Even after writing eleven books and winning prestigious awards — from the Presidential Medal of Freedom to a Grammy — Maya Angelou still doubted whether she earned her accomplishments, stating “I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.” Albert Einstein experienced a similar sensation, describing himself as an involuntary swindler whose work didn’t deserve as much attention as it received. What these two superachievers have in common is their feelings of fraudulence. Today there’s a name for it: imposter syndrome.
What is the science behind imposter syndrome and how can we combat it? We spoke to psychologist Hayley Lewis to find out more about this phenomenon and what can be done about the nagging doubt that some of us just can’t shake off.
Developed in the late 1970s following the work of psychologists Dr Pauline R Clance and Suzanne A Imes, it’s where a person believes their success is down to luck or a huge amount of effort. They think their achievements are due to lucky breaks rather than their ability and skill. Underlying this is the feeling of ‘being found out’ because at some point their luck is bound to run out. Typical signs of imposter syndrome include:
Many of the people I’ve helped overcome imposter syndrome have tended to put a premium on what others think about them. Therefore, when others don’t give feedback, or give feedback that is negative (even if it’s constructive criticism) that only feeds the inner narrative of not being good enough and being found out.
Comparing ourselves to others who we think are similar to us can fuel imposter syndrome. For example, I mentor new psychologists and for some, when they see former classmates from the Masters get a seemingly glamorous job in a glossy consultancy, it feeds their feelings of doubt about themselves and their own achievements.
A change of job can also surface feelings of being an imposter. Some of my clients have experienced it when they step up into a more senior role, or when they’ve been asked to take on a role where they’re not the technical expert. For example, if you get your confidence from being the person who knows the most and suddenly you’re in a situation where others know more than you but are still looking to you as the person in charge then don’t be surprised for imposter feelings to creep up.
I believe so, yes. It’s so easy to go down the rabbit hole of looking at other people’s feeds which then feed those feelings of being an imposter and not being good enough. Comparing ourselves against others only makes imposter syndrome worse. A study from Penn State University suggests that those who spend a lot of time looking at other people’s on Facebook and other social media sites may have low self-esteem and feel less satisfied with their lives. It’s useful to remember that someone’s curated feed is often a highly edited exterior. It doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s really going on behind the scenes.
Overcoming the imposter phenomenon starts with being compassionate to ourselves. Dr Kristin Neff, in her book Self compassion: stop beating yourself and leave insecurity behind, suggests there are three elements of self-compassion. These are:
1. Self-kindness: taking the time to understand rather than judge yourself
2. Feeling connected with others in life: recognising there is a world outside ourselves
3. Mindfulness: seeing the situation in real-time without focusing on 'what ifs'
Here are some of the tools and tips that many of my clients have found helped them be more compassionate and overcome or better manage feeling like an imposter:
Not a mantra but a quote by Brene Brown, “Talk to yourself like you would to someone you love”.
Hayley Lewis is a chartered psychologist who specialises in leadership and management development. As well as running her own consultancy, Hayley is also a lecturer on MSc programmes in occupational and business psychology at three UK universities. She is passionate about making research easily available to the public and does this through her blogs and popular sketchnotes.
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