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Invisible insecurity: how to deal with imposter syndrome

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.

 

For those who have never heard of it, how would you describe imposter syndrome?

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:

  1. Focusing on where things have gone wrong, rather than things that you’ve done to make it something go right
  2. The belief that anyone could do your role, you’re nothing special
  3. Good enough is never good enough, anything less than perfect is unacceptable
  4. Thinking something is going to fail before you’ve even begun
  5. Being hooked into busy-ness, rather than true productivity and jumping to others’ urgent items, rather than your own important ones
  6. Internalising a lot of your emotions of feeling like a fraud, trapped in a cycle of negative self-talk

Why do people experience imposter syndrome?

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.

Does the overuse of social media make feelings of imposter syndrome worse?

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.

What tools and insights can we use to overcome imposter syndrome?

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:

  1. Assess where you are on the imposter phenomenon scale – Dr Pauline Rose Clance has developed a self-scoring test so you can see where you are. You can download the test here
  2. Keep a journal – whilst this isn’t for everyone, without a doubt this is the approach that has worked for most of my clients suffering from imposter syndrome. You can write as little or as much as you want. The main thing is to highlight at least three things you achieved at work that day. Do this every work day for four weeks and watch what happens.
  3. Build a professional support network – these should be colleagues, past or present, who you trust enough to share the good, bad and ugly of what’s going on for you at work. By sharing, you start to realise that (a) you’re not alone in how you’re feeling, (b) that helping others work through issues takes your focus off you and (c) that it’s okay to celebrate when things have gone well.
  4. Recognise that learning (and failure) is okay – You can’t develop or achieve high performance without understanding that learning and failing a few times is an essential component. All too often, those experiencing imposter syndrome think failure is unacceptable, and that they have to be the expert in their chosen field. Check out this 10 minute TED talk by the psychologist Carol Dweck on why developing a growth mindset can help us.
  5. Keep a positive feedback file – I bet you’ve received lots of positive comments over the years, whether via email or other means. Keep them. Keep them all. I keep mine in an email folder. Look at them on days when you’re struggling. They’ll make you feel better and give you a much needed boost.
  6. Do things outside of your work that make you feel good – In my experience, lots of my clients that have experienced imposter syndrome haven’t had much outside of work to focus on. I’m not talking about parenting or other commitments. I’m talking about hobbies and interests that are just for you and that provide escape. Research by Jennifer Crocker found people who base their own self-worth on what others think and not on their value as human beings might pay a price both physically and psychologically. The research suggests that those who focus less on appearance as a way to boost confidence, and instead focus on a goal outside of themselves have higher levels of self-worth and confidence. One way you can boost your self-worth and subsequently your confidence, is through volunteering. For example, one of my clients ended up combining her need to volunteer with her love of horses – helping out at a stable which works with children with various disabilities. This has boosted her confidence to the extent where she ended up making the leap into a new role.
  7. Think carefully about the feedback you give  If you manage people at work, then this is really important. A 2018 study led by Rebecca Badawy found if you manage someone you suspect of having low self-confidence and feeling like an imposter then it’s important you think carefully about the type of feedback you give and how you give it. In this instance, negative feedback can lead to a real drop in performance and subsequently self-esteem. 

Finally, is there a mantra to remind yourself of when you’re in the thick of experiencing imposter syndrome?

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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