WHAT IS IMPOSTER SYNDROME?
Imposter syndrome is that dirty little secret you carry round – the fear of being ‘found out’.
Otherwise known as ‘imposter phenomenon’, it is a psychological term established in a 1970’s study of professional women. Research revealed these women couldn’t internalise their successes and accomplishments, only their failures. Instead, they put their achievements down to luck, being in the right place at the right time or believing they never had to work for it.
Imposter syndrome has two key aspects:
1. It’s feeling like a fraud despite evidence of your accomplishments and success;
2. Feeling unworthy despite those achievements.
Further research and more recent public discussion on imposter syndrome has primarily centred around women. This is for two reasons. Number one, women are frequently the minority in the business world – think fewer female executives or leaders in male dominated industries. Number two, due to social conditioning, men are more likely to put themselves out there and ‘fake it till they make it.’
For example, in my former recruitment career, I found men generally threw their hat in the ring for a new job or promotion, even if they met few of the key criteria. Women on the other hand, were more likely to hold themselves back if they didn’t tick all the boxes.
However, imposter syndrome affects everyone – including men and women equally.
WHAT CAUSES IMPOSTER SYNDROME?
Imposter syndrome is common amongst high-achievers who value mastery, integrity and excellence. It’s caused by an internal fear of not being good enough, or feeling like a failure, regardless of how experienced and successful you are.
Like your fears, imposter syndrome occurs in response to a perceived threat. It’s a survival function, designed to keep you safe — to protect you from being exposed as a fraud. Imposter syndrome prevents you from taking action, makes you doubt yourself and your abilities.
In response, you adopt a number of unhealthy strategies to cope with imposter syndrome. These include perfectionism, procrastination, comparison syndrome, people pleasing and struggling to put boundaries in place. Perfectionism in particular is highly prevalent amongst high-achievers — and often the root cause of those ‘fraudy feelings’ and not feeling good enough.
WHAT’S THE IMPACT?
Imposter syndrome often shows up when you’re beginning something new or doing it for the first time. For example, when you’re starting out in a new career, role or industry and have unrealistic expectations about competency.
It can cause stress, anxiety, lack of self-belief and feelings of shame. Your diminishing confidence stops you showing up in a meaningful way. And you begin to see your self-doubt as confirmation that you’re truly incapable.
Imposter syndrome creates a number of false thoughts and limiting beliefs. You might tell yourself:
- You’re not ready yet – you need more experience, training, or to do another course before you launch your business;
- That your previous success was a fluke and you’ll never be able to repeat it;
- You don’t have anything interesting, unique or important to say;
- You’re going to fail.
All of these thoughts keep you stuck and out of action — which is exactly what imposter syndrome is trying to achieve.
HOW DO YOU MANAGE IMPOSTER SYNDROME?
Imposter syndrome is a constant challenge for everyone, but I’ve learnt to keep those fraudy feelings in check most of the time. Discover how to disrupt the cycle of imposter syndrome using the following strategies.
#1 — REFRAME YOUR THOUGHTS
As discussed above, a number of limiting beliefs accompany imposter syndrome. But remember — you always have a choice about what to believe and how you respond to those unhelpful thoughts.
Next time you catch yourself in one of these lies, flip the script. Ask yourself — is this true? Then replace it with a healthier, more positive thought.
- ‘Everyone is going to figure out I have NO IDEA what I’m doing’ becomes ‘I’m doing this for the first time – it’s normal to feel self-doubt.’
- Change ‘You’re not ready yet’ to ‘You are ready – you have everything you need.’
- ‘It’s only time before I fail’ reframed to ‘What are the possibilities?’
- ‘I’m not good enough’ becomes ‘I am worthy.’
#2 — ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR FEARS
Fears and negative feelings hold you back from taking action. Fears aren’t ‘bad’ — they’re trying to protect you and keep you safe. However, you must do the internal work first before you can move ahead.
So, face the fear, acknowledge it and understand what it’s trying to tell you. Then, decide what you need to take on board and forget the rest.
#3 — ISOLATE FACT FROM FEELINGS
If you become stuck in self-doubt, remind yourself of past successes and what you’ve already achieved. Look for evidence — a time where you wanted to achieve something difficult and did.
Then ask yourself — what were the learnings? What were the beliefs and actions that allowed you to be successful?
Finally, acknowledge you have the ability to be successful and accomplish what you want.
#4 — CELEBRATE SUCCESSES & LEARN FROM MISTAKES
When you’re experiencing imposter syndrome, you’re unable to internalise success and fear failure. Creating habits and practices to acknowledge and celebrate your successes and learn from your mistakes is crucial to effectively manage imposter syndrome.
This is particularly important if you’re suffering from perfectionism. Celebrate your progress, reward success, take small steps and focus on doing work that’s ‘good enough’ rather than trying to be perfect. Finally, reframe how you see failure and mistakes — focus on learning and growth, rather than beating yourself up.
There are two structures that can support you with this. Firstly, review your successes and mistakes by writing them down on a regular basis. I do this by creating a monthly task list which I update quarterly and annually. This allows me to look back on what I’ve achieved throughout the year, as well as where the gaps are and what I’ve learnt from them.
Second, gather proof. Keep a running list of compliments, positive feedback and client testimonials. Review these anytime you’re feeling like an imposter as a reminder of your achievements and abilities.
#5 — SPEAK UP
Imposter syndrome keeps you stuck and holds you back from putting yourself out there. This leaves you alone and isolated from people around you. Connecting with others, speaking up and sharing those fraudy feelings is a way to overcome it.
Shame stops people from speaking up. As Brené Brown says: ‘Shame derives its power from being unspeakable’.
Feelings of shame can be overcome through vulnerability and courage. You can do this by talking to others about your imposter syndrome — friends, colleagues, a mentor or coach. By sharing your feelings, you’ll know you’re not alone and will show others they aren’t either.
#6 — TAKE ACTION
Limiting beliefs and ‘fraudy feelings’ will always be there, so the answer isn’t to stop or overcome them.
You control where you focus your energy and attention. When you take action, you’re too busy to think about imposter syndrome. If you get stuck in limiting thoughts, move into action.
Don’t wait until you ‘feel confident’ before putting yourself out there. Courage comes from taking risks. Taking action is the key to getting unstuck and as you do, your confidence grows.
We all suffer from imposter syndrome at some point, regardless of how talented and accomplished we are. Feeling like a fraud can hold you back in your career, yet it’s possible to manage it.
These strategies have helped me and many of my clients break the cycle of imposter syndrome and move into action. I hope these tips assist you too.