I spent Monday anxious. I’d come off the long weekend in a bad headspace, having come down with an almighty virus on Wednesday, and subsequently missed all the long weekend action with my friends in favour of laying horizontal, only rising to sneeze and cough my organs out.

I didn’t get the rest I wanted, and heading into my first full week back at work after our 3 week trip around the US just wasn’t my vibe. I’d also had Monday at the back of my mind for a while, as it was the day I was due to start working on some work for a new freelance client. I’d lined up a couple of things to kick off that week, and for some reason this one thing was nagging at me.

My head was foggy all day at work, knowing it was looming over me that night to get stuck into this project. I couldn’t think clearly. I could feel the work piling up in front of me, and the only vision I had was me being unable to do it. I couldn’t see any reality where I could complete that work and have the client be happy with it.

I was looking at the tasks and drawing a blank. I tried going for my lunchtime walk and listening to a podcast to try and find the answers or motivation, but I didn’t absorb any lightbulb moments or take much of it in. My thoughts were whurring and the resounding message was “I have no idea what I’m doing”.

Classic case of imposter syndrome. Bingo.

What triggers imposter syndrome?

I find with bouts of imposter syndrome that the “seed” that kicks it all off – the trigger – is usually a task or to-do list item that I haven’t yet started. Often it’s when something has been coming for a while, that I have the time to start drifting into imposter zone. If it’s a quick turnaround deadline, you just get on with it. But when it’s in the pipeline, my brain is like “oh goodie you’ve left me enough time to convince you that you suck”.

Once the seed is planted, it grows, and spreads to other areas. Suddenly that freelance project I was anxious about had me crippled and unable to get anything done at my day job. Staring at a scribbled list in my notebook, I knew what I had to do, but I just couldn’t do it.

Then began the frantic Googling, trying to fix it. Trying to fill this gap in knowledge I convinced myself I had.

“Maybe I can binge watch a YouTube tutorial tonight and then it’ll all make sense.”

“Maybe I’ll just tell them I can’t do it anymore.”

“Why did I think I had the skills to do this?”

Unsurprisingly, I didn’t find the answers I was looking for, because I already knew what to do – my brain had just convinced myself I didn’t.

Sitting in the discomfort

That evening, I sat down with my laptop, and instead of diving in in a panic and ending up in more of a frenzy, I tackled the beast. The beast wasn’t the project. The beast was my mind.

I allowed myself the time to sit in the discomfort; to let that icky feeling rise to the surface for a while. Then, I questioned that inner dialogue.

Why is this making you feel uncomfortable?

Most of the time, there’s no answer. You just need that unanswerable question to linger for a while until your brain fills in the gaps on its own.

It feels icky, it feels gross. But the benefit of allowing yourself to feel that discomfort is that you’ll realise there’s absolutely no reason behind it. The unanswerable question is the solution in itself. You can’t answer why you think you can’t do it, because you can.

If you really couldn’t, you’d have an answer.

If you’d taken on a project in French when you can’t speak French, your answer would be “I can’t speak French!”.

But when you’ve taken on a project that’s well within your skillset and you’re stuck thinking you can’t do it, you won’t have a concrete answer – because you absolutely can do it.

Eventually, I found the gusto to put pen to paper (aka finger to keyboard) and start working through it. The clarity started to emerge, and I was back on track. Still a little wobbly, of course, but that fire had started to burn again and I knew if I really put my mind to it, I did know this stuff.

Next time you feel a bout of imposter syndrome coming on, try letting yourself sit in the discomfort and let that unanswerable question rise. If you do find yourself answering the question with “because I can’t do ….”, unpack those answers. You might need to dig a little deeper. Why can’t you do that thing? Haven’t you done that thing before? Do you not have the tools to do that thing?

The unanswerable question will come, and so will your clarity.