“I’ve written 11 books, but each time a new one comes out I think, uh-oh they’re going to find me out” – Maya Angelou
The term ‘Imposter Syndrome’ was first coined in 1978 by psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes, who tried to understand why high achieving women often attributed their success to luck rather than accomplishment. Today, most people will admit to experiencing self-doubt, with 7 in 10 adults feeling like an imposter at some point in their lives. It doesn’t discriminate and can happen to anyone regardless of the level of success a person has achieved in their field. However, there are factors like race and gender that can increase the chances of experiencing imposter syndrome.
Essentially, imposter syndrome is that voice telling you that you don’t deserve to be “here” wherever that means for you and can manifest itself in many ways, stirring up feelings of fear, anxiety and stress:
- Work – Attributing success to luck instead of your own abilities and skills. It might present itself when you’re job-searching and questioning whether you are capable of doing the job you have direct experience and skills for. Or, it might be you’re scared to make a mistake, fearing that if you do the wrong thing or even ask for support, you will be ‘exposed’ as inexperienced. To overcome this feeling you might try to overwork yourself or develop a harmful tendency towards perfectionism. Lack of representation on the team or at senior levels can increase the feeling of being out of place
- Studying – Picture the scene: The teacher says “There’s no such thing as a silly question” only to be met with silence. Imposter syndrome could be stopping you speak up in class or asking questions for fear that teachers or classmates might think you’re clueless.
- Relationships – Feeling unworthy of receiving affection from a significant other, fearing that your partner might discover that you’re not good after all. These imposter fears can cause us to self-sabotage by provoking arguments and assuming we’re being judged or rejected when we’re not.
Dealing with the Imposter
- Notice the signs – Recognising when the critical voice is appearing is the first step to overcoming imposter syndrome. Notice how you respond in those situations – Do you procrastinate with tasks, fearing that you’ll make a mistake? How do you respond to praise and feedback? Are you comfortable with asking for help? All of these questions can help you identify what’s going on for you.
- Separate feelings from fact – Acknowledge how you’re feeling but try not to get consumed by it. Just because that critical voice is talking, doesn’t mean that they are true and you have to listen to it. What can you say to yourself to challenge those negative thoughts? If positive self-talk is hard for you to do, think about what you would say to a friend if they were doubting their abilities. Writing persistent negative thoughts down can also be a helpful way of externalising and putting them into perspective. Once you’ve written down your worries, you can look at how these thoughts can be turned into positives.
- Take note of your accomplishments – It can be helpful to write down your accomplishments so you have a visible reminder of what you’re capable of when you’re doubting your abilities. It could be a list on your phone, a folder of positive feedback received. Write it down anywhere that’s accessible so that dose of encouragement is within reach when you notice that self-doubt is creeping in.
- Don’t fall into the comparison trap – I am well aware of how easy it is to go from casually scrolling on social media, to tripping and falling into a game of comparison and feeling like you’re not measuring up. Having your blinkers on and focusing on your own path and achievements will help when combatting the imposter.
- Talk – Part of what makes impostor syndrome so powerful is the feeling that if we talk about it, we will expose ourselves as a fraud. However, talking to someone can help you realise that your imposter feelings are normal but also irrational. If the other person you’re sharing with discusses some of their struggles, it might also help you see that you’re not alone and that we’ve all felt like a fraud at some point.
- Say “yes” to new opportunities – Taking yourself out of the comfort zone can be daunting, but it can also encourage you to challenge the imposter syndrome more and also give you new material to add to your list of accomplishments.