Five ways to loosen the grip of the Impostor Syndrome

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“It is strange how this goes on. The struggle to get started. Terrible. It always happens…I am afraid. Amongst other things I feel that I have put some things over. That the little success of mine is cheating. I don’t seem to feel that any of it is any good. All cheating.” – from the journal of John Steinbeck while writing “Of Mice and Men”.

The Impostor Syndrome (otherwise known as the Imposter Phenomenon or Imposterism) is a common experience among high achievers. The fear of being unmasked as a fraud (the hallmark of the Imposter Syndrome) is often the result of one’s difficulty in accepting success and contributing it to luck instead of ability.

The Imposter Syndrome can send our personal brand into a real wobble.

It’s estimated that 70% of people have Imposter Syndrome, and likely more, as many won’t admit it. If you are one of the many who suffer from the Imposter Syndrome, you are in some impressive company.  Just to name a few…the actress and UN ambassador Emma Watson has admitted to feeling like an imposter, as have her fellow actors Kate Winslet and Renée Zellweger. The COO of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg has said, “There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud”. Certainly not examples of low-profile underachievers!

Kate-WinsletKate Winslet, Oscar and three time BAFTA winner

Some Imposterism facts:

  • It’s long been noted that Imposterism affects more women than men, especially among women working in male-dominated industries. This is in spite of the fact that females are achieving more than ever before and regularly outperform males in the classroom and at university. One explanation is that women are subject to pre-existing sexist stereotypes that call into question their professional competence. Also, according to Imposter Syndrome expert Dr. Valerie Young, women are more likely to attribute setbacks and failures to a lack of ability, while their male counterparts are more prone to blame external factors.
  • Those who don’t suffer from imposter syndrome may actually be the ones who really need to question their abilities. Overly-confident people may lack the insight to recognize how incompetent they are as a result of the “Dunning-Kruger effect,” which essentially means that one fails to recognize their own ignorance. Conversely, competent people tend to underestimate their ability compared to others (aka, the Imposter Syndrome). Perhaps Bertrand Russell said it best: “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt”.
  • Getting better at your job won’t get rid of the Imposter Syndrome. Advancing in your career – achieving promotions, wining accolades – will most likely exacerbate the issue and lead to feeling like even more of a fake. Those suffering from Imposterism tend to be perfectionists. As discussed in previous posts, while perfectionism can help us to excel, it can also be our worst enemy. Given that perfectionism is an illusion, it is simply not achievable…even if we were able to magically achieve 100%, it still wouldn’t be good enough…we would want 110%.

Jodie FosterJodie Foster, winner of two Oscars and two BAFTAs.
Photo: AstroWright, Jason Wright

Here are five ways to help you loosen the grip of the Imposter Syndrome:

1. Shed the mask – be authentic

A strong personal brand is an authentic one. Share some of your fears and doubts with people you trust. It makes you human, and remember that people like hints of humanity. And once you speak more honestly about feeling this way, you can bet others will too.

This is particularly important for higher-ups in an industry, as senior employees can help by being more honest with juniors by sharing their own struggles and insecurities. As the Ada Initiative put it, “When people see those they respect struggling, or admitting they didn’t know everything when they started, it makes it easier to have realistic opinions of their own work”. If you are more junior in your career, find a mentor or higher-up you can trust and ask them how they’ve handled these feelings in the past. You might be surprised by their answer.

Remember that authenticity wins in the end.

2. Don’t believe everything you think

That unhelpful internal voice, the inner critic, can sound like a constant monologue of self-doubt, one that builds up a flawed picture us and of our careers. As the saying goes, we “compare our insides with other people’s outsides”, as it’s all too easy to assume everyone else is doing much better than us on the surface.

Psychological approaches such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can help you to silence the inner critic and take risks in spite what it’s telling you. Exposing yourself to situations that raise your anxiety (i.e., where you feel like you will be unmasked) is a very effective way to lower anxiety over time. In other words, “Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway”. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is also an excellent approach to handle these fears lighter so they no longer have power over us. You can have impostor feelings without obeying them. As a clinical psychologist, I often draw upon these approaches in my private practice with significant success.

3. Remind yourself of accomplishments:

Negative Filtering is a common cognitive distortion that can get many of us stuck. This an unhelpful thinking pattern involves filtering out all of the positive information and only focusing on the negative information or experiences. Simply put, it’s about focusing on negative things and discounting positive things.

Go back and remind yourself of the things you needed to accomplish, and managed to overcome, in order to get to where you are today. Keep an active record of your achievements and review the successes you have. Recognize that you’ve been able to do things that required courage and competence in the past, and that you have been strong and capable…and you are still that person today.

Merryl StreepMeryl Streep, winner of two Oscars (not counting Jodie Foster’s!) and two BAFTAs. Photo: AstroWright, Jason Wright

4. Default to your core personal brand

Remind yourself of your inner brand attributes: what makes you unique, authentic, compelling, relevant and differentiated? These are some of the many qualities that add value. You have a unique combination of abilities, personality and experience and no one else is exactly like you.

Identify the type of person you want to be in the face of Imposterism, and reflect on your personal and professional values and strengths. Use your values as a compass to help you act in accordance with the professional you want to be, regardless of the internal “fraud chatter”.

By turning to our inner brand attributes and focusing on the type of professional we want to be, we can steady ourselves when the Imposter Syndrome tries to take hold.

5. Befriend the Fraud Police

Imposterism comes with the fear of being discovered, as if some mysterious “fraud police” are lurking somewhere, ready to jump out and make an arrest. When stripped down, these fraud police are revealed as unhelpful thoughts and feelings that are undermining our self-confidence. You may never completely escape their presence, however this does not mean you need to let them control you. Instead of buying into this form of “intellectual self-doubt”, try to recognize the positives that come with it.

The Imposter Syndrome, according to Pacific Standard magazine, “is, for many people, a natural symptom of gaining expertise”.  Feelings of inadequacy are actually a sign that you are “doing something right”. When the Imposter Syndrome shows up, it means that we are being challenged, that the dreaded comfort zone is growing, and that we are self-aware enough to have noticed it. In other words, “it comes with the territory” when we experience success and self-growth.

This spirit is captured brilliantly by a quote Carl Richards shared in the New York Times: “I’ve learned to think of it as a friend. So now when I start to hear that voice in my head, I take a deep breath, pause for a minute, put a smile on my face and say, ‘Welcome back old friend. I’m glad you’re here. Now, let’s get to work.’”

Maya AngeluNobel laureate Maya Angelou – Photo: AstroWright, Jason Wright

Accept that the Imposter Syndrome exists (and that it’s ultimately a good thing), but do not allow it to take the driver’s seat and rule your life.

Lisa

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