Let’s Talk About Imposter Syndrome

I’m kicking off 2018 by confronting a secret I’ve been keeping for the past three years. It’s a topic I have been afraid to discuss with those closest to me and an issue I have gone to great lengths to mask in my public persona.

I have imposter syndrome.

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome (also known as imposter phenomenon, fraud syndrome or the imposter experience) is a concept describing individuals who are marked by an inability to internalise their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.
Image: David Whittaker

In other words, people affected by imposter syndrome (IS) have a distorted perception of themselves, whereby they irrationally diminish their accomplishments and competence in spite of objective evidence to the contrary. It’s common for people with IS to justify their success using words like ‘lucky’ or by unduly crediting others for helping them get to where they are.

Not to be confused with the admirable trait of being humble, the imposter mindset is deeply toxic and insidious, progressively morphing from a niggling feeling into a debilitating alternative reality that undermines self-confidence and stifles forward momentum.


How does IS reveal itself?

It‘s important to understand that in psychology, IS is not considered a mental disorder, nor is it considered an ingrained personality trait. This should come as reassuring news to anyone who, like me, spent considerable time living with the irrational fear that they have inexplicably lost their ‘mojo’.

Recent studies support the theory that IS arises as a direct result of specific stimuli or life events. Following several months of research and soul searching, my personal experience reinforces this notion. I now believe I can pinpoint the exact moment my infection with this alien mindset was triggered: it was the day I joined company builder, Entrepreneur First.

On the face of it, you would think that getting onto a program with a 2% acceptance rate would work wonders for your ego and overall confidence levels.

Wrong.

My reality was very different. Having come from an environment where I was at the top of my game, was considered an expert in my field and where my career had progressed rapidly with relatively little friction, I suddenly felt like the least knowledgable person in the room.

At first glance, my reasons for feeling like this were not only hyper-rational but appeared to be supported by statistical truths. I was:

  • The only person without a degree, let alone a masters or PhD from a top university
  • One of only two non-technical founders
  • One of only two women in a cohort of 38

Given that I’m both highly self aware and data-driven in how I analyse the world around me, it’s easy to see how I concluded that a mistake had been made and I was indeed a fraud. It was just a matter of time before someone would figure it out.

To illustrate how this destructive thought process plays out in practice, here are some examples of how my mindset changed during this time.

While environmental factors undoubtedly played a role, they were not in themselves the catalyst that triggered this unprecedented ego crash.

What really happened here is that I rightly identified myself as different from my peers but instead of celebrating those differences as my competitive edge, I fell into the trap of thinking that my skills and experience were somehow less relevant or valuable than everyone else’s in the present context.


What are the symptoms of IS?

Although we all experience IS in different ways, there are some documented signs that I’ve expanded on from my personal experience:

  • Sudden loss of confidence
  • Comparing yourself to others
  • Worrying about how you are perceived
  • Undermining your own achievements
  • Uncharacteristic levels of perfectionism
  • Crippling fear of failure
  • Discounting or not internalising praise
  • Procrastinating when you usually gravitate to action

You might also catch yourself thinking thoughts that are otherwise out of character like:

  • “Why did they choose me”?
  • “I’m going to get found out”
  • “Everyone is better at [insert things that you think you aren’t] than me”

Who is most likely to be affected?

If you’re reading this essay, chances are that some of what I’m saying resonates. Before you beat yourself up for being weak or succumbing to victim mentality, let me share the surprising truth about the type of person that is particularly prone to experiencing IS:

  • You’re a high achiever
  • You’re very charismatic
  • You have a Type A personality
  • You’re extremely competitive
  • You score highly on the EQ quotient
  • You’re a hyper-rational thinker
  • You outwardly display high levels of self-confidence

It’s estimated that 70% of the population experience at least one episode of IS at some point in their lives. It could happen when you go to university, get selected for a sports team, start a new job, launch your own company or when you’re raising money for your startup.

During the past 6 months, I have spoken to dozens of people who have been through the same thing. They range from CEOs of public companies to top corporate lawyers and senior engineers at Facebook and Google. It seems that the greater the sum of your achievements, the more prone you are to doubting your ability and worthiness to be doing what you’re doing.

“The higher they rise the harder they fall”

Ironically, it also appears that there is an inverse correlation between increased success and self confidence, even though this is rarely observed from the outside. It follows that increased responsibility and admiration comes with higher levels of expectation of ourselves and from those around us.

The good news is that although it may not feel like it at the time, IS is a temporary mindset that anyone can overcome, either on their own or in more acute cases, with mentoring or therapy.


Seven strategies for beating IS

To be clear, there is no permanent cure for IS. Now that I know what ‘it’ is, I have accepted that it might resurface in the future, but next time I’ll be ready to kick its ass before it tightens its grip on me.

  1. Recognise and acknowledge the signs
    If there’s one thing I’d love for you to take away from this essay it’s the ability to recognise some of the signs that present with IS. I wish I’d had the courage to better understand myself sooner instead of jumping to simplistic conclusions like “I’ve just lost my mojo”. Unless you recognise and identify with the problem, you won’t be able to take affirmative action to challenge your beliefs.
  2. Learn about it
    Knowledge is power and increasing your understanding of something in turn increases the power you feel you have over it. You can own it. Although IS is by no means a mature field of psychology, there are plenty of resources out there to help you better understand what‘s going on. Check out the “Further reading” section at the end of this post to get you started.
  3. Talk about it
    If you’re anything like me, this is easier said than done. It feels especially tricky in startup land because the TechCrunch narrative conditions you into thinking that everyone else is “crushing it” so nobody wants to expose their insecurities and risk being the cry baby. Here, it’s helpful to remember the 70% statistic coupled with the fact that high achievers are more prone to developing IS than others. It stands to reason that fellow founders, executives and even investors will experience feelings similar to yours. When I started to broach the subject with others in the community, I was taken aback by how prevalent it really is. Moreover, everyone seemed genuinely relieved to learn that they are not alone.
  4. Write about it
    Writing therapy has long been recognised as an effective self-help strategy for improving overall mental health. Indeed, I consider the very act of publishing this to be an important part of my own therapy. Initially reluctant to share my experience publicly, I started taking private notes whenever I caught myself falling into negative thought patterns. Keeping a diary helped my to take a step back and assess my situation through an objective lens and provided the raw material for this essay,.
  5. Consider your context
    As my dad once told me “someone will always have a bigger yacht than you”. The background to this was that teenage me thought that having the biggest superyacht would be a symbol of supreme success. The point he was trying to make was that no matter how smart, hardworking or creative you are, there will always be someone whose achievements (fairly or unfairly) exceed yours and there’s nothing you can do about it. 
    Instead of using unhelpful proxies like first to market with an idea, university you went to, size of the round raised etc., it’s more constructive to focus on being the very best you can be given your background and the sum of your experiences to date. As soon as I started to reframe my thinking like this, my happiness, productivity and overall performance improved markedly.
  6. Challenge limiting beliefs
    Limiting beliefs are thoughts that constrain us in some way. The origins of these thoughts can be complex such as things your parents repeatedly told you when you were a kid or battle scars from painful or unpleasant life experiences. The thing with beliefs that limit us is that once we have them, we subconsciously gather evidence to reaffirm them (confirmation bias). Conversely, we can counter our limiting beliefs by proactively seeking out evidence to the contrary. A good place to start is to make a list of all your limiting beliefs (e.g. “I’m not…” or “I can’t…”) and then add sub bullets with objective evidence you gather to discredit those beliefs.
  7. Reframe failure as success
    As some guy called Einstein once said “If you’ve never failed you’ve never tried anything new”. He was spot on! It took me a long time to royally fail at something so when I did it hit me like a freight train and left me feeling completely perplexed. On reflection, I never took myself far enough out of my comfort zone before. Everything I had done came relatively easily and because I was doing well compared to most people in my immediate peer group I did not try anything really audacious. The learnings that followed failure have been my most powerful life lessons of all, so my only regret is not fucking up royally a little bit sooner.
“If you’ve never failed, you’ve never tried anything new”

You might just become a better human being

An unexpected consequence of an episode of IS is that it can be a deeply humbling experience for even the most hardened Type A. Because I was conditioned to never show weakness and learned that outward displays of confidence successfully nurtured my ego, I suspect that my behaviour negatively affected those around me at times. While this was never intended, it‘s an uncomfortable truth that I fully own. It was the catalyst I needed to become a better version of myself.

They say that benefit of hindsight is a wonderful thing and that definitely resonates with me. It turns out that many of the things I assumed I’d suck at have turned into my biggest strengths.

Far from losing my mojo, my dance with imposter syndrome has reinforced my courage in my own convictions. Best of all, I now get endless energy from knowing that I’m probably not the smartest person in the room.


Further reading:

Feeling like an imposter? You can escape this confidence zapping syndrome: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/sep/19/fraud-impostor-syndrome-confidence-self-esteem

The imposter phenomenon: http://bsris.swu.ac.th/journal/i6/6-6_Jaruwan_73-92.pdf

Therapeutic writing: https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Writing_therapy


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