The curious case of the Imposter Syndrome

Do you doubt your own competence? Do you believe that your achievements are only due to a stroke of luck? You could be suffering from Imposter Syndrome

Man looking nervous with hands on face / imposter syndrome

A while ago, I had an emergency call from a friend. Sarah is a force to be reckoned with. A going-places partner in a well-known law firm, she’s seriously smart and her fierce determination and “take no prisoners” attitude are the stuff of legend.

“Caroline, you have to do your mindset voodoo thing on me,” she pleaded. “There’s a huge deal closing and I’m losing the plot. They’re going to find out that I don’t know what I’m doing. You have to help me!”

Superwoman Sarah was having an attack of imposter syndrome—and it turned out this wasn’t the first time.

How did I help

  • First, I told Sarah that what she was going through is extremely common. Research shows that 70 per cent of people experience imposter syndrome at some point. [The real figure maybe much higher because shame stops some people owning up.]
  • Then I walked her through a breathing exercise to calm her down.
  • Finally, I asked her two questions.

10 minutes later, off she went to continue her preparations for completing the deal—if not back to her normal full-on confidence levels, at least most of the way there.

So what were the two questions that helped change her state? Before I share them with you, let’s take a look at this demon.

Research shows that 70 per cent of people experience imposter syndrome at some point

What is imposter syndrome

Imposter (or impostor) syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) shows up when a person’s outer evidence of achievement and ability doesn’t match up with their inner psychological and emotional landscape of occasional or permanent self-doubt. This mismatch triggers stress, typically when someone is expected to demonstrate their expertise or ability.

People experiencing imposter syndrome are unable to recognise their own competence and feel undeserving of respect and acclaim. They dismiss evidence of their previous achievements as luck or accident and believe they can’t replicate that high performance. They feel anxious and ashamed that they will be unmasked as a fraud.

The tendency presents on a sliding scale of severity, from occasional fleeting discomfort, to persistent anxiety that can seriously affect a person’s peace of mind, performance and prospects.

Typical thoughts of someone experiencing imposter syndrome:

“They’re going to find out I’m useless and think I deliberately misled them.”

“I’m going to fail in front of everyone and let them down. It’s going to be unbearable.”

“I can’t perform in the way they expect. I’m going to be humiliated.”

“I’ll never pull this off. I’m not a real expert—I don’t know what I’m doing!”

Who “discovered” imposter syndrome

The tendency was originally observed by psychologist Pauline Clance, who, with Suzanne Imes, coined the term “Imposter Phenomenon” in a 1978 research paper. Initially, it was thought of as a problem affecting high-performing women but further research confirmed that it also affected men.

Entrepreneurs, creatives and high achievers are especially affected because they’re required to showcase their expertise. Even Einstein once admitted that he felt like “an involuntary swindler”.

What causes imposter syndrome

It is believed that the tendency is caused by an inability to internalise and accept our own achievements and pay deliberate attention to what we do well. One of the reasons for this is the messages we absorb from childhood and beyond that we’re not good enough.

High-pressure working environments are breeding grounds for Imposter Syndrome. Women, in particular, face an ongoing struggle to prove their competence in the workplace, with their contribution more likely to be downgraded or trivialised. This can lead to self-doubt and self-criticism. It’s also common in male-dominated fields, where competition is fierce.

External evidence of success, such as awards, high earnings and public acclaim, make no difference to someone who experiences Imposter Syndrome. Actually, they worsen feelings of being incompetent and undeserving, and lead to a greater fear of being found out.

High-pressure working environments are breeding grounds for Imposter Syndrome

Start by asking yourself the two questions I asked Sarah:

Q1: “What is the story I’m making up about this situation?”

Sometimes, when you feel challenged or in the spotlight, unhelpful stories can emerge that affect how you think, feel and behave. You accept these “I’m not good enough” stories as gospel—but they’re not the truth! They’re just your thoughts deceiving you into believing you’re inadequate.

Work out what story you’re telling yourself when you feel like a fraud. Then challenge the veracity of that story. What cast-iron evidence do you have that it’s true? Note that thoughts and feelings are not proof.

Q2: “How else could I think, feel and behave in this situation that would lead to a better outcome?” 

When you tune into your self-talk, something significant happens. The act of interrogating your thoughts makes you aware of them. They’re no longer unconscious and automatic.

When you take something off autopilot, you regain control. Being aware of your story makes you conscious of it and now you can edit the tale you’ve been wildly spinning. Effectively, you empower yourself to choose a different ending to the story.

So ask yourself, “What would be the best outcome for me in this situation? And what do I need to think, feel and do in order to achieve that outcome?” Then practise believing it!

Work out what story you’re telling yourself when you feel like a fraud

A psychological toolkit

I emailed Sarah a list of other helpful practices which can, if not banish imposter syndrome completely, at least enable you to regain the upper hand when it pops up. Practise these five steps regularly to increase your self-acceptance and resilience:

  1. Tell someone [as she did when she called me]. This gets it out of your head and into the open, where it can be challenged and normalised. It also helps to realise you’re normal and not alone.
  2. Monitor your self-talk and work on self-acceptance. Get used to tuning in to your thoughts and challenging your self-criticism. Imperfection is hard-wired into us so accept that you are both fallible and intrinsically worthwhile. I advise my clients to develop the habit of speaking to themselves as though they’re a sensitive, intelligent child who deserves to be nurtured and encouraged.
  3. Practise active appreciation for your achievements, skills, and hard work. You didn’t reach this level of ability by accident or luck. Keep a gratitude journal and make a point of recognising your strengths and positive qualities. Be specific. What are you good at? What do you value about yourself? What positive impact do you have on others? What have you coped with well today?
  4. Comparison is rarely helpful. Plus, at least seven in 10 people you compare yourself to also feel inadequate at times! Stop comparing yourself to others and focus instead on creating the best outcome.
  5. When you do something well, connect vividly with the feeling of satisfaction and fulfilment. Anchor those feelings of pleasure in vibrant memories and recall them when you feel like an imposter.

If you experience imposter syndrome often, it may be an unconscious way of flagging up that your current role or business conflicts with your values or lacks meaning for you. You may find it helpful to work with a coach to find a more meaningful way to use your skills.

So, the next time you feel as though your competence is just a mirage, tune in to your self-talk and ask yourself my two questions. Then rewrite your “I’m an imposter” story.

Good luck and let me know how you get on.

Watch the video below that explains what is imposter syndrome and how we can deal with it

A version of this article was first published in the January 2016 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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