HOW TO OVERCOME IMPOSTER SYNDROME
By Craig Johns
What if I write this and people realise I don’t know what I am talking about? Why should people listen to me? What gives me the right to write this article?”
Sound familiar? We all have imposter thoughts in our life where the inner voice, that little voice inside our head, doubts our worthiness to do something, hold a position or share our thoughts despite our successes and experiences in life.
“To stop feeling like an imposter, you have to stop thinking like an imposter.”
There’s nothing wrong with occasional self-doubt or the running dialogue that sometimes appears in our minds.
No one is immune. In fact research has shown that at least 70% of people have experienced Imposter Syndrome and my guess is that the other 30% are possibly lying.
What might surprise many of you is that Imposter Syndrome is more likely to affect the high achievers who set extremely high standards for themselves and are committed to maximising their potential; success driven people like athletes and musicians; and those whose words have great impact on others such as educators, government officials, coaches, C-Suite and speakers.
“The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh God, they’re onto me! I’m a fraud!’ So you just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud.” – Actress, Writer & Producer Tina Fey, from her book Bossypants
It likes to show up when we are out of our comfort zone, when there are high stakes on the line, doing something new, just made a mistake or we elevate the risks involved.
This could be when you start a new job, receive an award, gain a promotion, take on extra responsibility or are in job negotiations.
It may be when you are a first time parent, speak in public, teach others, start your own business or find yourself being in a position of being an extreme minority.
The key, most experts agree, is frequency of the imposter thoughts. Most people feel like an imposter at some point in their lives, so how do we ensure that they remain as infrequent thoughts and not become a regular debilitating occurrence?
What is Imposter Syndrome
Imposter Syndrome, otherwise known as Impostorism, Imposter Phenomenon or Fraud syndrome was first termed in 1978 by American psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Limes.
It is a vicious cycle of effort, dissatisfaction, fear and self-deprecating thoughts. It can be paralysing for people who are unable to do things they have done before or are highly capable of doing.
Thoughts such as “I will be found out”, “I don’t deserve this position”, “Somebody must have made a mistake”, and “It’s a matter of time before everyone finds out”, are common with people experiencing Imposter Syndrome in the workplace.
“When you feel unworthy, any kind response, positive feedback or reward feels like a trick, a scam, the luck of the draw.” “Humility and worthiness have nothing at all to do with defending our territory. We don’t have to feel like a fraud to also be gracious, open or humble.” Seth Godin
Despite their objective successes, people who experience Imposter Syndrome fail to internalise their accomplishments, have persistent feelings of self-doubt and are held back by the fear of being exposed as a fraud or imposter.
This feeling of inadequacy is formed by a belief that you don’t belong, don’t have the right skills and at some point in time, everyone will see that you’re just not good enough.
According to psychologist Audrey Ervin, Imposter Syndrome can happen to anyone “who isn’t able to internalise and own their successes”.
For some people they will credit luck or the help of others rather than crediting their own innate skills. It can destroy any ability to take credit for your own success.
They may experience thoughts such as “It’s all down to luck”, “It’s just a fluke”, “I tricked people into thinking that I am good enough”, “It helps that I know the right people” and “It must just be the right place, right time”.
It can become self-perpetuating, where those who feel inadequate may over-prepare and the more preparation they do the better they will perform. If an event, meeting or presentation doesn’t go well it will accentuate Imposter Syndrome for them.
Imposter Syndrome isn’t particularly a diagnosis or a medical problem but rather a pattern of thinking that can lead to self-doubt, negative self-talk and missed opportunities. This identity challenge can cause anxiety, unhappiness and fear of failure.
It happens to both men and women. It’s not limited to a specific personality type. Career field and success level are irrelevant. So, what is the common factor? A failure to accept one’s own success or competency.
Quite often people will base their reality on their perception of what other people are thinking rather than what they actually think. These quick to make assumptions moments, the narrative we are telling ourselves can be quite crippling.
Being able to recognise the unhelpful thoughts, question their validity, and gradually rein them in is the key overcoming Imposter Syndrome.
When does it occur?
Imposter thoughts like to show up at moments of success, right before confidence strikes.
They also like to show up after success. We doubt whether we really belong and maybe it was a stroke of luck or someone else who made it possible for us to achieve what we did. You may even feel relief or distress in place of happiness and pride.
For some the imposter thoughts stem from authority figures, such as a boss, coach or family member, and how your confidence is linked to their validation of whether you are successful or not. Where do we sit in the hierarchy?
Think about the performance parent’s out on the children’s sports fields who demand more from their children or even rewarding them with a treat if they score a goal.
“internally I think I’m never good enough. I’ve never told myself that I’ve done a good job but I do know I constantly tell myself that I suck or I could do better … Every time a new opportunity arises my first thought is, ‘wow, why me?’ Naomi Osaka
Memories of feeling your grades weren’t good enough for your parents, child-labeling at home and at school, or you can’t keep up with your brother or sister can leave a lasting impression
Imposter Syndrome can also be linked to anxiety, depression, neuroticism, insecurity, introversion, social dysfunction and even feelings of isolation. What are the side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic that we aren’t seeing yet?
The expectations social media places on us to show what we are achieving or a feeling of wanting to keep up with the Joneses. They like seeing people doing well, but it also increases their internal pressure to achieve more or feel like they aren’t capable.
“The more people who look or sound like you, the more confident you feel. And conversely, the fewer people who look or sound like you, it can and does for many people impact their confidence.”
An interesting phenomenon is occurring in business where there has been a huge trend towards data based decision making and focusing on measuring everything in the workplace in the drive towards what people see as high performance.
What many companies and people don’t realise is that an excessive focus on measuring everything can lead to a lowering of performance as the pressure becomes too high and Imposter Syndrome paralyses many people.
It can happen at work (believe they are not good enough), at home (totally unprepared to raise a child), at school (fear of being clueless when answering a question) and in relationships (I am not good enough for this person).
It is important to realise that there is nothing wrong with you when you experience imposter thoughts, you don’t quite meet your expectations or things don’t quite go to plan.
- Best athletes screw up
- Best lawyers lose cases
- Best actors star in flops
- Best friends dont always make the best partners
We are all human, we all make mistakes and we can all learn.
The Effects of Imposter Syndrome
Imposter Syndrome can result in downshifting where you don’t fulfil your potential because of the poor perception of your skills. This can lead to a drop in performance and job satisfaction while increasing the chances of burnout.
The self-sabotaging behaviour of Imposter Syndrome can lead to a fear of success, failure, exposure or even being judged.
Those experiencing Imposter Syndrome are likely to either work ten times harder or do the polar opposite where they freeze and do nothing.
Their focus tends towards their shadow, which leads to questioning themselves where they second or even third guess their ability.
“Every time I was called on in class, I was sure that I was about to embarrass myself. Every time I took a test, I was sure that it had gone badly. And every time I didn’t embarrass myself—or even excelled—I believed that I had fooled everyone yet again. One day soon, the jig would be up.” Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook
Others may find it hard to accept praise, downplay acknowledgements, deny their own success or even apologise for themselves even when they actually didn’t do anything wrong
This lack of self-confidence, self doubt, self belief and self esteem can lead to feelings of isolation, rejection and inadequacy.
In some aspects of society the tall poppy syndrome can result in people showing excess humility, as well as avoiding taking responsibility and expressing confidence because they think people may see them as obnoxious or over-compensating.
Yes, some of the effects of imposter syndrome can be debilitating, but there are also some very important benefits.
People who are experiencing Imposter thoughts or Imposter Syndrome tend to listen more intently, ask better questions, be more empathetic, work harder and invest their time in collaborative efforts.
Because of their curiosity they tend to hold more frequent eye contact, lean forward more and be engaged.
It can help people strive for higher standards as long as they can control their perfectionism without catastrophizing.
Those with Imposter Syndrome can feel alienated as though they dont fit it, however what they don’t realise is that you can move to a feeling of belonging and bonding by speaking out about your imposterism.
When you speak out it unlocks other people who will confide in you as they also have experienced imposter thoughts or imposter syndrome. You are not alone!
Take on a growth mindset. Mistakes are only mistakes if you don’t learn and grow from them.
Strategies to Overcome Imposter Syndrome
The most important thing to realise is that if you are experiencing Imposter Syndrome, that you are not alone.
Many hugely successful people, such as Michelle Obama, Albert Einstein, Maya Angeliou, Sir Richard Branson, Naomi Osaka and Seth Godin have built amazing careers even while regularly coping with it.
Identifying and knowing the signs of when imposter thoughts have progressed to Imposter Syndrome is really important before you can overcome Imposter Syndrome.
Here are some powerful strategies to overcome Imposter Syndrome:
- Separate feelings from facts – Feelings are not always true, so it’s important to determine whether the thought is a feeling or you can back it up as a fact. Focus on the facts.
- Make friends with it – Acknowledge and recognise the feelings. Change the way you look at imposter thoughts to just simply observing the thought rather than engaging with it.
- Be kind to yourself – give yourself a break from the constant and never-ending pursuit of excellence, and let go of perfectionist tendencies are important when dealing with recurring imposter thoughts. Yes, being focused, determined and persistent in your pursuit of something is at times necessary, but not at the expense of it becoming debilitating and paralysing in your performance.
- Stop the talk and take action – Change your thoughts, change your actions. When you recognise an imposter thought, don’t engage with it, instead choose to reframe a negative thought into a positive thought. When you experience an imposter thought, think about how you can reframe the negative thought into a positive opportunity to learn, grow and refocus. Take a growth mindset approach and rewrite the rules.
- Focus on successes – Track your successes and the positive feedback you hear from other people each day. Referring to them when you have feelings of doubt, insecurity and inability is a valuable way to turn the negative self-talk into positive self-talk.
- Share your thoughts – No one should suffer in silence, so when you experience imposter thoughts, have someone, maybe a manager, mentor or friend, that you can speak to, send a message or confide in by sharing your thoughts and feelings.
- Be open to saying YES – For those experiencing Imposter Syndrome it is common to turn down career enhancing opportunities. Switch from the inner dialogue in your head saying you cant do it because you aren’t ready or worthy of it, to let me trust this person who believes I am ready for this opportunity.
- Allocate reflective thinking time – Pay attention to when you hear imposter thoughts, write them down and allocate a specific time to reflect on the thoughts and how you can reframe those thoughts.
- Build courage by taking risks – Set yourself a goal to do something for the first time each day. This habit of placing yourself outside your comfort zone and taking more risks will help you build your self belief and confidence.
- Ask the question – Does that thought help or hinder me? Being able to identify what type of thought it is, makes it easier to manage the thought. Do you disregard it, focus on it or reframe it?
- Power of visualisation and mindfulness – Using effective mindset tools you can reduce the quantity of imposter thoughts. First by practicing mindfulness to free your mind of ineffective thoughts. Second by focusing on visualising your successes and how you can repeat them.
- Power of Positive Self-Talk – Focus on using positive affirmations and self talk so you condition the mind with the power of positivity. Focusing on saying thoughts such as “I believe in my abilities,” and “I think this is something I can get good at.” are great ways to overcome Imposter Syndrome.
- Turn a limiting belief into an empowering belief – As humans we form beliefs and overtime some can form into limiting beliefs that hold us back from achieving our potential. By changing your limiting belief into an empowering new belief, it can relieve your constraints.
“If someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you are not sure you can do it, say yes. Then learn how to do it later.” Sir Richard Branson
It’s time for you to grow your inner voice to outshine the inner critic.
Give yourself a break, separate feelings from facts and know you have full control over your thoughts.
Craig is a 10x National Champion, International coach and CEO turned high performance leadership expert, international speaker and and Inspiring Great Leaders Podcast host.
He is the CEO & Managing Partner of Speakers Institute Corporate, a high performance leadership expert, and a leadership, high performance and workplace culture keynote speaker.
Learn more about how Craig is working with a diverse team of exceptional human beings to inspire great leaders at www.speakersinstitutecorporate.com.
Book Craig as a Speaker and learn how to become a high performing leader by going to www.craigjohns.com.au for more on the Gravity of Leadership, Break The CEO Code and Atomic Pressure.
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