Are you an imposter?

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A regular conversation I am having with clients now seems to be around their lack of confidence and self-doubt, which in many ways can be good for you but left unchecked it can be really debilitating.

In 1978 Pauline Clance & Suzanne Ament Imes introduced the concept of the Imposter Syndrome in their article entitled “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention”. Initially their focus was on how this affliction affected women, however over the years there have been numerous studies citing incidents in both men and women, and my own anecdotal evidence would suggest that it is a growing condition amongst all genders and ages.

 So, what are we talking about and what is the difference between feeling like an imposter, feeling naturally scared about taking a risk and manipulating the room to feel sorry for you so they will support you.

In my experience the majority of business people I have worked with over the past 30+ years have experienced what could be described as “imposter syndrome” at some point in their career, and the five types of fear that Clance and Imes identified are pretty consistent:-

  • The Perfectionist. The primary focus for this individual is “how” something is done. This includes how the work is conducted and how it turns out. One minor flaw in an otherwise perfect performance or 99 out of 100 equals failure and thus shame.
    • Ask yourself these questions:
      • Have you ever been accused of being a micromanager?
      • Do you have great difficulty delegating? Even when you can do so, do you feel frustrated and disappointed in the results?
      • When you miss the (ridiculously high) mark on something, do you accuse yourself of being a failure at your job and ruminate on it for days?
      • Do you feel like your work must be 100% perfect, 100% of the time?
  • The Expert. The primary focus for this individual is “what” and “how much” you know or can do, because you expect to know everything, even a minor lack of knowledge denotes failure and shame.
    • Ask yourself these questions:
      • Do you shy away from applying for a job unless you meet every single educational requirement?
      • Are you constantly seeking out trainings or certifications because you think you need to improve your skills to succeed?
      • Even if you have been in your role for some time, can you relate to feeling like you still do not know “enough?”
  • The Soloist. This individual cares mostly about “who” completes the task. To make it on the achievement list, it must be you and you alone. You think you need to do and figure out everything on your own, needing help is a sign of failure that evokes shame.
    • Ask yourself these questions:
      • Do you firmly feel that you need to accomplish things on your own?
      • “I don’t need anyone’s help.” Does that sound like you?
      • Do you frame requests in terms of the requirements of the project, rather than your needs as a person?
  • The Natural Genius This individual also cares about “how” and “when” accomplishments happen. But for them, competence is measured in terms of ease and speed of success. The fact that they must struggle to master a subject or skill or that they are not able to achieve their goals on the first try equals failure which evokes shame.
    • Ask yourself these questions:
      • Are you used to excelling without much effort?
      • Do you have a track record of getting “straight A’s” in everything you do?
      • Were you told frequently as a child that you were the “smart one” in your family or peer group?
      • Do you dislike the idea of having a mentor, because you can handle things on your own?
      • When you are faced with a setback, does your confidence tumble because not performing well provokes a feeling of shame?
      • Do you often avoid challenges because it is so uncomfortable to try something, you are not great at?
  • The Superwoman/Superman This individual measure their ability based on “how many” roles they can both juggle and excel in. Falling short in any role as a parent, partner, friend, or volunteer all evoke shame because they feel they should be able to handle it all perfectly and easily.
    • Ask yourself these questions:
      • Do you stay later at the office than the rest of your team, even past the point that you have completed that day’s necessary work?
      • Do you get stressed when you are not working and find downtime completely wasteful?
      • Have you left your hobbies and passions fall by the wayside, sacrificed to work?
      • Do you feel like you have not truly earned your title (despite numerous degrees and achievements), so you feel pressed to work harder and longer than those around you to prove your worth?

I am sure that looking through this list you can recognise when you have worried about one or maybe even all these things. So, when does it become a syndrome or condition?

Imposters’ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence. They seem unable to internalize their accomplishments, however successful they are in their field. High achieving, highly successful people often suffer, so imposter syndrome does not equate with low self-esteem or a lack of self-confidence.

We can all have doubt in our capabilities, and we can all question our focus, but when it becomes a debilitating habit that we cannot find our way out of then it becomes destructive and needs to be addressed.

Fortunately, there are some simple things we can do to manage our fear, and here are six steps you can take to regain control: –

  1. Recognise what is going on. This may sound obvious, but we rarely can see a problem when we are inside the problem. Taking time to step back, breath and think about how you feel in each situation gives you a perspective from which you can build.
  • Rewrite your mental programmes. Instead of telling yourself they are going to find you out or that you don’t deserve success, remind yourself that it’s normal not to know everything and that you will find out more as you progress. Become consciously aware of the conversation going on in your head when you are in a situation that triggers your Impostor feelings. This is your internal script. Then instead of thinking, “Wait till they find out I have no idea what I’m doing,” tell yourself “Everyone who starts something new feels insecure in the beginning. I may not know all the answers but I’m smart enough to find them out.” Instead of looking around the room and thinking, “Oh my God everyone here is brilliant…. and I am not” go with “Wow, everyone here is brilliant – I’m really going to learn a lot!”
  • Break the silence. Know you are not alone.

When you have impostor syndrome, some of the most important encouragement comes from realizing how many hugely successful people, both male and female, have built amazing careers even while regularly coping with it. Everyone needs help, so recognise that you can seek assistance and that you do not have to do everything alone. This will give you a good reality check and help you talk things through.

  • Separate feelings from fact. There are times you will feel stupid. It happens to everyone from time to time. Realize that just because you may feel stupid, does not mean you are. Reframe failure as a learning opportunity. Find out the lessons and use them constructively in future.
  • Recognize when you should feel fraudulent.  There is taking humility in your hard work and accomplishments, and then there’s feeling overcome with fear because of them. Sometimes, simply being good at something can cause you to discount its value. It is possible to feel worthy without feeling entitled and overcoming impostor syndrome is all about finding a healthy balance between the two. Humility and worthiness have nothing at all to do with defending our territory. We do not have to feel like a fraud to also be gracious, open, or humble.
  • Visualize success. Do what professional athletes do. Spend time beforehand picturing yourself making a successful presentation or calmly posing your question in the boardroom. Its sure beats picturing impending disaster and will help with performance-related stress.

In short be gentle with yourself and break the cycle of continually seeking and then dismissing validation outside of yourself by learning to pat yourself on the back for a job well done, and if you really want to make it stick, keep a journal of your successes. It becomes as reminder of all the things that make you the successful person everyone else can see.

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