Imposter syndrome – who, me?

Have you ever:

  • Thought your achievements are due to luck?
  • Feared that your colleagues will discover you are a fraud?
  • Responded to positive feedback with ‘oh, you’re just being nice’?
  • Told yourself you ‘got away with it’ when you succeeded?
  • Turned down an opportunity because you would have been exposed as inadequate?

If you’ve answered ‘yes’ to any of the above, you’re not alone. High achievers such as Michelle Obama and Sheryl Sandberg have shared their thoughts and feelings when their imposter shows up.

“I still have a little impostor syndrome, it never goes away, that you’re actually listening to me.” – Michelle Obama

Who experiences imposter syndrome?

The paradox of imposter syndrome is that it is often experienced by highly capable people. However, they seem unable to acknowledge and own their capabilities. Believing they’ll be unmasked; they can be driven by anxiety to strive and overwork.

Back in the 1970s when the term first appeared in the work of Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance, it was thought that imposter syndrome was experienced only by women. More recently it has been recognised as something all of us can experience. See Health Education England’s Chief Information Officer’s account of his experience. I like his comment that he’s ‘not cured his imposter syndrome but made peace with it.’ 

Why do we need to tackle our inner imposter?

  • We could hold ourselves back and not make our full contribution
  • We can have low confidence and self-esteem
  • We might procrastinate only to make up for it with over-work
  • We may suffer stress and burnout
  • We could become a perfectionist manager, nit-picking others’ efforts

What causes imposter syndrome?

As with so many of our ingrained ways of thinking, feeling and behaving, experiences in childhood can loom large. Personality traits form, such as perfectionism and striving to improve. High expectations of success and perfection follow us into adulthood. Being the first in your family to go to university, particularly those studying science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects that can have a competitive culture. Comparing often features when our imposter shows up: a sure-fire way to spark feelings of inadequacy, amplified by social media.

10 steps to make peace with your imposter syndrome

  1. Check what output your manager needs when they delegate: a first draft, a summary, or a detailed proposal? Don’t deliver a dissertation if simple points are all that’s expected.
  2. Take a tip from Sheryl Sandberg: “Done is better than perfect.”
  3. Identify your strengths and use them well. A basic, free questionnaire is available on VIA Institute on Character    If you want to explore a strengths profiling tool that’s approved by the British Psychological Society, I recommend and use Strengthscope©.
  4. Ask for feedback: what worked well? What (if anything) can be improved? Take constructive feedback professionally, not personally.
  5. Take credit gracefully rather than brushing it off; as soon as possible note it word for word.
  6. Gather your evidence: reflect on your good work, positive feedback and results. Then, if your imposter shows up you can prove them wrong.
  7. Work with a mentor to get a broader view of your workplace and/or your profession.
  8. Let go of those crushing comparisons.
  9. Build your buddy network; people you can trust to support you and who you can support in return.
  10. Stop telling yourself you’ll be ‘found out’ and start telling yourself that you’re steadily improving.

Look after yourself

If your imposter causes negative thoughts and feelings that lead to persistent low mood, seek the support of friends, family, and peers – and give fair hearing to what they say. Alternatively, seek professional support, starting with your GP.

You may find this post useful: ‘Get a grip on your confidence gremlins’

Note: this post was first published on the eLN website.

Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’ and ‘How to be Zoomly at work’

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Image: Imposter syndrome.man standing with fear shadow behind – Depositphotos_466052092

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