“It is because we are all imposters that we endure each other.” – Emil Cioran
Imposter syndrome – what is it? The term ‘Imposter Syndrome’ was first used by two clinical psychologists – Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. They used it to refer to apparently successful people who are convinced that they do not deserve the success that they have. While technically this ‘syndrome’ is not an actual clinical disorder, the effects can be quite significant.
John Steinbeck – famous American author; the man responsible for ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘Grapes of Wrath’ – once wrote “I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.”
People with Imposter Syndrome are anxious that they will be discovered as a ‘fraud’ – that someone will ‘out them’ as an unqualified, inexperienced fake, who does not deserve to be in the role that they have. When someone is feeling this way, they will often downplay their apparent success. Their internal dialogue might sound like: “No one else must have applied for this job”, “What will happen when they realise I can’t do this?”, “Someone is going to find fault in this presentation!”.
The inner narrative downplays success, questions abilities, and predicts failure.
Emma Watson – actress, model and UN ambassador – she seems to have it together – yes? Well, in a 2015 Vogue magazine article, she spoke of feeling uncomfortable about her acting success, and that at times she felt like an imposter. She has spoken about walking down a red carpet, then going into the bathroom, looking at herself in the mirror and asking “Who is this?”
Sometimes people experience these feelings only in particular situations (e.g. a new job, before a presentation). For other people, they may feel crippled by their thoughts more frequently. Regardless of how often it happens, it can be very draining. While they may outwardly appear self-assured and capable, internally they are having thoughts of inadequacy and low self-confidence.
People with Imposter Syndrome may procrastinate in big tasks (because they assume they won’t succeed), or they may over prepare, seeking to cover every aspect in minute detail. Regardless of the actions that play out, the internal dialogue, anxiety and stress can result in burn out, missed opportunities, or negative impacts on relationships.
A 2007 article estimated that 70% of the US population had experienced Imposter Syndrome at some point in their lives… Wow – that’s a huge amount of people.
Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook has admitted to imposter feelings at times. In her book ‘Lean In’, she talks about going to Harvard and yet feeling like she didn’t deserve to be there. Even when she excelled there, she felt like she had fooled them and would eventually be found out.
At Engaging Potential, we’ve read a lot about what we call – ‘imposter thinking’. We’ve coached people with it, had friends with it, had it ourselves from time to time. Most of what we read and hear about this thinking pattern is negative. And yes, it can be a paralysing and negative thing.
Yet, is there any upside to Imposter Syndrome?
In a training session I was once asked what the opposite of Imposter Syndrome was – instantly I replied “Arrogance”. That got a laugh, yet I wasn’t trying to be funny! Sometimes I see arrogance as almost worse than the dreaded imposter.
Could imposter thinking actually help us focus on our abilities? If we are listening carefully to our internal dialogue, when those self-doubts creep in, it could be an opportunity to reflect, and bring self-awareness into play.
If we walked around believing we are the most fabulous, perfect, successful, intelligent person on earth, and had no self-doubt, then maybe we could be described as arrogant! And potentially we may not grow and improve.
Now before I am howled down by those who say self-confidence is good, let’s pause – I’m not encouraging people to berate themselves emotionally. All I’m saying is that a little self-reflection may be useful. Being humble and honest, rather than being over-confident and self-delusional. Reframing your inner dialogue to think realistically about your situation and turn the anxiety into proactivity and confidence.
Ariana Huffington talks about the voice in her head that at times held her back – she called this voice her ‘obnoxious roomate’. She has said “I wish someone could invent a tape recorder that we could attach to our brains to record everything that we tell ourselves.” She goes on to say that perhaps if we heard this played back, we would realise how important it is to stop negative self talk, and deal with the ‘obnoxious roomate’ with a dose of wisdom.
Well, we may not be able to record our inner thoughts, yet we can use our awareness of imposter syndrome to become conscious of unhelpful thoughts early-on in the self-dialogue.
Knowing that many people have similar feelings of being a fake, a fraud or being caught out hopefully helps us realise that it is common, and can be addressed. The first step is being conscious of what is going on inside our head. Ignoring it, or suppressing the thoughts is not the best option – let’s crash tackle this thing with some wisdom and logic.
You have a presentation to give to your peers. You start to prepare and then notice an inner voice saying “Who am I to give this presentation, to these people…they know a lot more about this than I do!”
Now, if you have a strategy to acknowledge and address this inner voice, it gives you the opportunity to pause, assure yourself, or to look for areas where you may need to do more work. The key is to hear the voice and refute/question it; rather than hear the voice, believe it, add more negative comments and spiral into a paralysing pit of self-doubt.
Step 1: Be attuned to picking up the inner voice when it first starts – notice it consciously.
Step 2: Find something simple to say internally to acknowledge the negative thought patterns. E.g. “STOP!” Or “Hang on a minute…!” Or “Whoa there!” Whatever word or phrase you use, it is simply something to act as a circuit breaker in the thought pattern.
Step 3: Outline what the REALITY is. What’s the background for the project/ job application/presentation? What is the aim of my involvement? Am I really here to save the world?
This brings our logical thinking brain into play, rather than letting our emotions run away and create some false drama.
For instance, you might say to yourself “I’ve been asked to give this talk because of my experiences on this project. The goal of the presentation is to share ideas on improvements for the future. My perspective here is valid. I don’t have to be an expert, it’s just a point of view…” And so on.
Step 4: Review strengths and acknowledge any specific gaps. Notice how I say ‘specific’. With Imposter Syndrome, we often catastrophasize – “everything is bad” – we make it bigger than it is. Being specific identifies what it IS, not what we dread or fear it to be. What are my strengths? What valuable experience do I bring to this? Where have I succeeded in the past? Is there one thing I could maybe do to make this even better? What is a gap I can work on here?
While I do not suggest people should love their imposter thinking pattern, I do suggest that being aware of this inner dialogue is an opportunity to change the narrative; identify strengths, acknowledge a weakness if there is one, and develop a plan on how to move forward. Much better than cycling on perfectionist and unrealistic expectations, and berating yourself when you don’t meet them.
Rather than being scared of your imposter thinking, embrace it as an indication to pause and choose a more productive thought pattern.
- Imposter Syndrome is not a clinical condition, rather a pattern of thoughts that create self-doubt.
- Being aware of your inner dialogue is critical to being able to address negative thoughts.
- Reframing the dialogue to a more realistic and positive version is the key to reducing the impacts of ‘imposter’ thinking.
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