Do you avoid asking a question, evade giving your opinion, or worry about being asked something you can’t answer, for fear of being ‘found out’?
Imposter syndrome is the term coined to describe this fear. Often people describe being at work and feeling that eventually people will realise you shouldn’t be in your job, you don’t know what you are doing, and they made a mistake in appointing you!
People experience this at different levels. Just because someone appears confident or has progressed in their career doesn’t mean they are immune.
Many high profile and indisputably successful women have spoken about experiencing imposter syndrome. This includes Sheryl Sandberg, Lady Gaga, Michelle Obama and Serena Williams.
Meryl Streep is quoted as saying:
“You think, ‘why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?’”
Yet the evidence shows she has won 177 awards, been nominated 407 times and holds the record for most Academy Award nominations; suggesting she can probably act!
Symptoms of imposter syndrome:
- Signs that you may be experiencing imposter syndrome include:
- Not feeling good enough
- Playing down your abilities
- Being uncomfortable with praise
- Focusing on errors rather than successes
Imposter syndrome can be difficult to overcome because of the depth of self-doubt and belief experienced.
Research found women experiencing imposter syndrome adopted particular behaviours:
- Working hard believing that this will result in good performance and approval, thereby avoiding discovery. Unfortunately, the benefits of positive feedback from success are short-lived and can encourage perpetuating the cycle.
- Not expressing their views and ideas but saying what they believe others want to hear. This leads to inauthenticity.
- Seeking approval and trying to impress those viewed as senior or that they admire.
- Gender and cultural expectations which saw over-confidence and appearing to ‘know it all’ as undesirable behaviours, resulting in not sharing knowledge and expertise because of a fear of rejection.
Whilst not an illness, it is unsurprising given the symptoms, that imposter syndrome can affect our health and psychological wellbeing. The unhelpful behaviours adopted can lead to increased stress levels, may contribute to anxiety and depression, and potentially lead to burnout.
Strategies to reduce imposter syndrome
Despite the difficulty in overcoming it, there are strategies you can try to help reduce the unhelpful thoughts found in imposter syndrome.
Notice your self-talk and be kinder
It has been found that those experiencing imposter syndrome were low in self-compassion and therefore likely to have an internal narrative that is judgemental and critical towards themselves. The benefits of being kinder to ourselves are many. When we treat ourselves with kindness, we support ourselves to do better rather than judge and criticise our way to improvement.
Recognise you are not alone in your feelings
Another aspect of self-compassion is that of common humanity versus isolation. This involves us recognising that we are not alone in finding things difficult and sometimes it is ok to acknowledge and accept that something is hard.
Draw on your strengths
We all have our own strengths. Often, we don’t recognise them and fail to leverage the benefits they give. Consider your strengths. Then think about how you can use them more and to an optimal level to achieve even better outcomes.
Challenge your need for perfectionism
If we adopt a growth mindset, then we will constantly seek to learn and develop our abilities. This approach has been shown to be beneficial for our wellbeing and increase positive emotions. Perfect is impossible to reach but we can still have the approach of growing and learning to do things even better.
Practice accepting and appreciating compliments
A common unhelpful thought pattern is finding ‘reasons’ why positive feedback doesn’t count and then only focusing on things we view as having gone wrong. Practice simply thanking someone when they acknowledge work you have done. Or be really brave and compliment yourself when you have completed something well!
If that voice of self-doubt or fear of being found out is familiar, give the strategies above a go. It would be great to hear how you get on.
Marion Hewitt is a Careering into Motherhood partner coach: www.careeringintomotherhood.com/marion-hewitt
August 4, 2022