Imposter syndrome. The term has started getting loads more airplay in the media and barely a day goes by when I don’t see something about imposter syndrome on social media. But what is it? Do you have it? What can you do about it? Let’s talk about it.
Imposter syndrome is a phenomenon whereby individuals have an ability to acknowledge, claim or own their skills and achievements. You may feel like a fraud or that you don’t deserve what you’ve attained. Or maybe you have trouble believing in your strengths and capabilities.
The main elements that distinguish imposter syndrome are:
To be honest, most people experience imposter syndrome. Of course, I am speaking in general terms and I haven’t undertaken any kind of wide-spread study in order to make this statement. But I do speak to a lot of people through networking and my own coaching practice. And I haven’t yet encountered a person who hasn’t had feelings of not being enough, despite there being external evidence suggesting otherwise. I’ve also done a loooooooot of reading on the topic, and I am comfortable with my generalisation.
In saying this, my clients don’t come knocking at my door because they want help with imposter syndrome. It’s usually through coaching and questioning and diving deeper into their current challenges that the imposter syndrome is exposed. It’s not like bearers of imposter syndrome are wearing it on their chests.
Well, usually the word “enough” is a massive red flag for me when I’m working with 1:1 clients. I hear my clients saying things like:
The other warning sign for me, is when my clients share fears about other people finding out certain things, or they’re supremely worried about what other people think. Like, “I’m worried that I’ll take the job and then they’ll find out that I’m not who they thought I was”, or “I feel like a fraud and I’m worried they’ll find out that I don’t have what it takes”.
In either of these situations, I ask this very important question:
On some occasions, there is external evidence. For example, if you’ve been leading people to believe that you’ve got excellent project management experience but the evidence shows that you’ve never managed a project, that’s not imposter syndrome. That is a skill or knowledge gap. And potentially a signal that you need to work on your honesty framework.
Most of the time though, there’s no external evidence to support your fears. In fact, there’s evidence that debunks them. For example, if you don’t believe you’re a strong enough leader, yet you’ve been successfully leading an award-winning team for the past two years and are regularly commended for your efforts.
I’m going to tell you straight up, I am not a psychologist. (That’s not my imposter syndrome talking, FYI. I am actually not…) If you want a psychologist’s opinion on the reasons imposter syndrome exists, I suggest you read this article.
Right here and now though, I am going to share my opinion based on what I have seen and heard through my own networking and coaching experience. I don’t believe that as a culture, we’re particularly confident in talking about ourselves. Actually, I think it’s quite contrary. Here in Australia we have what’s commonly referred to as “tall-poppy syndrome”, which is a phenomenon where people tear other people down who are more successful than them. Tall-poppy syndrome is something that is sadly engrained in our culture. And with that comes a reluctance to talk ourselves up, for fear of being cut down, publicly humiliated or personally attacked. It’s really no wonder that we aren’t in a hurry to take ownership of our strengths and achievements. This is of course, just one theory.
I hate to say it, but I really don’t think that imposter syndrome can be cured. From what I’ve experienced, seen and found through my own research, imposter syndrome, like many other mindset challenges, recurs repeatedly throughout a person’s life. Whether it’s on a daily, weekly or less frequent basis, the imposter syndrome beast is lurking beneath the surface, waiting to pounce.
All is not lost though. With the right tools and strategies, we can definitely learn to combat imposter syndrome, so that we can move past it and achieve our career goals. You might have to continue utilising these tools and strategies, and perhaps try new tools and strategies at different points in your life. But once you become more experienced at flicking that beast off your shoulder, you’ll find that the process becomes easier and you can default to your favourite coping strategies without too much thought or hassle.
Well, the first strategy that I always recommend, is building your awareness. This is often done through personal research, but nothing beats a conversation. As far as I’m concerned, we need to be talking about imposter syndrome more often. Unfortunately, there’s a stigma about sharing your internal challenges, but if we communicate with each other about the struggles we’re experiencing, that stigma will weaken over time and eventually become non-existent.
I challenge you to start communicating with the people around you. Have a conversation with one of your colleagues, a friend, your manager, partner, family member or acquaintance. Open a discussion about imposter syndrome and the situations you experience the most self-doubt. Keep each other accountable and gently call each other out when you hear the red flags we talked about.
You’ve got it? There’s another blog post on the way, talking about how we can move through imposter syndrome and combat the imposter syndrome beast when he appears. In the meantime, if you have any questions about imposter syndrome, please feel free to leave them in the comments, or get in touch to let me know. I’ll try to make sure your question is answered in an upcoming blog post.
Got imposter syndrome? Not sure? Check out this post!