When you hit a goal, achieve an ambition or get great results, what goes through your mind?
Choose as many as apply from the following list:
1. I often feel like I’m out of my depth
2. Other people think I’m better than I really am
3. My success is down to my hard work and abilities
4. I’m often waiting for others to find out that I’m not as good as they think I am
5. My colleagues and boss have a good understanding of what I can contribute
6. When I’m successful, it’s usually because I’m lucky
7. I deserve what I’ve worked for
8. My abilities and talents are equal to my position in life
If you chose more than one of 1, 2, 4 and 6, you might be suffering from what Dr Pauline Clance and Dr Suzanne Imes coined ‘Impostor Syndrome’ in the 1970s.
Never Believe Your Own Publicity
I’ll admit, I resonate with the description of Impostor Syndrome.
‘Impostors’ have a disconnect between what others say about them, and how they feel about themselves. They are likely to be high-achieving and career driven, and appear successful to the outside world, but inside they feel that others have a disproportionately over-inflated view of them. They spend their lives waiting to be ‘found out’ as a fraud, a fake – an impostor.
And it can be exhausting.
You’re constantly anxious.
Your self-confidence is shot.
You agonise over tiny mistakes.
It creates an unfortunate and vicious circle. Those who suffer work harder and harder to prevent being found out. This often results in further accolades, promotions and progression, which just creates more anxiety and doubt in their minds.
So what can you do about it? How can you manage this phenomenon, and calm down the ‘Fraud Police’ in your head? Here are 5 simple ways that will help you to match up what the outside world is saying with your inner narrative.
1. Get Real
Take the Impostor Phenomenon test (devised is by Dr Clancy, one of the first to identify the phenomenon, and a lot more scientific than my pop quiz!) to understand the extent to which the syndrome truly affects you.
Then get a realistic view of what others think of you. Use structured and objective methods to gather feedback. Really listen to what they are saying. Gather feedback from a variety of people you trust, and ask them for specific examples to back up their feedback. Consider the feedback, positive and negative – what would help you to believe it?
2. Get it Written Down
Collect all the positive feedback from (1) above, and also from other sources, and create a positive feedback scrap book, whether that’s in a notebook, a word document or on Pinterest (for example, I screen shot anything positive that people say about me online and collect it into a Scrivener file).
Then make yourself write down examples of your achievements, without the usual excuses you make in your head. So just write down ‘was salesperson of the month’ rather than adding ‘but only because they gave me an easier territory than the other salespeople’.
When you’re next feeling anxious or concerned about your performance, worrying that colleagues are overestimating your abilities, review these documents to ground you in reality.
The evidence will eventually build up.
3. Get Support
Psychologists studying this phenomenon say once sufferers understand this is a common phenomenon, and that most of the other seemingly confident people you know will also suffer from this self-doubt (let alone celebrities like Maya Angelou and Meryl Streep, chemical engineers and world-class scrabble players), their anxiety will be alleviated.
Step one, then, done – I’ve told you about it in this article :-)
Now you know, talk to your friends about it. Post an article like this one on your social media and see who likes/shares it. Who of your friends seems to resonate with the idea? Share your feelings and thoughts, as well as your positive feedback file. Perhaps you can have an ‘Impostor buddy’ with whom you can share your fears and anxieties next time they get out of hand, and they can remind you of positive feedback you’ve had in the past.
3. Get UnPerfect
Research in this area has (unsurprisingly) found a correlation between people who experience Impostor Syndrome and who have Perfectionist tendencies.
Everyone makes mistakes.
But the fear of making a mistake can be a real blocker in terms of growth.
Remember you only ever see the outside, the equivalent persona of a carefully selected, photoshopped picture, chosen from thousands of possible candidates.
Very few people feel they know what they’re doing.
Amanda Palmer, in her vulnerable and engaging book ‘The Art of Asking: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help’, calls this the inner ‘Fraud Police,’ who are ‘real grown ups who accuse you of having no idea of what you’re doing and promise to tell everybody.’
But these Fraud Police are not only in your head, they’re in everybody’s heads. It’s human to make mistakes.
I’ll never forget asking for feedback from my team, and being asked to share some of my mistakes as I appeared ‘too perfect’ a role model to live up to. I could not have been more shocked. I knew – knew – that I was already in way over my head, and that I made mistakes all the time. It changed the way I related to them, and I became more open, more vulnerable in order to encourage them and show them that it was OK to make mistakes.
Sharing our mistakes with others helps us to be more self-compassionate. One of the three aspects needed for self-compassion, is connecting with wider humanity. To stop isolating ourselves from others by believing that we are the only one suffering or making mistakes.
Personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience – something we all go through.
Be UnPerfect. Make a deliberate mistake. Realise that it’s OK and that everyone does it. Take some of the pressure off yourself to live up to an unrealistic ideal.
5. Get Scared
The classic self-help book ‘Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway’ by Susan Jeffers, reminds us that everyone is afraid.
And our deepest fear, the fear that underpins all the other fears?
The fear that you can’t handle whatever you’re trying to do, or is happening to you.
Her book gives excellent suggestions on how to develop more trust in your own ability to handle whatever you encounter. And the key idea is in her book’s title – every time you have a go at something you’re scared about, every time you experience something difficult and challenging, your fear will diminish a little further, as long as you’re then weighing up the experience based on the reality of what happened, rather than the ‘story’ in your head.
But we need to get used to the fact that the fear will never go away, as long as we continue to stretch and grow ourselves.
It Gets Better
I said I know how it feels to feel like an Impostor. But these days, I know I’m in good company. I can be kind to myself realising that I mustn’t compare my own insides to everyone else’s outsides.
You never truly know what’s in someone else’s head.
But that’s a good thing.
Because they never know what’s in yours.
So if it walks like a successful person, talks like a successful person and acts like a successful person – just as you and I do – then I consider him or her a successful person.
Even if I’m talking about myself.
I may have to go back to my ‘compliments file’ every now and then, or tag an ‘Impostor buddy’ for a pep talk, but I have enough self-compassion to know that how I feel, and what is seen by others isn’t the same thing.
I want you to feel the same.
You are not an Impostor. You are as ‘real, true, and authentic’ as everybody else.
You are enough. Just as you are.