“Any minute now my boss is going to call me into her office and tell me to clear my desk.”
“Everyone is going to laugh at the report I’ve written when it’s shared with the team.”
“My boss wasn’t really praising my work, he just feels pity for me.”
The latter three quotes are verbatim thoughts that three male coaching clients shared with me recently. Outwardly, each one appears extremely successful. But underneath they’re struggling with confidence-sapping impostor syndrome.
When I first started working with Steve, for instance, he seemed calm, self-assured and confident. In fact, I was surprised he was seeking help at all; there was nothing he didn’t seem to have an answer for. Steve said he wanted to find the next steps in his career path. He was working in the marketing department of a global tech company but he’d always wanted to work in the charity sector to feel that he was making a difference. The third time we met, however, it was pretty obvious Steve was really worried about making any kind of career move at all. Even holding onto his current position appeared to be something he was unsure of.
Under his calm exterior was a churning sea of self-doubt. At times, Steve said, he felt like a total fraud.
It’s hard to admit to impostor syndrome—feeling that we’ve achieved success through luck rather than genuine skill and ability. Those of us who suffer from it are also debilitated by worries of being “found out,” with humiliation and career destruction always looming on the horizon.
Impostor syndrome was first coined in the 1970s, and psychologists initially looked at it as a condition that mostly affected women at work because they were socialized to be less ambitious than men. Yet a study published this month in The Journal of Personality and Individual Differences revealed that men are as likely to suffer from impostor syndrome as women. The study also showed that men actually carry far higher levels of stress when receiving negative feedback from their boss.
Over the weeks of working together, Steve slowly opened up about his fears and insecurities. Certain pivotal moments from his childhood, an offhand comment from a teacher and his dad’s anger over the occasional poor school report all fed into his self-doubt. Over the years, this developed into full-blown impostor syndrome.
Slowly, by using cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, I helped Steve look at the reality of his successes. His fears slowly started to fade away. Within six months he’d found the courage to apply for new roles and shift his career in the direction of the charity work he was so keen to do.
Here are the three most likely falsehoods impostor syndrome will throw at us.
Task: Whenever the following thoughts enters your mind do the following:
1. “I fake it at work and everybody knows it.”
This is the fear that your mask could slip at any moment. You imagine that co-workers look at you and think this guy is a fraud! He hasn’t got a clue.
Do this now: Imagine you have a profoundly kind and loving uncle. He has been at your side at every key moment of your life, both good and bad. Your first-ever shave when you sliced your chin, that disorientating first week of high school, being dumped by the love of your life when you were 17, your first day of work.
Your uncle writes a letter to you reminding you of all the fears you’ve overcome, the challenges met and the triumphs you’ve achieved, big or small. Every statement he writes is full of encouragement and love, the best feedback form ever. This uncle is in fact your best self. So write this letter now from this kind, understanding, and loving part of yourself. Read it back to yourself slowly, enjoying every kind comment and supportive word. Tell yourself: These words are the truth.
Result! You have just kicked your fear and self-doubt into the long grass by powerfully reminding yourself who you really are.
2. “I’m not successful and I haven’t achieved anything.”
Really? Look, the modern world is tricky to navigate. Getting through college. Moving into a new home. Holding down a job. Finding a job! Retraining. Success doesn’t only mean being the CEO by 35. In fact, it doesn’t mean that at all.
Do this now: <illustrated on the page with a box to fill in>
Draw a three-row box like this. The lefthand column should be headed Achievements. Under it list everything, from being picked for the first team on your high school hockey squad to still being in love with your girlfriend after 5 years. Be creative. Have fun. Holding down a job for 3 years is an achievement. Finishing Moby Dick is an achievement. Write it all down!
In the next column under the heading What This Says About Me write a brief statement of what each achievement says about your ability or skill. I’m competitive and sporty, I am consistent in love, I can commit to important things. In the final column write a one-word feeling for each achievement, such as pride, warmth, confidence.
Result! You have created a powerful anti-imposter-syndrome table. Stick it inside your diary; take a picture of it on your phone. Keep it handy.
Pull out any old college papers or school certificates with high marks or that show you achieved strong results. Even the 3-lb. trout you caught fly-fishing when you were 12 is an achievement—drag that old photo out. Whatever image or document that shows you succeeding is worth digging up. Frame them individually or all together. Hang them up where you’ll see them easily. I myself recently framed two music exam certificates and hung them above my piano, where I can see them every day. Each time I catch sight of them, my self-esteem gets a boost like an espresso shot: I did that and held down a busy job!. If I can achieve that, what more do I have in me?
The key is to look at your life holistically and try not to compare yourself to everyone else. The more we are able to avoid dismissing what we’ve done and who we really are broadens our definition of success—from learning a new language or tackling a new CMS to essential life goals like sustaining friendships and caring for those you love.
Why? Thoughts aren’t real, but they have a powerful way of creating feelings that are never less than real. Feelings such as anxiety, fear, and panic exhaust us, making it hard to concentrate, which in turns makes us doubt our abilities. Each of these techniques disrupts the loop between false negative thinking and our feelings.
Am I done yet? With patience and practice, your imposter syndrome will ease like a hangover after a hearty brunch. A new boss, a change in role, or a new job may make the beast stir again, so repeat these tasks whenever doubt kicks in.