Do you ever feel surprised by what you have accomplished? Ever been in a situation where you are succeeding and everyone else thinks you are doing and achieving great things, but you are terrified that someone is going to find out you really have no idea what you are doing? If you have then it is most likely you suffer from Imposter Syndrome.
So what is Imposter Syndrome? Imposter Syndrome (or Phenomenon) as a concept came about in 1978 by researchers at Georgia State University. One of the researchers, Pauline Clance, was experiencing irrational fears of failure when it came to her exams and academic work, and she also began to notice it that seemed to be common with other women in the academic space. Clance and her associate conducted a study on the issue and found those who suffer from Imposter Phenomenon “maintain a strong belief that they are not intelligent; in fact they are convinced that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise”. This belief is held regardless of any proof to the contrary.
According to a report by Harvard Business Review people affected by Imposter Syndrome are those who “suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.” It doesn’t seem to matter how successful people suffering with this condition are, because they seem unable to recognise their success. The HBR report says while we might think it simply stems from low self-esteem or a lack of self-confidence, it is more likely that it comes from the need for perfectionism.
Much of the discussion around Imposter Syndrome tends to be based on it affecting mainly women – even high profile women like Sheryl Sandberg and Emma Watson have spoken about feeling this way – however it seems that it affects men just the same.
Mike Cannon-Brookes, co-founder of Atlassian, has spoken about dealing with Imposter Syndrome. It is easy to assume that achieving billionaire status would reassure you that you are doing something right, but this is not necessarily the case. In his 2017 TEDx talk, Cannon-Brookes spoke about how he still feels like he will be found out to be in over his head and basically fluking it.
Shoe designer Steve Madden, despite all of his success (including coming back from a stint in prison), has spoken about the part of himself that doesn’t actually believe he is any good. He says he is constantly waiting to be found out, almost looking for reasons to be able to say to himself, ‘See you are a failure. I told you so’. That is what spurs him on to, as he says, “grind and earn”.
If you do suffer from Imposter Syndrome, there are things you can do to try and overcome it.
Learn to recognise what it is when it’s happening. If you can be aware of what you are feeling, then you can change your self-talk. You can remind yourself of what you have achieved, and that perfection is unattainable. Remember, you are not supposed to know everything.
Check the context of the situation. There are times when it is fine to not know what you are doing, and to acknowledge that you are learning as you go. Rather than be critical of yourself when you are not successful at something, look at it as a learning experience and as part of the process. Talk to others – you might be surprised how many other people you know suffer with Imposter Syndrome.
Celebrate the successes. Take note of and celebrate when you do have successes, and share them with those close to you. It is important to accept the role you have played in your success.
Take some time out. Many people recommend yoga and meditation as a way to get on top of the feelings of insecurity and to learn to quiet the critical voice in your head.