Let's talk about Impostor Syndrome
What is Impostor Syndrome?
Impostor Syndrome is the feeling that you are a ‘fraud’ and will get found out that you are not good enough. The term was first coined in 1978 by 2 psychologists, Dr Pauline Clance and Dr Suzanne Imes, when they found that high performing women, no matter their accomplishments, still remained convinced they didn’t deserve their success or accolades and that they were in fact a fraud. These successful, amazing women dismissed their successes as luck or some kind of deception on their part in convincing someone they were better than they actually are. (Reference: The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention)
Feelings of being an impostor can be fluid - meaning they can ebb and flow over time - with some periods of your life where you feel very much like an impostor, and other times you will have the inner confidence in your abilities. You can also experience feeling like an impostor in one area of your life, for example, your career, but feel totally confident in another, for example, your relationships.
Do I suffer more with Impostor Syndrome because I’m a woman?
Clance and Imes' original research was focused on high achieving women, but further research has shown that men are just as likely to be affected by this phenomenon. Amy Cuddy, in her brilliant book, Presence, reports other studies suggest as many as 70% of the population will struggle with Impostor Syndrome at some point in their lives, and that Pauline Clance later said she wishes they had called this the Impostor Experience due to it not being a “syndrome, complex or mental illness; it is something almost everyone experiences”.
Although men experience impostor syndrome as much as women, reactions to handling these feelings, and the fact women are more likely to share their concerns and insecurities mean that it may still be more recognisable in [some] women. Coupled with the fact that women sometimes feel showing confidence will lead to some sort of rejection or double standard - for example, an assertive woman being described as bossy, which shouldn’t happen but unfortunately still sometimes does; so a way to avoid this is to not put any value on your unique attributes, which then becomes self-fulfilling prophecy in terms of how you see yourself.
Why do I feel like I’m an impostor?
You may be affected by feelings of being an impostor because you think in a polarised way - they are perfect; I am not. This is due to your own self awareness. You can easily recall all the times you did something wrong, the struggles you had in learning a new task, writing your dissertation or understanding a particular concept, an off-hand comment that was said to you - and this is all internalised. It is almost like you see yourself as ‘acting’ rather than really feeling like you are 'being’ a certain way.
You then compare this to others. But the others are the images you see - the airbrushed celebrities, the instagram/facebook life, your manager that seems so cool, calm and collected always. You do not think about their struggles, that maybe they didn’t find everything easy, that they make mistakes. You take an external view only - you see what they are showing the world, not what they are necessarily feeling. You don’t see them as acting but that is the way they are.
Both these views are your truth but the comparison isn’t fair: you are taking your external view of them and saying they are fully deserving of their status/situation - this is who they are, and they are definitely not an impostor; and because you are acutely aware of everything you have been through in your life you feel that you are not deserving because you don’t think you compare to them, thus you must be an impostor.
However, you are not comparing apples with apples - well, not fairly anyway. You are comparing the cut open core of your apple with their full, juicy, super shined up apple, that is ready for displaying.
How can Impostor Syndrome affect my life?
If you are feel like an impostor, it can manifest in many ways but some of the common signs are:
When you are holding yourself to an impossibly high standard, the risk is that every time you are less than perfect, it further increases your feelings that you are an impostor - because if you weren’t you would be able to achieve these high standards, right?
This is one I totally relate to, where you put in more and more hours and risk burnout as you want to do a great job and instead of working smarter, or accepting you are doing a great job already, you just feel you need to work harder to prove yourself.
Undermining your achievements
For example, saying your degree was from a lower ranked university that anyone could have got into, or that no-one else applied for the job which is why you got it. You dismiss your achievements, but by undermining yourself you are cementing those feelings that you are an impostor because you haven’t internalised the achievement and value of this.
Fear of failure
So struggling with impostor syndrome means you are already scared of being found out as a fraud, but you add to your ongoing anxiety and worry by wanting to be perfect, and when you are not, living with that fear of failure. I love the saying ‘what would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?’ But what if there was no failure, just feedback? Yes, some mistakes are bigger than others, but the majority can be corrected or learnt from. And sometimes that fear of failure will hold you back to such a degree that your absolute genius cannot come through - you don't ask the pertinent question, you don't offer the amazing solution. Please don’t stop showing up because of your fear of failure.
How do I overcome Impostor Syndrome?
Below are some ideas that I've found particularly useful:
Reframe your feelings
We all have a comfort zone so anytime you go outside of this, you are growing and developing and those feelings of being an impostor may emerge. As adults, we don’t seem to be great at embracing the learning experience and put undue pressure on ourselves to just know how to do whatever it is we are attempting to do. You wouldn’t expect children to just ‘know’ how to do something, but do you expect yourself to be able to do anything and everything well, and, if you can’t then you conclude that you are some sort of failure or fraud?
You often feel like an impostor when you are trying something new - for example, a new job role, a promotion, or even a new hobby or leisure activity. Accept that when you are learning something new these feelings are natural for you and part of the change cycle. They are actually a good thing as they mean you are learning and growing - and you can let go of the need to be perfect [at this stage].
Remember you are not alone
With an estimated 70% of people experiencing impostor syndrome at some stage of their lives, this is an experience the majority of us share. People probably don’t realise you are struggling with these feelings, because you are awesome at what you do, which is the same way you have no idea that 7 out of 10 people you know have struggled at some point in their lives in exactly the same way you are now.
Write down past achievements
And then internalise these! It can show you what you’ve overcome previously, how things that seemed impossible at the time are now things you take for granted, and that you have a lot of resilience and resources when facing into varied and sometimes challenging situations. Yes, you may be facing into something different, but knowing this is a curve that may be difficult for a bit, but you have your own evidence that you can ride this out and it will become easier, and you can achieve, can give you inner confidence in your abilities to cope and be resourceful.
Create a plan
Think about your ideal situation - where you know you wouldn’t feel like an impostor. Identify what you genuinely need to learn and develop and then get the help you need. This help could be a mentor, talking to your manager if you trust them and feel it is appropriate, or working towards a new qualification. Also identify your own transferable skills and create a time-lined plan that has small steps for how to get from where you are today to where you want to be - and then celebrate your wins along the way.
I have created a free 3 step guide to overcoming impostor syndrome to help guide you through this process - sign up here to receive a copy direct to your inbox!