Could there really be advantages to Imposter Syndrome? I’ve experienced Imposter Syndrome feelings for most of my adult life. Working as a research-based academic in a university, I guess I could have summed it up as “I wish I felt even half as good/confident as other people seem to think I am!”.
But I didn’t have a name for it until I first trained as a coach and learned of this interesting “syndrome”. Not a defined medical diagnosis of having something wrong with you but a more slippery collection of feelings of something not being quite right.
Once I knew these feelings had a name, I learned I was not alone. Research shows that more than 70% of people report experiencing Imposter feelings at some stage in their lives or careers. So if you can relate to that feeling of being a ‘fraud’, you’re not alone.
Who experiences Imposter syndrome?
When you look into the backgrounds of possible “Imposters” there are some common themes.
- Imposter feelings are common in people who are in professions where intelligence or expertise is highly valued.
- They frequently affect people who were “the first” in some way - often the first in their family to choose this career, profession or way of living.
- Imposter feelings often affect people who are, or consider themselves to be, different from their peers in some way. These differences may be obvious – like being a woman in a male-dominated industry or being from a different race or culture -- or less obvious such as social background, religion or sexual orientation.
One common consequence of this experience of difference can also be a feeling of isolation.
Research shows that people who report Imposter feelings think differently about themselves and their achievements. For example, self-identified Imposters often externalise success. When asked how come they are where they are – Imposters have frequently achieved significant success in their role, job or career – most often Imposters will credit others. They were helped, people have been kind or they’ve just been plain lucky!
The problem with this is that if you don’t know how you achieved a particular result, you’re not going to be confident you can repeat it! This leads to the particularly cruel twist that Imposter Syndrome delivers – the more success an “Imposter” achieves, the worse it makes them feel!
Many people who have Imposter feelings are also perfectionists with very high standards for their own personal performance. However well they do, however much credit they get, secretly they seem to know they could have done better. This process of comparing yourself to a fictional picture of perfection provides endless fuel for a severe Inner Critic who forever reminds the Imposter that one day they will be found out!
What does Imposter syndrome do?
So, the people most likely to experience Imposter feelings:
- Have achieved significant success
- Feel different to their peers
- Often fear the judgement of their peers
- Don’t understand how they got this far
- And usually believe they should have done better.
This creates a perfect storm for anxiety and stress which saps self-confidence. The typical outcome for many women who experience Imposter feelings is that they hold themselves back.
They don’t volunteer for challenging projects, put themselves forward for promotion or offer their opinions where there is the possibility of being judged or found wanting. At some level they know they could do better and maybe feel they should be better valued or recognised and yet they are the ones holding back.
Their colleagues and the organisations they work for miss out on the best of them, their suggestions, ideas and contributions. It becomes a situation where the best talent is not used because it is not shared.
How to handle Imposter Syndrome
Once you recognise that the feelings of insecurity you experience are not simply your ‘dirty little secret’ of being incompetent but are common symptoms of a collection of circumstances and unhelpful ways of thinking, you can begin to make changes. This is where you might actually begin to notice some advantages to Imposter Syndrome.
Embrace your difference
If you are different to your peers or the first in your family to follow this path then simply knowing that many people with similarly different backgrounds also experience insecurity means, there is nothing wrong with you. Your feelings might be unhelpful but they are surprisingly normal.
You can even reframe your thinking when you realise just how much evidence there is that shows how teams which include greater diversity out-perform more homogeneous teams - your difference, your background and experience, positively adds to the performance of the team.
The simple fact that you are different, bring different experiences, ask different questions, can share different insights makes it more likely that the teams you participate in will be more innovative and experience higher morale than others.
Start to accept your success
Rather than batting away the compliments you receive, maybe be prepared to believe them or simply say “thank you” as you accept the gift offered to you. You might even be ready to keep a little file of the positive feedback and thanks that you receive to remind you of the good work that you do on those days that your Imposter feelings are screaming most loudly in your ears.
Acknowledge your Inner Critic
Ah yes, that raging Inner Critic. How to manage that part of you that seems to be your own worst enemy? There are so many different approaches – which one might work for you?
First realise that this voice is simply a part of you. It might even be a part of someone else if you’ve been subject to harsh criticism by a parent, teacher or colleague in earlier years. But that critical voice is not necessarily right and, trust me, you don’t have to believe it.
For some people, once we realise this is just that nagging parent or highly critical colleague then we know we don’t need to believe it. Externalising that voice can create a distance or a separation that reduces the intensity of the thought.
And why would we have an Inner Critic anyway? What is the point of beating ourselves up? And could there really be advantages to Imposter Syndrome?
Advantages to Imposter Syndrome
There are many individual variations on this theme but this is a common one - many of us realise that the Inner Critic is there to get us to criticise ourselves and give us a chance to put things right before others see our faults. When viewed in this light, the intention of this critical voice is simply to look after us… to give us the opportunity to do better. They are thoughts designed to help us. Rather than having to believe that voice we can ask, what of this is helpful?
We don’t need to change everything; we don’t need to hide… we simply need to ask – is this helpful? (If you’re still struggling to doubt anything your Inner Critic says, perhaps it’s time for you to discover your personal version of your inner Brazen Hussy!).
So, make up your mind today.
Acknowledge that Imposter feelings are really common and often predictable.
Accept that, while you might not be perfect, you do make positive contributions to your work and achievements and it’s helpful to recognise that.
Your Inner Critic is intended to be helpful – if it’s no longer helpful you don’t need to listen.
Be brave, be you, give it your best and be ready to learn.
Margaret Collins is a One of many in-house coach. She has been coaching for nearly 20 years, and is the author of several books (including "Beyond Impostor Syndrome”). In addition to her One of Many™ training she has experienced many different approaches and tools including cognitive behavioural confidence coaching, neuropsychology, NLP and The Daring Way™/Dare to Lead™ based on the research of Dr Brené Brown.
Founder of CABS Cardiff, Margaret is familiar with the challenge of juggling demanding work roles with caring responsibilities whilst managing and running a business. She loves helping women explore how to create a dynamic and flexible work-life balance that works for them and their needs. Find out more about her work by clicking here.
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