According to research among global C-suite executives, the biggest fear that they share is being found to be incompetent. This fear can diminish confidence, undermine relationships and can result in extreme behaviour which left unchecked can lead to burnout. What is more, fear of being found to be incompetent can mean being consumed with avoiding failure rather than enjoying the experience of whatever it is that you are doing.
The phenomenon described is called Impostor Syndrome’. The term was first coined by psychologists Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the 1970s. Today we understand that, according to some estimates, up to 70 per cent of successful people have at some point experienced impostor syndrome. These include the theoretical physicist, Albert Einstein, three-times Oscar-winning actress, Meryl Streep, tennis icon Serena Williams and billionaire businessman, Howard Schultz.
“There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud.”Sheryl Sandberg, COO, Facebook
Definition of Imposter Syndrome
Impostor syndrome refers to an internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be. While this definition is usually narrowly applied to intelligence and achievement, it has links to perfectionism and the social context. To put it simply, it is the experience of feeling like a phoney. It may seem that at any moment, you are going to be found out as a fraud. You don’t belong where you are, and you only got there through luck.
Factors Contributing to Impostor Syndrome
We know that certain factors can contribute to the more general experience of impostor syndrome. For example, you might have come from a family that highly valued achievement or had parents who flipped back and forth between offering praise and being critical. We also know that entering a new role can trigger impostor syndrome. For example, starting a new job might leave you feeling as though you don’t belong and are not capable. Evidence suggests that many people experience severe self-doubt at pivotal points in their life. Sometimes this can occur in the midst of outstanding personal success.
“No matter what we’ve done, there comes a point where you think, ‘How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?”Tom Hanks, Oscar-winning actor, director, producer, and screenwriter
Adverse Effects of Impostor Syndrome
While for some people, impostor syndrome can fuel feelings of motivation to achieve; this usually comes at a cost in the form of constant anxiety. You might over-prepare or work much harder than necessary to ‘make sure’ that nobody finds out you are a fraud. You are consumed with avoiding failure rather than enjoying the experience of whatever it is that you are doing.
This action sets up a vicious circle, in which you think that the only reason you survived that client presentation was that you stayed up all night rehearsing. Or perhaps you think the only reason you got through that networking event was that you memorised details about all the guests so that you would always have ideas for small talk. Living like this is exhausting.
The problem with impostor syndrome is that the experience of doing well at something does nothing to change your beliefs. Even though you might sail through a performance or have lunch with co-workers, the thought still nags in your head, ‘What gives me the right to be here? The more you accomplish, the more you feel like a fraud. It is as though you can not relate to your experiences of success.
The irony is that there is evidence to suggest that impostor syndrome correlates with success. People with impostor syndrome tend to be perfectionists, which means they are likely to spend hours working to make sure they excel in every single field. So, if you do experience impostor syndrome, chances are you are doing an excellent job.
“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”Bertrand Russell, Philosopher, Writer, Historian and Nobel laureate.
Tips for Moving Past Impostor Syndrome
Getting past impostor syndrome starts by investigating the source of these feelings. Ask yourself the following questions. Approach these with friendly curiosity and put aside self-criticism.
- What beliefs do I hold about myself?
- What is the evidence that suggests these beliefs are accurate?
- Are these beliefs helping me or getting in my way?
- Do I believe I am worthy just as I am?
- Must I be perfect for others to approve of me?
Make a note your responses. Which of these attitudes and beliefs can be replaced by something more useful? What might be a step in the right direction for you?
Here are seven tips that you might find helpful as you work to break free of limiting beliefs:
Acknowledge your feelings. Remember that while feelings are important, they are just feelings. Learn to recognise negative self-talk about, e.g. being underprepared or lacking experience and counter these with evidence-based statements, such as, ‘I am capable of doing this project because…’ and ‘I am the sort of person who can …’
Seek social support. Talk to people that you trust about how you are feeling. It may surprise you that others also experience similar feelings of self-doubt. They likely have tips of their own to share that could help you. Consider asking for feedback about what you do well and what you can build upon. You might ask what they most value about you, as well as one thing you could change for your own benefit. In return, you might offer to do the same for them.
Conduct a self-inventory. Try doing a personal SWOT analysis to take stock of your strengths and talents, plan strategies to manage your weaknesses/threats and take advantage of any opportunities. Ask yourself ‘what is the evidence?’ as you consider any perceived weaknesses or threats/obstacles. If these genuinely exist, ask yourself – ‘do they matter?’ Then you can choose how to mitigate as appropriate. Think about how you might build upon and extend your strengths, taking into account any feedback received.
Create your personal showreel. A useful technique is to imagine being interviewed for a magazine article by a journalist who wants to show you at your best. View yourself through the eyes of the interviewer. Then write about your accomplishments, career highlights, the personal characteristics and strengths and abilities that got you where you are today. Once complete, read it back. Save your work somewhere easy to access so that you can remind yourself of you at your best.
Gently question your thoughts. As you start to assess your abilities, and take small steps, examine whether your ideas are rational. Does it make sense that you are a fraud, given everything that you know? It can sometimes help to end this process by repeating a mantra such as ‘I am worthy, and that is enough’. Some like to add specifics like being worthy of happiness, love and respect. Do what feels right for you.
Cultivate a growth mindset. With a performance mindset, setbacks tend to show up as ‘proof’ that you are not good enough. Instead, try to cultivate a growth mindset. From this perspective, you can experience your setbacks quite differently. Stumbling becomes an inevitable part of the learning process rather than as evidence of your underlying failings. Ask yourself: ‘What has this experience taught me? and ‘What might I do differently next time?’ Notice how this reframing impacts your self-esteem.
Practice self-acceptance. Allow that all your emotions are valid. Then choose to focus on the ones that best serve you. After all, if you take care of yourself, you are more likely to be capable of taking care of others. In moments of self-doubt, ask yourself: ‘Being on my own side, what is the best thing to do here?’ Then you can move forward with confidence.
Everyone has moments of self-doubt leading to feelings of inadequacy which can fuel insecurity. The uncertain times that we currently live in can amplify these feelings. Apply these seven practical tips to tame any tendencies towards impostor syndrome. As you experiment with these techniques be as kind to yourself as you would to someone else in a similar situation.
Everyone suffers from Impostor Syndrom – Professor Andy Molinsky | Harvard Business Review (2016)
What CEOs are afraid of – Roger Jones | Survey of 116 C-suite executives | Vantage Hill Partners (2015)
The Coach’s Casebook: Impostor Syndrome – Kim Morgan and Geoff Watts (2015)
Escaping the Impostor Syndrome – Fiona Buckland | verywellmind.com (2017)
Just one thing – Professor Rick Hanson | (2011)