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Ever felt like you’re faking it? Like you’ve been given a position or a responsibility by sheer luck that you know you’re not equipped for — and you keep telling yourself that you don’t deserve it? Or even worse, you live under the constant fear that people are going to find out about you being a fraud, that you don’t really know all that much about what you’re doing. No substance behind the shine as they say. The very thought of it gives you pangs of shame.
If you do, you’re not alone. You’re suffering from ‘Imposter Syndrome’. A recent study found that an estimated 70% of the US population suffer from imposter syndrome — a general feeling of not being good enough or smart enough for what you do.
In fact, even, Mike Cannon-Brooks, co-founder of software company, Atlassian, and an Australian billionaire, faced feelings of imposter syndrome while his company was winning awards, tenders and going from strength to strength. He says that:
“imposter syndrome is feeling well out of your depth, yet already entrenched in the situation, internally feeling that you’re not skilled enough, experienced enough or qualified enough to justify being there. But you are there, and you have to figure it out because you can’t get out. It’s more a sensation of getting away with something and the fear of being discovered.”
The more skilled you are, the more you feel like a fraud
There more successful and skilled you are, the more likely you are to think that you’re stupid and faking it. The key lies in perception v.s reality, and how successful people can deal with feeling like a fraud whilst still striving and reaching their goals.
Those who haven’t faced the imposter syndrome may think that it’s delusional. But, sufferers know that they constantly face the anxiety and threat of ‘being caught out’.
Here, we lay out the different types of imposter syndrome, how it starts in family and social settings, and how you can spot and manage it so that you can enjoy your success and avoid the negative impacts Imposter Syndrome has on your life.
The 5 types of imposter syndrome
Research reveals there are not one, but 5 types of imposter syndrome that plague most successful people:
The perfectionist: These are high performers who pride themselves on producing the highest calibre of work. They tend to micromanage and have a hard time delegating. The perfectionist has to be the one to do things because they fear that things won’t be done well if they aren’t involved.
The expert: These kinds of people feel like they’ve tricked their way into their position and that they don’t deserve it.
The rugged individual/the soloist: These kinds of people don’t like asking for help. They pride themselves on holding the weight of the company on their shoulders and don’t want to look incapable by asking for assistance.
The superwoman/man: This is a person with a can-do attitude who is prone to pushing themselves to their limits. These kinds of people feel the need to prove themselves and feel like they constantly need to earn their stripes.
The natural genius: This person has genetics on their side. They are naturally smart and talented but have difficulty facing challenges out of their expertise because it makes them feel stupid.
Female leaders struggle more with imposter syndrome
In their research into women and imposter syndrome, Pauline Rose Clarence and Suzanne Imes found that the majority of women face imposter syndrome because they feel unintelligent, even though their achievements say otherwise. They found that women face imposter syndrome more frequently and more intensely than men because of family and social constructs that outline how women ‘should be’.
“Women who experience the impostor phenomenon maintain a strong belief that they are not intelligent; in fact, they are convinced that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise…In other words, these women find innumerable means of negating any external evidence that contradicts their belief that they are, in reality, unintelligent.”
We see that men and women perceive successes, challenges and failures very differently.
“women tend to attribute their successes to temporary causes, such as luck or effort, in contrast to men who are much more likely to attribute their successes to the internal, stable factor of ability. Conversely, women tend to explain failure with lack of ability, whereas men more often attribute failure to luck or task difficulty.”
Even the researchers were blown away at how toxic the imposter syndrome can be — they describe it almost like a virus:
“We have been amazed at the self-perpetuating nature… pervasiveness and longevity of the impostor feelings of our high achieving women, with their continual discounting of their own abilities and persistent fear of failure. We have not found repeated successes alone sufficient to break the cycle.”
It’s important to remember that the imposter syndrome doesn’t just disappear when you’ve reached your goals or achieved success. In fact, you just feel like a bigger fraud and that you have to work harder so people don’t catch you out. It’s a scary place to be because your success makes the fear of failing so much more threatening.
In order to effectively deal with and break the cycle of imposter syndrome, you have to go deep. You have to dig up your beliefs about yourself and look at how your family and tribe perceive you vs. how you perceive yourself.
The origins of impostor syndrome: the familial and social contract
When it comes to the seeds of imposter syndrome, people fall into 2 groups.
- The ‘sensitive’ label: people who have siblings are given labels by their parents. Typically, one sibling is treated like the ‘smart one’ and the other is treated like the ‘sensitive one’. This implies that if you are labelled the ‘sensitive one’ you can’t prove that you’re intelligent because you’ve been placed inside a category that you’re expected to fulfil. The imposter syndrome starts to emerge here because you have a familial identity that says you’re ‘sensitive’ which is now at war with your individual identity, which is trying to disprove that narrative.
- The ‘ego’ label: this is another familial label that tells the child that they’re special, a prodigy, smart and that there’s nothing they can’t achieve. Imposter syndrome arises when the child faces difficulty and experiences challenges or failures, leading them to believe that they are ‘a fake’ and that they need to keep pretending to be smart for their family’s sake.
The seeds of imposter syndrome start young. Unfortunately, they start in the home and are perpetuated by our parents’ expectations and our personal obligation to stick to the narrative.
The social contract
Centuries of western civilisation has created a box for women to be housekeepers, mothers, caregivers, emotional, sensitive and less involved in a career than their male counterparts. This means that successful women who are consistently achieving success will explain away their successes to fit this societal mould. This is the social contract that both men and women partake in unconsciously. From childhood to middle age, women have been conditioned to have lower expectations for success and achievement, so when a woman is a high achiever, she believes that she is a phoney and that she got lucky because ‘only a man could achieve that’. These intense and deep-seated beliefs are the fuel for the furnace of imposter syndrome.
That’s why successful women who suffer from imposter syndrome also deal with anxiety — because they believe they are breaking the societal and familial mould that was set out for them; they fear that there will be consequences and repercussions.
Eleanor Maccoby (1963) states that “the girl who maintains qualities of independence and active striving (achievement-orientation) necessary for intellectual mastery defies the convention of sex-appropriate behaviour and must pay a price, a price in anxiety.”
* Clarence & Imes, Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice (1978), Vol 15, 3.
So how do you stop feeling like an imposter?
Realise that other people feel the same way. In fact, the more successful you are, the more prone you are to feeling like an imposter.
The feelings of imposter syndrome don’t go away with time, they tend to follow us around, tainting all our experiences and future successes. The people who push through imposter syndrome have one thing in common: they don’t abandon the situation that they find themselves in — they don’t give up. They turn their fear of failure and embarrassment into a motivational tool to keep moving forward.
People suffering from imposter syndrome will tend to explain away their successes by minimising their work and input, saying things like:
- I was just in the right place at the right time
- I just got lucky
- I just use my intuition, I haven’t done any formal training
The clinical signs of imposter syndrome
Researchers have found that people who deal with imposter syndrome for a long period of time tend to develop side effects in 4 main areas:
- general anxiety
- low or lack of self-confidence
- frustration related to feelings of inability to meet your self-imposed standards of achievement.
How to combat the thoughts of imposter syndrome
It’s important to realise that the people who don’t suffer from imposter syndrome are not more intelligent. They just think different thoughts and have different beliefs. So, if we can change our thoughts and our internal beliefs, we can break through our feelings of imposter syndrome. Remember that you can’t be an expert in every area, you have to let yourself off the hook and release that unattainable expectation on yourself. Let go of the pressure that you’re putting on yourself to be great at everything.
1. Remind yourself of all the things you’re good at
Write down a list of all the things you’re good at and have it somewhere you can see every day. In fact, don’t be afraid to frame it and stick it on the wall! We often are so aware of all the things we need to improve on that we forget the skills that have already been proven. Doing this will build your confidence and start to dissipate your sense of feeling like an imposter.
If you don’t already know what your good at, ask your friends and family. A good way to do this is sending out a short survey (yes, the good old 360!). I’d also recommend doing some external psychometric surveys and getting clear on your natural strengths, these are things that you’re better at than the general population — and the knowledge of that starts to turn the very drivers of imposter syndrome onto its head.
2. Write an ‘I DID’ list
We’ve all heard of ‘to do’ lists, but what about an I DID list?! I was once challenged to write a list of 15 things I had achieved in my life that I was really proud of, and I didn’t think I’d make it past 5. But once I did start writing, I found that I had so much more to add than I had initially realised. Writing an I DID list means you’ll start to appreciate all the things you’ve truly achieved in life that have helped you become the person you are today, and help you accept that it wasn’t luck that won you that project or promotion — it was the sum of all your hard work.
3. Match experience and intuition with some knowledge — so you can make an informed decision on the ‘to do, or not to do’ question:
Often most people will feel like an imposter, because there’s someone else knows more than they do, or can do it better than they do. But have you ever sat in the back of a seminar, or in a meeting and thought, that’s wrong and I could have explained it / or done that better? When you do, chances are you’ll have more confidence because you’ve matched your personal style and intuitive way of doing things with an informed approach. When you fly solo with just your own intuition — the fear of thinking someone might know more or something you don’t will cripple you whether you were right or not.
So the trick here is to invest time into reading up on the areas you want to be an expert on, talk about or run a project on. Then you can make an informed decision on whether or not you want to go down a pre-carved path — or do it your own way.
4. Simply observe your thoughts
Look at the thoughts that are saying ‘you’re an imposter’. Just look at them like you would a passerby on a busy street. Don’t hang on or engage those thoughts, let them walk by.
5. Learn to value constructive feedback
Re-frame your beliefs around constructive feedback. Remind yourself that it’s not an attack on your self-image, confidence or competence. Learn to welcome the feedback from experts in your organization, and see it as a way to make yourself better and more skilled.
6. Ask for help
Sometimes, when we’re in a leadership role we feel like we have to be an expert on everything. It can make us feel vulnerable and embarrassed to say that we don’t understand something or that we are out of our depth. Every time you feel this way, it’s time to practice asking for help. The truth is that everyone, experts and beginners, need help in order to grow. If they don’t ask for help from someone with the know-how, they have to pretend to know about things that they have no idea about. And, that’s how you actually become an imposter.
7. Have a strong personal and professional network
Make a list of people whom you rely on and trust in your organisation and personal life. Remember to lean on these people when the feelings of imposter syndrome become too heavy to bear.
8. Questions your current knowledge and beliefs, not yourself
Mike Cannon-Brooks says that “the successful people I know don’t question themselves. They question their knowledge and they’re not afraid to ask for advice.”
9. Group therapy
It’s uncomfortable to put ourselves out there and share our beliefs with other people. Psychotherapists have seen the most improvements in patients when they share their feelings and beliefs with others who also suffer from imposter syndrome. This provides a sobering dose of reality and allows you to question your deep-seated beliefs about your ability. When you hear another person speak about how they feel unintelligent or how they feel like they’re faking it, you can evaluate your own beliefs.
If someone with a PhD says that they just got lucky, and are faking their way through their successes, you’ll sit back and say, hang on — that’s not right, she is smart and she is capable, so maybe I am too, and I just believe that I’m incapable with no real evidence.
10. Keep a record of positive feedback
This is a great practice that will nourish your spirit, encourage and motivate you. This also reframes your mind and pulls you away from the thoughts of feeling like an imposter. It also provides evidence that you’re capable and intelligent, reminding you of your important achievements.