Originally published in Balanced Life magazine
You’ve been selected to head up a really big project at work. Your colleagues all pat you on the back, knowing you’ll nail it like you do everything else. What a career coup! Who wouldn’t be on top of the world right now? Except, you’re not. Inside, you’re afraid – very afraid.
It’s not the nervous excitement and healthy anticipation of a challenge, either. It’s the fear that it’s only a matter of time before everyone finds out what a big, fat fraud you are. There’s no way you’re qualified enough for this job. All of your success up until now has been down to dumb luck and simply finding yourself in right-place-right-time scenarios. And, soon, everyone else is going to know that too...
In good company
If you’re feeling this way, take comfort that you are not the only one. In fact, these feelings are so common among high-achieving women that, in 1978, two US clinical psychologists, Drs Suzanne Imes and Pauline Clance, gave the phenomenon a name: impostor syndrome. They describe it as an inability to recognise your own efforts, and a constant fear of being unmasked as a fraud.
The sufferers of impostor syndrome are legion. It affects everyone from that colleague who you think sails through life, to actress and writer Tina Fey, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and even poet and activist Maya Angelou – the woman we all thought had some sort of direct line to the secrets of the universe.
‘I have written 11 books,’ she once said, ‘but each time I think, “Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they are going to find me out”.’
What causes it?
Impostor syndrome isn’t a mental disorder. Rather, it’s a reaction to circumstances. Some researchers think that it affects women more than it does men, as women are generally more likely to undervalue themselves.
Certainly it seems to affect a lot of women in traditionally male-dominated professional fields – particularly science, technology, engineering and medicine. And it goes right up to the very top: ‘There are an awful lot of people out there who think I’m an expert. How do these people believe all this about me? I’m so aware of all the things that I don’t know,’ confesses Dr Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization.
‘The thing about “impostors” is that they have unsustainably high standards for everything they do,’ says Dr Valerie Young in her book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why capable people suffer from the impostor syndrome and how to thrive in spite of it. ‘The thinking here is, “If I don’t know everything, then I know nothing. If it’s not absolutely perfect, it’s woefully deficient. If I’m not operating at the top of my game, I’m incompetent”.’
Imposter syndrome is not to be confused with a dose of healthy humility. Not only can it drain your energy and self-confidence, but Dr Young says impostor syndrome can make you averse to taking risks in your career, which may negatively impact your future success.
STOP IMPOSTER SYNDROME IN ITS TRACKS
1. Take an honest look at yourself
Make a list of everything you bring to the table, right down to your ‘soft’ skills, such as time management or your ability to communicate well. Now take stock of your successes and assess how your skills helped bring them to fruition. This will help you realise that you play an active role in your own achievements.
2. When in doubt, ask
Personally, I usually experience impostor syndrome when I don’t know something. Panic sets in immediately. But, often, there’s no way I could be in possession of this missing information without having asked someone first. Why do we expect ourselves to know everything about everything, when nobody else does? Asking questions if you’re unsure doesn’t make you a fraud, it means you’re taking the opportunity to learn more.
3. Stop comparing yourself
Period. Little Miss High-Flyer in the corner office may feel like just as much of an impostor as you do. You’ll never know. Rather focus on the task at hand.
4. Reassess mistakes
This year, Cristiano Ronaldo’s strike accuracy is down to about 40% in La Liga. That means his shots have been off target for more than half of the time. Has he been faking being one of the world’s best football players? Should Real Madrid fire him? Of course not.
Messing up at work may be your greatest fear (‘Everyone will know I can’t do this job!’), but it is time to re-examine your feelings about mistakes. ‘Understand the learning value to be found in failure, and gain confidence from overcoming adversity, rather than running from it,’ says Dr Young. ‘It’s okay to falter. The key is to get back in the game and try again.’
5. Have a confidence ritual
We’re not suggesting you chant naked in the moonlight; just that you have a plan when your confidence starts to ebb. Whether it’s mentally listing your accomplishments, hitting the yoga mat or chatting to a friend, only you know how to talk yourself off the ledge.
Are you suffering from imposter syndrome?
Author Dr Valerie Young outlines the symptoms to watch for:
1. Do you always chalk your success up to luck or timing?
2. Do you believe that if you can do it, anyone can?
3. Do you agonise over the smallest flaws in your work?
4. Are you crushed by constructive criticism, seeing it as evidence of your ineptitude?
5. When you succeed, do you secretly feel as though you fooled everyone again?
6. Do you worry it’s just a matter of time before you’re 'found out'?