the support of the individuals in service is in service of finding collective solutions. I think it is hard to do one without the other. Cuz if you’re trying to make changes on a systemic level, who’s making that change. Right. Right. People who are afraid to name the problem that they might be blamed. either because they’re in a dominant position and they’re trying to protect themselves or because they are, have imposter syndrome or for whatever reason nobody wants to carry all that. So how do we work together and what kind of leaders, what kind of leadership capacities do we need in order to do that? To kind of look at it from both sides? 

MT: I think so. That’s why people should hire you to figure that out is what you’re saying. Right. Cause I think you’re great at it. Like I’m just saying right now, come on, we live under capitalism. Tell us how to hire you and where to find you and the stuff you have coming up. 

RP: Thank you. It’s very nice of you. I am pretty good at it actually. yeah. So yeah, if people wanna hear me talk more about this, I’m gonna be at the Alliance center online in a virtual be doing a work virtual workshop, the Alliance center in Denver on the 26th of September.  You and I will be at the Montana Nonprofit Association Virtual Conference. I’ll be there on the 26th. It’s a two day conference. And then I have, if folks want more individual support. I have a freebie I offer, so I have a process that I walk people through that I call impact mapping. 

I can help you quickly locate where you’re stuck. Start to find a way forward. And imposter syndrome is one way, one of the very common ways that people get stuck and I’ve noticed some patterns around how that happens and what tends to work. So because of that I can often help. We can often get a lot done and that 30 minutes. So if you’re a nonprofit leader and you’re not having the impact, you wish you could have, you can sign up for one of those free sessions at .

MT: And we’ll have that in the show notes as well, slash match your impact, map your impact. Thank you. Excellent. this has been a very enlightening conversation and I really, really appreciate you Reva for coming on. Thank you.

RP: You’re welcome. Thank you so much.

If you have impostor syndrome and you’re wondering what the next step is, definitely reach out to Reva or reach out to the Asking for More Mastermind. We can work with you to see the structural reasons why you have impostor syndrome and ask for more from the systems around you.




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