CONFIDENCE – I AM AN IMPOSTER
“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”BERTRAND RUSSELL, BRITISH PHILOSOPHER
Lack of confidence or Imposter Syndrome, is a common feeling, yet few people who suffer from it recognise it. Alice contacted me with regard to coaching. At our chemistry session I asked her what she would cite as her greatest achievement to date, did she feel proud of what she had accomplished? Alice took a deep breath and told me she felt like a fraud?
This was a pivotal moment for Alice; she had never admitted this to anyone before. Alice has an impressive CV; a graduate who has worked for a number of high profile charities, and with each job move she had secured a promotion. She was now Head of a large team with six direct reports. Alice confided that with each promotion came the fear that, one day, her cover would be blown, and everyone would find out that her career was down to serendipity, and she was Head of Department by mistake?
If, like Alice, you experience feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, you may be surprised to learn that you are not alone. This is typically known as Impostor Syndrome and is often associated with high achievers. The more of an expert you become in a particular area, the more aware you will be of the gaps in your knowledge. Likewise, the more successful you are, the more impressive your peers are likely to be.
So, if you feel like a fraud, the chances are that you’re actually very capable.
WHAT IS IMPOSTOR SYNDROME?
So what is Impostor Syndrome? It is the belief that you don’t deserve your success. It is the feeling that you’re not as intelligent, creative or talented as other people seem to think you are. It is the self-doubts that tell you, your achievements are down to luck, good timing or just being in the right place at the right time. And it is accompanied by the fear that, one day, someone will find you out and expose you.
Impostor Syndrome can be associated with the fear of success, fear of failure and self-sabotage. It often strikes at times that others might link with success: starting a new job, securing a promotion, or taking on extra responsibility such as managing others.
These feelings can make you believe that you must work even harder, so as not to be ‘found out’, leading to further success and recognition (and feeling like an even bigger imposter). But often, they lead to ‘downshifting’, when you revise previously held goals to be less ambitious… meaning that you never fulfil your true potential.
RECOGNISING IMPOSTOR SYNDROME
Alice and I reflected on this over our next two coaching sessions. Alice initially struggled to see that she have this syndrome; she could see it in others but not herself.
I asked Alice did she ever:
- Have feelings of inadequacy and frequent self-doubt;
- Have thoughts of “I’m not worthy”, or “I don’t deserve this”;
- Have concerns that she can’t live up to others’ expectations
- Focus on her mistakes rather than on her achievements;
- Exhibit perfectionist tendencies;
- Think that her job is so easy that anyone could do it;
- Think that her talents and strengths are common or unremarkable;
- Believe that whatever she did, it was never enough;
- Believe that if she were to start over, she wouldn’t have the luck, talent or skills to replicate her current success.
Alice went very quiet for a few minutes and then said it all sounded very familiar. This was a huge step for Alice.
RECOGNISING IMPOSTOR SYNDROME IN YOUR TEAM
Impostor Syndrome doesn’t just hurt the people who experience it. It also hurts the teams and organisations they work for. So, if you are in a leadership role, it pays to keep an eye out for team members who are struggling with feelings of inadequacy.
Here are some signs to look out for:
- Turning down promotions, changing roles or avoiding certain high-exposure projects;
- Being uncomfortable with compliments or praise;
- Attributing good work or success to luck, good timing or knowing the right people;
- Other symptoms of low self-esteem;
- Expressing fears of failure or incompetence;
- Comparing themselves unfavourably with others;
- Using self-deprecating statements such as “I’m not sure I know what I’m talking about, but…” or “It might just be me, but…”
OVERCOMING IMPOSTOR SYNDROME
Recognising that she had Impostor Syndrome was a difficult step for Alice. Many people believe that the alternative is to become boastful and self-important, but this needn’t be the case.
With Alice the following steps were explored to help her learn how to manage her feelings of self-doubt:
1 ACKNOWLEDGE HER FEELINGS
The first step in overcoming Impostor Syndrome for Alice was to acknowledge what she was feeling, and why.
I suggested to Alice she keep a diary. Whenever she was experiencing feelings of self-doubt or inadequacy, she should write them down, together with an explanation of why she was feeling this way. I asked Alice to be as specific as possible about each situation, explaining that by writing it out she would be able to see that she shouldn’t worry about the situation.
Next, I asked Alice to use Cognitive Restructuring to counter negative thoughts with positive statements, and to come up with affirmations that neutralise those thoughts. Also, think about the successes she had had that have led to this moment.
2 TALK TO OTHERS
I asked Alice if there was anyone she could really trust and talk to about how she was feeling. Alice reflected on this and said she had a former line manager she felt able to talk to. She agreed to reach out to this person.
3 UNDERSTAND YOUR STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
Next, we reflected on Alice’s strengths and weaknesses. Alice conducted a personal SWOT analysis to discover what she was good at, and to think about how she could minimise her weaknesses.
See our blog:
PERSONAL SWOT ANALYSIS
Once she had a deep understanding of her strengths and weaknesses, Alice was able to spend less time worrying that she was not ‘qualified’ for a particular task, project or role.
4 OVERCOME PERFECTIONISM
The most striking moment of self-discovery for Alice was her tendency to be a perfectionist. She consistent set herself unreasonably high goals, and then felt shame or disappointment when, in her mind, they failed.
A key learning outcome of our coaching sessions was for Alice to set herself realistic, challenging and achievable goals and accept honest failures as a part of life. Instead of seeing her mistakes as something to be embarrassed about, she should treat them as learning experiences that would help her to perform even better next time.
5 OWN YOUR SUCCESSES
Often, people with Impostor Syndrome find it hard to accept compliments; Alice immediately recognised this. When things went well, Alice attributed the success to external factors such as hard work, help from others, or just plain good luck. But when things went wrong, she was the first to place the blame at her feet.
Alice accepted that she should give herself permission to be proud of her achievements. When she met a goal or finished an important project, she was to acknowledge that it was her skill and talent that made it happen.
Using the diary Alice was also encouraged to keep a record of positive feedback. In her reflections, she was to listen to praise, accept compliments and record it in the diary, along with why any negative thoughts were false or meaningless.
Impostor Syndrome is a self-fulfilling pattern of thought, in which a person considers him- or herself to be an impostor. She doubts her own intelligence and talents, and thinks that anyone who believes otherwise is either ‘being nice’ or has somehow been fooled into believing this.
To overcome impostor Syndrome, you need to break the pattern of setting yourself unattainable standards and thinking that external, temporary factors such as luck, help or hard work are responsible for your success. You also need to stop blaming your own personal shortcomings for mistakes or failures.
Talk to others about how you feel. Overcome your perfectionist tendencies by setting realistic goals for yourself, and accept that mistakes and failures are a part of life.
Finally, take ownership of your successes. Learn how to take a compliment, and draw strength from it.
See our Blog:
There are a number of interesting TED talks on perfectionism however, I particularly like this one:
When good is not good enough