Have you ever woken up in the morning and wondered if today was the day that you would be exposed as a fraud? That everyone would find out that you are not what you appear to be and the ‘real’ you would be exposed?
If you have, don’t worry you are in very good company:
"[I would] wake up in the morning before going off to a shoot, and think, I can’t do this; I’m a fraud," Kate Winslet.
‘I think the most creative people veer between ambition and anxiety, self-doubt and confidence. I definitely can relate to that. We all go through that: “Am I doing the right thing?” “Is this what I’m meant to be doing?”‘ Daniel Radcliffe
Liz Bingham, managing partner at accountants Ernst & Young, also remembers thinking to herself: "What are you doing here? What do you think you’re doing? You’re going to be found out."
The novelist Maya Angelou admitted "I have written eleven books, but each time I think, 'uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.'"
[Angelou was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and won five Grammys for her spoken recordings, plus a myriad other awards.]
The term “Imposter Syndrome” was first used back in 1978 by Pauline Clance and Suzannes Imes in their paper The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women. And while it seems to be something that mainly affects women, it is certainly not exclusive to women.
According to a study in the International Journal of Behavioral Science by Jaruwan Sakulku and James Alexander 70% of people feel this way. Not only is that a huge percentage of the population but the authors go on to say that if Imposter Syndrome is prolonged without intervention it can lead to clinical levels of depression and anxiety.
So what exactly is going on here? Why do so many people feel like a fraud? And what can we do to limit the impact of Imposter Syndrome?
In the last hundred years, and especially the last couple of decades, the world has changed beyond any recognition of what it was before. Our lives and working landscapes have been utterly transformed by technology at a pace that shows no signs of slowing down.
Therefore no matter how skilled we are at our work, technology is growing so fast that most of us are learning something new on almost a daily basis. And that can make you feel like you don’t have the expertise you should.
Meanwhile, other people’s Facebook and LinkedIn pages make it seem like they’ve got it all together, or that they are more successful than you because they have more followers. But there’s a big chance that your perception isn’t in line with reality.
Individuals who experience Imposter Syndrome may be highly successful but unable to internalise their success, or as I describe it, unable to ‘own your achievements”. So sadly for impostors, success does not equal happiness.
As the old Hollywood saying goes, “You’re only as good as your last film” so instead of being able to enjoy their achievements, impostors nervously lurch from one high point to another, constantly looking for reassurance from others. When they don’t get that constant reassurance, which is impossible to maintain in any profession or walk of life, they fall in to despair, anxiety, guilt, shame, burnout and emotional exhaustion.
It is easy to see how all these factors contribute to make the perfect storm for Imposter Syndrome to develop and take over, leading to overwork and exhaustion in what Sakulku and Alexander describe as the Imposter Cycle.
We’ve all met that Uber-confident type of person, the “Don Draper” types who seem to have it all together and do not appear to be fazed by anything. But appearances can de deceiving. These might be people who are just as qualified or experienced as us, but are more adept at selling themselves – ‘walking the walk and talking the talk’.
It’s true that some people are more impervious to outside perceptions or criticism, but scratch the surface and you’ll probably discover that even the most confident of individuals are not bulletproof and experience self-doubt and a lack of confidence at least sometimes. [By the way, watch Mad Men, if you haven’t already. It’s a real lesson in how not to do business!]
The Imposter Syndrome and self-sabotage.
So what can we do to tackle Imposter Syndrome before it takes hold and we get stuck in a cycle of overwork and anxiety?
One of the ways in which you can limit the impact of imposter syndrome is by ensuring that you are setting achievable goals for yourself and your business. Now I’m all for getting people to challenge themselves and getting them of their comfort zones, but coaching is about setting realistic goals and going at a pace that works for you. It is not about setting such huge, unachievable goals that you never reach them and so the carrot of ‘success’ is always just out of reach (More about success later).
If you set unrealistic goals for yourself, you will not be surprised when you don’t achieve them and this in turn will add to your underlying fear of being an imposter. This is otherwise known as self-sabotage, or setting yourself up to fail.
Let me tell you a story to explain what I mean.
I recently met with a coaching colleague who told me about a client of theirs who was a published author. Although the client had had some success, he never quite felt as if he were really writing to his true potential, and felt very dissatisfied with his work. Now to the outside world he probably seemed quite successful and accomplished, but inside he knew he was capable of being more creative, and being the writer he really wanted to be.
After a couple of sessions and exploring this issue further, the coachee realised that he was unconsciously playing out a familiar scenario as his mother had been a journalist, but had never worked with the newspapers she really wanted to, and had ended up being very frustrated and unfulfilled.
He had unconsciously created a scenario where his lack of success enabled him to identify and stay close to his mother, even though it made him unhappy. He had chosen to stay stuck in his frustration, rather than take responsibility for being the creative writer he knew he really could be.
We don’t often think of it this way, but success comes with responsibility. And sometimes the fear of achieving this success, what it might mean to others around us and therefore the responsibility that goes with success can be overwhelming, so people unconsciously choose the path of least resistance and side-step their goals, meaning that you never actually achieve that success, or step in to who you really want to be.
What is ‘success’? And is success just down to luck?
I always ask new clients how they define success. This is partly to help establish the goals they want to achieve, but it is mostly because I want to ensure that person is bringing their authentic self to their business. What do I mean by ‘authentic’? From childhood onwards, our notion of what it means to be successful is driven by many factors; parents and family, how society defines success, peers, teachers and so on.
What our parents did, (or crucially were not able to do in their lives), often sets the tone for our own notions of what it means to be successful, which is then reinforced throughout life by society and so on. So, just like in the story above, sometimes when people try and define success for themselves, they are so mired in their family’s/society’s version of success, that they haven’t even realised who they are and what is important to them.
Society has a lot to answer for when it comes to universally agreed ideas of success because it is such a narrow definition; earn a lot of money; buy a big expensive house and a fancy car; find the man/woman of your dreams; have a family; retire at 45 etc.
In fact increasingly, the people I see in my coaching practice are mostly aiming to simplify their lives and the phrase I hear almost on a daily basis is to ‘get back a work/life balance’. Yes they want to be comfortable and have a business that is financially sustainable, but they also want to spend time with partners or family, and be able to take a nice holiday once in a while.
So be sure that you get some clarity about what success means to you. It may take some time, but once you know what success means to you, you are much more likely to achieve it and be able to bring that sense of authenticity to everything you do.
The more intense your sense of Imposter Syndrome is, the more likely you are to attribute your success to luck, rather than your own merit. Certainly in my coaching work I have witnessed many people who never take credit for what they have achieved and always attribute their success to external rather than internal factors.
This compounds their sense of certainty that they are a fraud, and often drives them to overworking.
So how can you break the negative cycle of Imposter Syndrome?
Self-awareness and acceptance is key. Once you fully accept that you sometimes feel like a fraud, and feel out of your depth, you are well on your way to breaking patterns of thought that might be holding you back.
Six ways to deal with imposter Syndrome so you can be your authentic self and get back to enjoying what you do.
1. Share experiences with others. If 70% of the population have experienced Imposter Syndrome then you are bound to know someone who feels like you. Finding soul mates and allies, discovering that you’re not alone can be very reassuring.
2. Celebrate your achievements and who you are. Equally, learn to take praise and internalise it – don’t discount it. If someone praises your work, just smile and say “thank you”!
3. And it should be remembered that everyone’s entitled to make mistakes from time to time – so instead of beating yourself up, decide to learn from them and move on.
4. The same goes for failure. If you don’t fail then you cannot learn.
5. Learn to take criticism seriously, not personally.
6. And finally let go of perfectionism! If you attempt perfection you are going to fall short, which in turn leads to self-sabotage. Remember, Being ‘good enough’ is good enough!
And finally if you feel like you need more support in breaking the pattern of Imposter Syndrome then find out more about how business coaching can help. Click here to book a phone call.