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Impostor Syndrome: the belief that sucks the joy out of success

Do you sometimes feel like a fraud? Are you waiting to be found out?

If so, you may be experiencing Impostor Syndrome.  Impostor Syndrome stops you from fully owning and enjoying your achievements and instead causes you to worry about being exposed or having to replicate future success. Ultimately, it’s a huge kill-joy in the face of success.

Whilst I’m not advocating arrogance or narcissism, I believe celebrating our successes is important because it can spur us on to do even greater things in the world. Oh, and it also feels pretty good and brings us joy.

Signs of Impostor Syndrome

Here are a few examples of how Impostor Syndrome can impact on our behaviour:

  • Perfectionism, over-work and burn-out. If you don’t believe you’ve arrived at your current level of success because of your ability it makes perfect sense that you would resort to working really hard to compensate for your lack of skill. You might also believe that over-work will stall or delay your inevitable exposure as a fraud.
  • Putting on a front and creating a persona that feels uncomfortable. Again, if you don’t feel you really deserve to be where you are, by putting up a mask to appear like ‘the sort of person who is successful’ you might avoid others realising how much of a fraud you really are.
  • Spending a lot of time people pleasing and trying to ‘fit in’. Again if you believe those around you are bound to be more intelligent and competent, you’re not going to share an opposing view or risk upsetting people. When we’re feeling insecure about whether we belong or ‘deserve’ to be somewhere, feeling liked and accepted becomes even more important.

In light of the above, it’s really no wonder Impostor Syndrome can be such a hindrance in achieving what we want or experiencing fulfilment in what we do.

The irony of Impostor Syndrome

What is so frustrating about Impostor Syndrome is that it seems far more prevalent in successful, talented people. Without exception, all the clients I have helped to overcome Impostor Syndrome have been bright, successful and talented people.

The actress Jodie Foster was quoted as saying “I always feel like something of an impostor. I don’t know what I’m doing“. John Steinbeck, Maya Angelou and Meryl Streep have also reported similar anxieties. So for those of you who can relate to this article, rest assured you are in very talented, fabulous company.

On the other hand, evidence suggests that the real frauds don’t suffer from impostor syndrome. Research has shown that people who are less competent actually rate their competence more highly than they should. I know…it all seems grossly unfair doesn’t it?

Where does Impostor Syndrome come from?

This will completely depend on the person. Impostor Syndrome tends to be a particular way in which someone has taken on a belief of ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I don’t deserve X, Y or Z’. A few examples of possible reasons for this faulty thinking could be:

  • A role model or care-giver told you (directly or indirectly) that people ‘like you’ (race, gender, sexuality, personality trait) couldn’t do the things you went on to do.
  • Boasting or arrogance was strongly discouraged in your household. Remember how I said at the beginning of the article that I wasn’t encouraging arrogance or narcissism? That’s because I know most readers will live in the UK, where arrogance is strongly frowned upon.
  • You were told to play down your achievements so that you didn’t make other children or siblings feel bad.
  • You could have gained the belief (from a variety of sources) that successful people should act a certain way. A common misconception I often hear from clients is that in order to be successful you should ‘know everything’, never make mistakes and do everything perfectly. The reality is that failure is an integral part of success. Knowing what doesn’t work is just as important as knowing what does. Moreover, the more knowledge and expertise you gain in a certain field, the more you realise where the gaps in your knowledge are. We are living in a society that hates uncertainty and thrives off ‘hacks’ and formulas, but Albert Einstein put it perfectly when he said: “the more I learn, the more I realise how much I don’t know”.

And finally, from an evolutionary perspective, human beings want to belong to their tribe to ensure their survival. Standing out from the crowd can pose a threat to that sense of belonging and ‘playing small’ can seem like a good strategy for staying safe.

Reclaim your energy from Impostor Syndrome

If you’ve identified with the description of Impostor Syndrome, there are some really simple ways of distancing yourself from it and reclaiming your energy. The first is to name it, thereby creating a distance between your identity and Impostor Syndrome thoughts and feelings.

You could name it ‘Impostor Syndrome’ or you could name it Darth Vader, it really doesn’t matter. Every time you experience Impostor Syndrome thoughts and feelings, simply write them down in a notebook or journal. Again, by placing them in writing you are creating more distance between you and ‘it’. You will start to recognise the tone and recurring themes that Impostor Syndrome tends to use to keep you down.

And, even though it may initially feel awkward or clunky, you can actually start to enter into a conversation with your Imposter Syndrome. Rather than having a go at it, ask it: “what do you want?” “What are you trying to achieve for me?”

All behaviour has a positive intention, so the better you can understand why Imposter Syndrome is doing what it’s doing, the better equipped you will be to bring it under control.

I also believe one of the most powerful ways we can overcome Impostor Syndrome and the ‘I’m not good enough’ narrative is to normalise it and talk about it with those we trust. The catalyst for Impostor  Syndrome is shame and secrecy. You now know that these thoughts, feelings and behaviours are experienced by many people. By shining a light on them and risking feeling a bit vulnerable you can build the connection and empathy with those around you.

Work and live free from imposter syndrome

If you’re interested in overcoming Impostor Syndrome, you can book in for a completely free 45 minute Confidence and Clarity call.






11 May 2018