Do you feel that you’re waiting to be found out, that your success is due to luck or that others have an inflated view of you? If so, you’re not alone.

 

Impostor syndrome: A guest post by Lorna Clarke, Leadership Coach and Facilitator and Coach in Residence for the Women in Innovation Programme.

 

Impostor syndrome (or the impostor phenomenon as it is correctly known) is defined as, ‘an intense feeling of intellectual phoniness, despite successes’ 1. It affects high performing and successful women and men, who feel anything but. Commonly, 70% of successful people are likely to experience it at some point 2.

Technically it’s not a syndrome, a syndrome remains constant over time.  For most of us it comes and goes, it shows up in specific situations, and it exists on a scale of intensity unique to each of us.

It has three defining features 3:

  1. The tendency to think that others see you as more competent than you are.
  2. An underlying fear that your true abilities will be found out.
  3. A persistent tendency to attribute your successes to external factors, such as luck, your team, or that ‘anyone could have done it, rather than owning these. You may also find yourself agonising over criticism or mistakes, however small.

When does it show up? 

Many of us have felt like impostors at various times in our careers and lives. It’s often triggered:

  • During times of change or when there’s a new challenge, such as taking on a new role, greater responsibility, or working in an area that has a higher profile.
  • Where there’s a highly critical culture where mistakes are not tolerated or are met with disapproval. This increases anxiety around making mistakes, failing, and being found out.

These feelings can be intensified when an individual feels isolated, or that they don’t belong, or where there are other sources of stress such as a lack of support at home or health issues.

How does it show up?

Often people experiencing impostor syndrome adopt unhelpful coping strategies to avoid being found out. Common ones include:

  • Over preparation and hard work
  • Perfectionism
  • Procrastination
  • Hiding out, avoiding or keeping a low profile
  • Not finishing
  • Self-handicapping
Whilst these may lead to greater success, they come at a significant cost to health, individual and team performance, and relationships, often resulting in bouts of high anxiety and stress and risking burnout.

What can you do?

Building a more accurate view of ourselves

With impostor syndrome, we hold an inaccurate view of ourselves. We can develop a more accurate view by building up evidence of the facts.

Take time to reflect on this question: Looking back on your life what are the accomplishments, achievements, or successes that you are most proud of?

These can be small or large, personal or professional, drawing in all your strengths, skills, and the positive feedback you’ve received. Write everything down, resisting the temptation to judge or explain away your accomplishments, achievements, and successes. Read this regularly to help internalise and own your successes.

Practice asking for and accepting feedback

To create a new narrative and help internalise our accomplishments, we can ask for and practice accepting feedback. Others often see us differently from how we see ourselves and can help us take a more rounded self-view.

Many associate feedback with criticism or judgement, so start by:

  • Asking people you respect and trust
  • Keep a record of all the positive feedback you receive
  • Resist saying anything other than thank you
  • Refer to, read, and keep adding to your feedback often

And allow yourself to take as much nourishment from the feedback as possible.

Developing greater self-compassion

How we drive ourselves through impostor syndrome is often harsh, relentless, and loaded with judgement and self-criticism.

Developing greater self-compassion helps combat the cycle of self-defeating thoughts and behaviours. A helpful exercise is to imagine ‘what would you say to a close friend in the same situation?’

These responses can be called upon when impostor thoughts arise, or if you catch yourself using unhelpful coping strategies.

Catching and rethinking comparison

With impostor syndrome we often compare our weaknesses to others’ strengths, thinking everyone is more competent, and capable.

Constant comparison results in high self-criticism, reinforcing impostor thoughts and feelings. By consciously noticing when we are doing it, we can make a conscious choice to stop.

Comparing ourselves to others is not a kind practice. Each of us is on a different path, with our unique skills and abilities, and everyone progresses at their rate.

Curious to learn about the impostor cycle and be guided through further exercises? Watch the full KTN Impostor Syndrome webinar recording below!

 

1 Clance, P.R. (1985), The impostor phenomenon: Overcoming the fear that haunts your success. Atlanta: Peachtree Publishers.

2 Matthews, G. (1984).  Impostor Phenomenon: Attributions for Success and Failure. In G.Matthews (Chair), Impostor phenomenon: Research, assessment, and treatment issues.  Symposium conducted at the 92nd Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, Toronto, Canada.

3 Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention, in Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice 15(3), 241–247.

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