The imposter syndrome is something that is felt by successful, talented individuals who cannot accept their success and live in a state of anxiousness because they feel they are ‘faking it’ and that they will get ‘found out’ because they are a ‘fraud’.
If you are struggling with imposter syndrome you are likely to attribute your success to some form of luck - you feel you fooled the interviewer, someone helped you at the right moment, no-one else must of applied for the position, the exams were easier this year etc - rather than being able to internalise your external marks of success, accepting the true value of your own capabilities and skills.
Dr Pauline Clance and Dr Suzanne Imes first explored the imposter phenomenon in their 1978 paper, The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention, which details their 5 years of research with over 150 highly successful women. I have taken the following from their abstract as 40 years later, I find this still perfectly sums up the feelings I am working through with my amazing, talented clients:
“The term impostor phenomenon is used to designate an internal experience of intellectual phonies, which appears to be particularly prevalent and intense among a select sample of high achieving women.... Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persists in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. Numerous achievements, which one might expect to provide ample object evidence of superior intellectual functioning, do not appear to affect the impostor belief.”
The imposter phenomenon, Clance and Imes research suggests is then perpetuated by the societal expectations of men and women - with women being seen as ‘less intelligent/business minded/strong’ than men. I would like to think that 40 years on this is no longer the case, but the gender pay gap reports would suggest that this is still an issue, and there are gender differences we still see in everyday life - on the red carpet interviews where the men are asked about their film and the women are asked who they are wearing; the need to name the female gender - “I saw a female doctor”, “the first woman to…”. These subconscious cues make being female something ‘special’ or different and that any achievements are even more amazing because we are female - but instead of feeling this, we have more of a feeling of being an imposter because we are a women achieving something that we are being told on some level we shouldn’t in a ‘man’s world’.
Clance co-authored a paper in 1993 with Joe Langford called The Imposter Phenomenon: Recent Research Findings Regarding Dynamics, Personality and Family Patterns and Their Implications for Treatment, and suggests that if society have lower expectations for what women can achieve, then when we exceed these, we are more likely to put our success down to a cause that is external to us and our abilities.
However, in the same paper they acknowledge that both men and women can equally suffer from the imposter syndrome. As Trisha Lewis concurs, “The Impostor Syndrome is not confined to a group of people - it can be found in well over 70% of the population - both genders, all ages, all backgrounds, all personalities... It is wildly rampant amongst the highly skilled and outwardly confident - it lurks amongst academics and actors alike!”
Feeling like an imposter in one area of your life, but not others is also very normal. You may feel genuinely confident giving a presentation, but feel like a fraud in a boardroom scenario. When interviewed by Dynamic Business in 2016, Dr Natalie Ferres said: “Imposter syndrome is not a pathological condition and people don’t suffer from it all the time. It’s less of a constant foe and more of a triggered response. In fact, it’s possible for someone to display imposter syndrome in one situation but feel brilliant, creative and special in another setting.”
So with the majority of us suffering from imposter syndrome at some point, then doesn’t that make imposter syndrome the ‘norm’? Boom Shikha, the Millionaire Hippie explains we often feel imposter syndrome when we are ‘leveling up’ - going into a new area, stepping into a higher position with more responsibility. If we see it like this, we are seeing it as a good thing - we are taking on a new challenge, and feeling not good enough is our way of understanding the fear of moving outside our comfort zone into something new. Reframing our experience from ‘not being good enough’ to ‘a period of adjustment as I level up’ may be helpful.
As Susan Jeffers famously put it, do we need to feel the fear and do it anyway? Maybe being a high achiever means you will always experience an element of imposter syndrome as you are moving to something unknown and have to learn a new skill, way of being, or role to be successful in your next challenge. Accepting that you want to keep achieving and growing, I think the key is then to have strategies to manage these feelings - below is an example that might work for you:
Acknowledge the feelings. Name the emotions. Sit with them. Appreciate these feelings - you are trying to protect yourself, you are looking to improve. Be aware and start to notice when you experience these feelings - where does it happen, when? Is there a particular trigger? If you feel confident, when and how does this happen?
What is the work you need to do? Do you need to improve? Are there training/qualifications/experience you need to acquire? Or is this about your mindset? Do you need to accept what you have achieved already? What lessons can you take from these accomplishments to support you in changing your mindset on how you are feeling at the moment? If this was a friend, what would you say to them?
Be aware of what are you saying to yourself. I always said “You’re stupid” to myself when I dropped something. When I caught myself I realised I said this A LOT! What effect do you think this had on me? What could I say instead? Just becoming aware, meant I reduced the amount of times I said it - or when I did, I could ask “is that true?” and if it wasn’t to change my thought process. The progression from this is changing what you say into something positive. For example, “I am not perfect but I am doing the best I can” or “I meet myself where I am now” or “I forgive myself” or “I love myself”. Do you feel different reading this? Using “I” means I can associate into this, it is me, I’m not pointing a judgemental finger.
Journal - write down your feelings - don’t censor yourself - just let it flow. You will see how getting things out will reduce the impact it has on you, and how often you run out of words, or you get to the answer you are looking for, or, when it is on paper it just seems smaller. And, if it still does seem as big, you will be able to review and see if there are any patterns to be aware of - triggers, clusters in the writing etc - you can then put plans in place to tackle each of these.
If you want more strategies for overcoming imposter syndrome, you can sign up to a free 3 step guide here.
About the Author
Lindsey is a professional life and executive coach who specialises in working with amazing women who secretly struggle with imposter syndrome to help you feel genuinely confident in your own unique awesomeness!