Imposter syndrome is the feeling that you are out of your depth and not good enough for your position. There is a constant feeling that you will be found to be incompetent and therefore humiliated. At it’s core it’s a fear of failure and of losing face. It often stems from negative feedback as a child or adolescent, particularly from perfectionist or demanding parents or teachers.
They say that 70% of people suffer from it at some point in time. It is common amongst high achievers. Famous people who have admitted to it are Tom Hanks, Lady Gaga, Howard Schultz, founder of Starbucks and Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. These are very powerful people, so we’re not alone. I’m not in that category, but I too suffer from imposter syndrome. Here’s how I deal with it.
I’m not going to go into the deep psychological reasons; I’m focussing on suggestions of how to handle it. I’m not dealing with the case where someone has deliberately lied, either by commission or omission. They may indeed be real imposters and can live in eternal fear that they will be discovered.
Very often imposter syndrome has to do with people feeling that they were just ‘lucky.’ On any given day they represented themselves in a favourable light (without any dishonesty) and then feel that they just aren’t up to the job. However, their intention to be in the position is what’s important and should be built on.
I believe that you should start at the heart of the matter, which, for me, is acknowledging that you are totally responsible for yourself and for making the most of your life. This is the cornerstone of self-esteem and self-respect.
Even if you have both, you may still have imposter syndrome, but you are better placed to deal with it.
It would be easy to say, ‘Get over it.’ However, if that’s your feeling, it’s a fact. What I do say is ‘Get on with it.’ Get on with life, even with the syndrome. Focus on the job at hand. You’re there – be present. There’s no better way of overcoming imposter syndrome than by achieving successes. Small successes lead to larger successes. Do your homework, if necessary put in extra hours. The captain of a ship in a storm can’t start wondering if he or she is good enough for job. They’ve got to get the ship to shore safely.
You were chosen for that job. You must have had some competence. Focus on your strengths and achievements. You are probably much better than you think at that moment.
You never have to apologise for living. You have as much right as anyone else to be in your position. You’re there because of your particular skill set. You deserve to be there, otherwise you would be somewhere else.
Imposter syndrome often happens when we compare ourselves to others and think that they are much better than us. It is these comparisons that are destructive. If every tennis player compared himself or herself to Roger Federer or Serena Williams they’d cut their throats. They don’t have to be the best in the world; they just must be the best that they can be. There are always people who are going to be better than you, but that doesn’t mean to say that you aren’t enough. You are.
In the musical, Fiddler on the Roof, the tailor, Motel Kamzoil, asks Tevye for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Tevye says, ‘But you’re only a poor tailor.’ To which Motel replies, ‘Yes, but even a poor tailor’s entitled to happiness.’
Handling imposter syndrome (and nearly all other situations) depends on your self-talk.
If you find yourself making comparisons say to yourself, ‘Stop. Don’t go there.’ Say, ‘What do I have to do to succeed.’ Have a vision of what success looks like. Write down what you need to do and make a plan. Writing things down exorcises ghosts and unfounded fears and creates a concrete path going forward. When you write things down and commit to a plan, you go from anxiety to action. I can assure you that your fears will dissipate.
Say to yourself, ‘What do I have to lose?’ The only failure is not starting.
Change your self-talk from ‘Oh my God I’m going to be found out.’ To ‘Oh boy, I have a chance to succeed.’ As the saying goes, ‘In order to succeed your desire for success needs to be greater than your fear of failure.’ Or in the words of the book, ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway.’ (Susan Jeffers, Penguin Random House, 2007)
You could also ask yourself, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ Be prepared to accept your worst case scenario. It’s probably not as bad as you think. Also ask yourself, ‘What’s the best case scenario?’ Focus on that when the imposter syndrome strikes.
It’s OK to make mistakes. James Dyson took five years and made 5,126 prototypes of his vacuum cleaner before he launched the finished product. Accept you’re not perfect. ‘Failure’ is valuable because it shows you what not to do next time. It is not weakness to ask for guidance or help. The most powerful people in the world have advisors.
It may help to find a confidant with whom you can discuss your fears. Talking about it can shed light and be cathartic. However, it should only be to a trusted person in a confidential setting. If you feel safe in your employment, you may confide in an empathetic boss.
I’ve published my little book and if I compare it to books by Tony Robbins, Wayne Dyer, Simon Sinek, Adam Grant, Dale Carnegie and others it really is insignificant. To overcome this, my self-talk is, ‘This is me, I’ve given it everything I can, this is my contribution, if no one reads it, it doesn’t make it any less worthwhile.’ In terms of sales of course it is relatively minute, but I have discovered that it is valuable to a number of people.
One young man calls it his bible and says that he keeps it next to his bed. If he has any problem he refers to it. Numerous people have told me how they’ve changed their behaviour. One woman extricated herself from a psychologically abusive relationship after 40 years. She said that it’s the first time that she’s felt free. Another woman gave up on her daydream of opening a health shop to give her full focus to her job. She was offered a promotion within six weeks of making the commitment. When I hear these stories, I’m proud of what I’ve achieved even if I’m number 32,002 on the Amazon best seller list for self-help books.
The opposite of imposter syndrome is having confidence and a quiet certainty that what you are doing is the best course of action. Most people, even those with imposter syndrome, have reasonable certainty in their everyday jobs. Overconfidence and arrogance will almost certainly end in tears.
With self-talk that focuses on a positive mind set, it is within your power to overcome imposter syndrome, or to at least do a good job while living with it.