What is Impostor Syndrome? What makes it rear its ugly head? and What can we do to stop it holding us back?
Expressions of self-doubt that shout “IMPOSTOR SYNDROME” pop up frequently in my sessions with clients:
"They had to give me the promotion, I'd just come back from maternity leave"
“I fear that they will think I’m incompetent or an idiot”
"They didn’t want to go through an expensive external recruitment process”
"They seem to think I know stuff, they’ll catch me out one day!”
But what is it?
You’ve probably heard the term Impostor Syndrome, possibly talked about it with friends, maybe felt it resonate with you, but what exactly is it?
Well, it is not a disease or a psychiatric disorder as the term may suggest. Impostor Syndrome is a feeling, an experience, a phenomenon where we feel unworthy of our achievements and successes.
The term “Impostor syndrome” was coined by psychologists Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes in the 1978, describing it as: “internal experience of intellectual phoniness” (Clance, Pauline R.; Imes, Suzanne A. (1978)).
According to the experts 70% of us will experience Impostor Syndrome at some point in our life.
When we experience Impostor Syndrome we believe that we are less competent than others think we are. Therefore we feel that we do not deserve our achievements and successes, despite external evidence to the contrary. We believe that we are tricking or pulling a fast one on those around us, and fear that sooner or later we will get found out. We attribute success to luck, the doings of others or to working overtly hard to get there. We do not credit our own capability.
What impact does it have on us?
Impostor Syndrome (also known as Impostor Phenomenon) can lead to anxiety, frustration and low self-esteem. Through our self-doubts we hold an image of others as being more intelligent, more skilled, more able to succeed than us. We think our own thoughts aren’t worthy of attention. It may therefore hinder us from fulfilling our potential and ambitions. It might prevent us from applying to certain jobs or sharing our views and ideas.
Impostor Syndrome tends to grow with greater success and achievement, rather than dispel. It is enhanced when we operate outside our comfort zone because anxieties arise when we are faced with new things, making our internal impostor question our own capabilities.
Even famously highly successful people can suffer from Impostor Syndrome. Writer/poet Maya Angelou and Albert Einstein both openly expressed feeling that their work did not deserve the attention it got.
Does it affect women more than men?
The findings of Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes were based on a study of high achieving women. At that time they asserted that the phenomenon affects women far more than men. More recent research however has found that it affects men and women equally.
There has been much debate on whether women are more likely to experience Impostor Syndrome then men. Dr. Valerie Young, an expert on the topic, highlights why women may be more susceptible to it in her book “The secret thoughts of successful Women” (2011):
”While the impostor syndrome is not unique to women, they are more likely to agonize over tiny mistakes and blame themselves for failure, see even constructive criticism as evidence of their shortcomings; and chalk up their accomplishments to luck rather than skill. When they do succeed, they think ‘Phew, I fooled ‘em again.’ Perpetually waiting to be “unmasked” doesn’t just drain a woman’s energy and confidence. It can make her more risk-averse and less self-promoting than her male peers, which can hurt her future success.”
So, how can we confront Impostor Syndrome?
Does the above resonate with you? Imagine what you could achieve if you truly believed you made all your successes happen. Not through luck, overtly hard work or by pulling the wool over people's eyes, but through your own capabilities, skills, personality and intelligence.
We can not avoid or totally get rid of Impostor Syndrome. Anxiety and self-doubt are part of human nature; they are mechanisms for preempting danger and risk. Some level of anxiety is OK and can, in fact, be healthy in helping us understand the limits of our current capabilities so that we can grow.
Here are some tips for not allowing Impostor Syndrome to hold you back from reaching your ambitions and potential:
1) Recognise it. Just knowing that Impostor Syndrome is a thing, and that most people experience it can help us come to terms with our own self-doubt and anxieties. Notice and acknowledge it for what it is, learn to recognise the impostor in you when it rears its ugly head.
2) Talk about it. Talking about Impostor Syndrome will reassure you that others experience the same thoughts and feelings. Work with a coach or mentor to help unravel the triggers of your own Impostor Syndrome and to develop your own defence mechanisms.
3) Notice and celebrate your achievements. If someone gives you a compliment accept it with a “thanks” then think about and appreciate what it says about you.
When anxiety creeps in think about where you’ve come from and where you are heading and all the things your have accomplished on the way. In the moment of anxiety we often feel we are not moving.
4) Reframe how you think about your capabilities. If your self-doubt says “I can’t do that” look at where “that” is compared to your comfort zone. Maybe you can’t do “that” yet, that’s not to say you never will. Explore how it would feel or look to achieve "that” and then reframe it as “I can do that if I do X, Y, Z” or "if that looked like this I could do it" (and then make a plan to get there!).
Dr. Valerie Young talks about reframing in her TED Talk: Thinking Your Way Out of Impostor Syndrome.
5) Learn from your mistakes. Treat your mistakes as learning opportunities, not inherent flaws. Don’t look back with regret or shame but look at what you can now change or do as a result of that experience. Try not to dwell on critical feedback - learn from it.
6) Know your Values. Be clear on your values and don't try to be something you are not. Do not compare yourself to others or try to be like them. Be authentically you and trust that your passion and values will shine through.
(See my earlier post on Understanding your Personal Values)
Impostor Syndrome and me
I experienced impostor syndrome for a number of years without realising what it was. I felt I did not have the right skills and experience to fulfill the role I was in, and yet I’d been promoted into it (because, I believed, I was in the right place at the right time). I can see now how my self-doubt limited my courage to go for new opportunities or try new things, it prevented me from growing. I can now look back and learn from this experience, I am far more aware of when Impostor Syndrome creeps in. I name it (“the wobbles”) and challenge it. I talk to peers and my coach about it. We give it a pretty hard time! It is still there, but I feel better equipped to keep it at bay and not let it hold me back!
Reading / listening that informed this Blog: