“You’re going to have to come with us. You have been found out. Your time here is up”. “Finally!” you think to yourself as you are escorted out of your office building and breathe a sigh of relief that Management have uncovered your incompetence long at last…
Does anyone else ever feel like it is only a matter of time before someone is going to call your bluff? That you are going to be exposed as the fraud you really are? My hand is up!
At various times over the years, I have felt out of my depth, that I didn’t have a right to be in my role and that I was an imposter. For fear that I would not be given opportunities to step up or worse that I would lose my job, I kept silent. “Fake it until you make it”, right? And then a few years ago, I discovered others thought this same way and that there was a name for these feelings.
Imposter syndrome emanates as a lack of confidence, that at any given moment you are going to be found out as a fake. It can be described as a feeling that you’re inadequate, not worthy of any success and that you are only in your position because of luck despite any evidence of competence.
The term was first coined by researchers Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978, who used it to describe “the internal experiences of intellectual phonies.” Their research concluded that this phenomenon can stem from one’s upbringing and family dynamics (as in continuously trying to outdo a sibling or being told by your parents that you can excel at anything) and / or social expectations. They also theorised that it was particularly prevalent and intense among high achieving women.
However, we now know that this phenomenon affects just as many men. Research also implies that the majority of us will experience it at some point in time unless of course you have abnormally high levels of overconfidence and narcissism.
Unfortunately these feelings don’t go away when you get to the top. Many people at the height of their success have spoken about their own battles with imposter syndrome including Kate Winslet, Tina Fey, Meryl Streep. Sheryl Sandberg, Serena Williams, David Bowie and Ariana Huffington. Even Albert Einstein claimed that “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.” And more recently, Altassian founder, Mike Cannon-Brookes shared his experiences on dealing with this syndrome on Ted X.
Yet there is some good news. These feelings can motivate you to work hard as a way of trying to prove yourself and encourage continuous learning. They can also lead to successful personal relationships, particularly when two partners experience imposter syndrome because both believe they are batting way above and are therefore always trying to be at their best.
So how do you overcome these feelings of illegitimacy? The greatest piece of advice I have been given is to embrace the negative self-talk and know how to respond to it. You can do this by reframing the words you hear to uncover the positive and appreciate that they are coming from a good place. If you are a perfectionist, you need to realise that 70% is good enough. Consider the fear of failure and moving outside your comfort zone as opportunities to use your strengths and to learn and grow, because if you stay still, you will fall behind. Celebrate your successes and accept compliments and positive feedback. And of course know that you are not alone. In fact, all the smart, successful people that you think have their sh*t together are most likely suffering from imposter syndrome too.