“I can’t believe that I am responsible for working with these donors, I have no idea how I got this job?!”
“Anyone could have prepared the monitoring and evaluation plan on such short notice …it was nothing.”
“All my colleagues are more talented than me, it is just a matter of time until my boss finds out.”
Do you ever feel like a fraud?
Aren’t you as good as people think?
Are you worried that people will ‘find you out’?
If you don’t feel this way, you can bet that someone in your organisation does. In almost every coaching session and every leadership programme I’ve run, the issue of ‘imposter syndrome’ has come up. According to Jaruwan Sakulku and James Alexander in the International Journal of Behavioral Science (2011), around 70% of people are believed to suffer from this, at some point.
What’s imposter syndrome?
In 1978, clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the phrase ‘imposter syndrome’ to describe high-achieving women who are unable to internalise or accept their own success. Although men do display these characteristics, too, it’s generally more prevalent in women, for whom this can be a societal-cultural thing. It is said to be a result of upbringing or some childhood experience: perhaps a parent or teacher has limited the child’s expectations, expected too much, or dismissed them in some way. Imposter syndrome is often a limiting belief like, ‘I’m not good enough’ – held by someone who has already achieved something.
Gill Corkindale says, in Harvard Business Review, “High achieving, highly successful people often suffer, so imposter syndrome doesn’t equate with low self-esteem or a lack of self-confidence. In fact, some researchers have linked it with perfectionism, especially in women and among academics.”
In 2012, Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on feeling like a fraud brought imposter syndrome into public awareness again.
This ‘syndrome’ or mindset is older and more widespread than you’d imagine. If you feel like a fraud, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re in good company. Even Einstein said, “The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease – I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.”
How does it show itself?
Three defining features of imposter syndrome have been identified and are measurable: a sense of ‘fooling’ others; attributing one’s success to other factors (luck, accident) rather than one’s own ability, and a fear of being exposed as a fraud (Clance & Imes, 1978).
Imposter syndrome is usually not obvious to external view, precisely because high-flyers appear confident and competent. From the outside, they are successful. Inside, they doubt themselves so much that they don’t believe their own skills, qualities and abilities. They often think they shouldn’t really be where they are, or in the job they are in.
Even if it’s not obvious to others, some people are deeply anxious and depressed, feeling that they are hiding their true ‘incompetence’ and could be found out at any moment. Others are profoundly and privately uncomfortable and worried. They will often ignore praise – or, even if they accept it graciously, they won’t ‘take it in’ or internalise it to truly believe and accept it.
Maya Angelou confessed, “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.’”
People suffering from imposter syndrome may disbelieve positive feedback (they’ll excuse it with beliefs like, “She was just being nice!”). They may ignore or belittle their successful results and discount their own hard work, skills and qualifications. Even when receiving accolades, being promoted or working in a responsible job, they often dismiss their accomplishments as ‘luck’. They are wary of being exposed and live in fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud.
Actress Michelle Pfeifer admitted, “I still think people will find out that I’m really not very talented. I’m really not very good. It’s all been a big sham.”
Such deep-set beliefs not only cause emotional distress like unhappiness and prevent you living your best life – they also affect your professional performance and productivity. Significant issues like stress, perfectionism, fear of failure and procrastination impact on organisations, too. Leaders operating in fear and being over-cautious ‘infects organisations and suppresses entrepreneurship’ (Kets de Vries, 2005).
How can you overcome imposter syndrome?
It isn’t a psychological condition – it’s more of a mindset. And as such, there are things you can do to change your thinking. If you need some assistance, there are people who can help.
Reality check. Look at what you’ve achieved. Make a list of all your good qualities, skills and successes, and value all that you bring, from work and life experiences. Questions to get you thinking…
- What are your top 5 ‘peak moments’ or proudest accomplishments in life?
- What is your unique selling point?
- What is your superpower at work? At home?
Ask for feedback, testimonials and references from clients, colleagues and organisations. If they are positive, make a commitment to believe them. Choose several people who you respect and trust and ask them –
- What one word or phrase best describes me?
- What do you value most about me?
- What do you believe to be my greatest strength?
Identify points for improvement, but don’t beat yourself up about it. It is often better to realistically assess your own competence than to leave it unchecked, without recognising your limitations. And as Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic stresses, don’t forget that a realistic level of confidence – or even under-confidence, can be a good thing. Coaching food for thought –
- What would your colleagues like you to do more/less of?
- When do your strengths become weaknesses?
Accept that everything is a learning curve. If you feel inadequate in any way, use this to motivate you to improve even more, through continuing professional development –
- What would most positively stretch you now?
- What would you have to change in you, to perform well at the next level of management?
Commit to coaching, to supercharge your development and performance. You’ll receive a tremendous return on investment in your learning and self-reflection. You’ll be given the space, time and a framework to get a perspective on work and to address the beliefs and behaviours that form obstacles to your greater success and effectiveness. A coach will ask searching questions to challenge you and your limiting beliefs –
- If what you do is good, what would superb look like?
- What self-limiting beliefs might be getting in the way of your personal development?
Finally, as Julie Starr advises, recognise that you are both “enough and still capable of more.”
Do you feel that you are an imposter? Or do you know someone in your organisation who could use some help?
If you would like to address this, or could benefit from coaching, please get in touch.
If you would like to, please download my coaching programme brochure – Women’s Leadership Coaching – For Women in Development – specifically designed for women working in global development.
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