Hands up if any of these ring a bell:
You often find yourself chalking up your success to timing, luck, or someone else’s error.
Downplaying your accomplishments as “if I can do it anyone can.”
Maybe you frequently find yourself agonising over the smallest flaws in your work. Beating yourself up when you make a mistake out of fear you don’t measure up.
Criticism is crushing, even the most constructive and well-intended sends your inner mind chatter into overdrive with supposed evidence of how incompetent you are.
Believing that if something is hard it must be because you’re not good enough or smart enough.
Lying awake at night worrying yourself into insomnia about how long it’s going to be before you get found out and everyone realises you simply aren’t good enough.
Welcome to Imposter Syndrome
Resonating with one or more of those? If so, welcome to imposter syndrome.
You’re certainly not on your own in the Imposter Syndrome club. Hundreds and thousands of others, just like you are already signed up, and you all have a lot in common.
Typically, high achievers, someone who always delivers no matter what. Perceived by people around you as capable, intelligent, and talented, yet someone who believes none of those things to be true. No matter how much praise and feedback you’re given you quietly believe you’re only just scraping through, and someone is going to call you out on your fraudulence sometime soon.
What is it?
The term ‘imposter syndrome’ dates back to an article published in 1978 by American psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. It’s now described by the Cambridge English Dictionary as “the feeling that your achievements are not real or that you do not deserve praise or success.”
Although originally the research believed women were more likely to be affected by imposter syndrome than men, evidence today suggests it’s just as prevalent in men.
In fact, according to Google, which will throw up no end of articles on imposter syndrome, evidence suggests that approximately 70% of us will experience it at some point in our lives (Sakuiku & Alexander, 2011).
It’s more than self-doubt
There’s a lot of misunderstanding about imposter syndrome out there. I frequently come across articles or social media posts which confuse imposter syndrome for a lack of self-confidence or self-esteem. Many even go so far as to say it can be good for you – it’s not!
Imposter Syndrome is so much more than a confidence issue. It’s about what your brain takes the lack of confidence to ‘mean’ about you, so that it becomes an identity level issue. A false belief about who you think you are, as opposed to what you do.
For most people these beliefs are sub-conscious. All they know is that they feel like they’re not good enough.
“IT’S NOT WHAT YOU ARE THAT HOLDS YOU BACK, IT’S WHAT YOU THINK YOU ARE NOT.”
– Denis Waitley
Whilst most of us will experience imposter syndrome at some point, for many it lies dormant, triggered into play by uncertain situations that stretch you out of the safety of your comfort zone. Whether it’s starting a new role, or taking on something new, the often-self-imposed pressure to achieve and succeed, combined with a lack of experience can trigger feelings of inadequacy.
Recognising imposter syndrome behaviours
The most common imposter syndrome behaviours tend to show up in the following ways:
- Self-sabotaging. Procrastinating over the task. Using busyness to avoid taking action, driven by a conviction that you lack the ability needed. The result being a frantic last-minute all-nighter to get the job done. You’re a high achiever so you always deliver but you end up haunted by feelings that it’s not your best work.
- Avoidance. Pretending the scary thing isn’t there. You delay submitting drafts, avoiding putting that meeting in the diary, or worse, turning down opportunities for fear of failure.
- Persistent anxiety about standards. This goes beyond having high standards. It’s a drive for perfectionism that leaves you perpetually dissatisfied. Always believing it could have been better. Over-preparing and fixating on even the smallest of mistakes. Even the most sensitive of criticism feels like a personal failure and strike at the core of who you are.
- People Pleasing. Finding yourself taking on things you don’t need to, fuelled by a desire to feel safe and accepted. An inability to be assertive with those you deem to have more social power and saying “no” feels so far out of reach for fear of rejection.
- Inability to enjoy achievements. Writing off praise and positive feedback as ‘luck’ or ‘anyone can do it’. Unable to internalise your own personal success for fear of ‘tempting fate’ and failing next time.
All these behaviours reinforce that personal conviction that you lack ability, fuelling the false belief that you’re not good enough.
What could you achieve if you didn’t feel this way?
Like me, you may have read those articles that tell you how imposter syndrome can be a benefit to us, driving us to work harder and therefore perform better. From my own experience, this isn’t true. We learn to live with our imposter syndrome and succeed in spite of it, not because of it.
Imposter syndrome doesn’t mean you can’t perform. It means you feel anxious and miserable in the process of performing. With a heightened risk of burnout and serious mental health problems in the most extreme of cases.
Imagine how life would feel different and what you could do if those feelings of not being good enough weren’t there. How that anxious energy and wasted time on unhelpful behaviours could be better spent. No longer looking over your shoulder, waiting to be caught out and shown the door.
Managing your imposter syndrome
The important thing to know about imposter syndrome is that you can learn to manage and overcome it with time and practice.
Here’s a few things you can do:
- Recognise it. You can’t manage what you can’t see. Notice your emotions and how you feel. Watch for patterns in your behaviour that show your imposter syndrome is in play. This gives you chance to look for the triggers.
- Talk about it. A common trait in imposter syndrome sufferers is thinking that it’s just you that feels this way and keeping it a secret. Remember, at least 70% of us recognise these feelings but if no one talks about them we create an isolation trap for ourselves where irrational beliefs can fester and grow. Being able to talk it through with people you value can make a real difference.
- Learn to manage the symptoms. Focus on managing the imposter syndrome behaviours we looked at. Reminding yourself of your abilities and strengths; questioning your thoughts when they tell you that you aren’t good enough; stopping comparing yourself to others, and asking yourself what would happen if you delivered at a 90% standard rather than your current 110%?
- Go deeper and change the belief about yourself. Imposter syndrome goes to the root of who you believe you are. Working on your own self-acceptance to appreciate your worth and your value will help you foster new, more empowering beliefs and break the imposter syndrome cycle.