How to manage your Imposter Syndrome

Have you ever heard of the term “imposter syndrome” before? If this would be a face to face conversation, I’d be curious to see your reaction. I find that whenever I ask this question, most people look a bit puzzled to begin with, some are even intrigued but when I start explaining what it is, the majority start nodding approvingly giving me a sense of “I’ve been there before.”

If I were to give you an academic definition of this term, it would sound a bit like this:

Imposter Syndrome is the experience of intense feelings that achievements are underserved and concern to exposed as a fraud.

[Pauline Clance & Suzanne Imes – “The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention]

In other words, we feel like imposters when we fail to internalise success. 

According to research (Gravois, 2007), 70% of people will experience at least one episode of this Imposter Phenomenon in their lives. And as it happens, this is more prevalent in women than men. In her book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg argues that the prevalence in women for imposter syndrome is largely due to their lower self confidence. She also describes her own battle with it by admitting to the fact that every time she succeeded at something be it at Harvards or in her career she would think she “fooled everyone yet again” and that “one day soon, the jig would be up.”

As a recovering perfectionist, I know all about this. This feeling of “who I am to share my opinion on x or to claim I know better than y” has kept me stuck in the same place for years. It was a situation where whatever I created wasn’t perfect, therefore it couldn’t be shown to the world. But that fear (many of you reading this might relate to it), leaves you paralysed, you keep procrastinating and as a result you never progress. Overtime, I’ve learned that done is better than perfect and progression over perfection has become my new mantra. There’s always someone who’s going to be 10 steps behind you like there’s always going to be someone 10 steps ahead of you. When you understand that, you realise that without the person who’s ahead of you, you wouldn’t have a role model. You understand that in your small way, you can impact the person who’s 10 steps behind you. Reframing it this way was a very powerful realisation for me and I hope as you read these lines it resonates with you too. 

As Brené Brown puts it:

Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.

If you ever experienced these feelings, you’ll probably familiar with this infinite loop:

Before a big project/presentation you experience anxiety and self doubt and start worrying about it. You have two options: your either over-prepare or you procrastinate. Whichever boat you’re in, you feel relieved once you achieve that particular task but you discount positive feedback and don’t give yourself credit for your work and keep thinking it’s only a matter of time until you’ll be “found out”.

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The great news is, Imposter Syndrome is 100% manageable and today I wanted to share with you a few tips on how you can overcome this too. 

Talk about your achievements without using qualifiers 

When you refer to your achievements stop using things like “I was offered this job because I was lucky/they liked me”. The moment you use a qualifier you’re decreasing your own value. And you might not even realise it because it’s an old mechanism your brain is using and you’re on auto-pilot. Start giving yourself credit for your achievements rather than brushing them off. This can be difficult to do, because, most of us, often hesitate to talk about ourselves in the fear of sounding arrogant.

Top tip – Recognise your innate qualities – Start creating a list with feedback you get from peers in your circles: at work, friends, family. What are you being praised for the most? What are you really good at? When talking about your success, imagine you are talking about someone you really admire. We tend to give praise to others while being self-deprecating about our own accomplishments. 

This has been an eye opener for me. I used to dismiss every good feedback I would get (especially from close friends and family) as I would think that they are just trying to be nice but if someone who knew me very little would say the same thing, I would be more likely to accept the compliment – that’s if I didn’t think they were being polite. 

As it turns out during our workshop, this tends to be an exercise that participants love. 

Rachael Ainsworth, Research Associate, who attended our workshop says: 

“This session allowed me to become much more objective about my achievements. Over the years, my imposter syndrome prevented me from celebrating my achievements – I always attached qualifiers to them. The exercise we did in this session, when we were asked to list our achievements WITHOUT those qualifiers – that is, what we accomplished without the “but” – was hugely powerful for me. It forced me to acknowledge and recognise my wins, which had a profound impact on how I view myself. I can also now identify when others use qualifiers, and I am able to empower folks to ditch them! My favourite part of the session was compiling my list of achievements without qualifiers. I now keep a list of everything I do, and reference my “wins” when I need a confidence boost.”

Stop internalising failure 

In her book, Mindset, Carol Dweck writes: girls and boys get different patterns of feedback. “Boys’ mistakes are attributed to a lack of effort,” she says, while “girls come to see mistakes as a reflection of their deeper qualities.” Likewise, Sheryl Sandberg, points out that “in situations where a man and a woman each receive negative feedback, the woman’s self-confidence and self-esteem drop to a much greater degree.” (Robb et all, 2014)

We fail to understand that we’re human and from time to time, we’ll get things wrong. When the outcome is not the desired one, we jump into an infinite loop of self-blame and start using adjectives to describe us that are not very nice. Just because something didn’t work out as you would have hoped, doesn’t mean that your self worth is linked to that particular outcome.  

Even experts get it wrong sometimes. I was recently listening to a podcast with Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize for this book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, where he decodes the psychology of judgment and decision-making, and he admitted that some of his theories were proven wrong years after writing his book. Wow!! Game changer! And I have to say, I like him even more for admitting that in public!

Top tip – Pay attention to the language you use towards yourself in situations where things don’t go the way you would have hoped. I never allow my friends or family to say stuff like “I am so stupid, because I did x”. I tend to be the one who draws their attention and forces them to reframe the situation in the moment (I know what you’re thinking now: I wish I was her friend!). You can say “I did this and it made me feel stupid” but that doesn’t mean you are stupid. And FYI: we all do stupid stuff from time to time. 

We’re in a constant learning journey, so next time you “fail” at something, realise this: that particular situation doesn’t define your success or your worth as a person. 

Be aware of your self-limiting beliefs (and come up with an action plan to combat them)

Self-limiting beliefs are assumptions or perceptions that you’ve got about yourself and about the way the world works. These assumptions are “self-limiting” because in some way they’re holding you back from achieving what you are capable of. 

Beliefs are being formed from a very young age and our brains are very good at spotting patterns and making association, as such we use the stream of information that comes our way and we form beliefs to make sense of the world around us. I think of beliefs in the same way I think of family traditions, as we become conditioned by our environment, people we surround ourselves with, our own biases and so on. As we grow older, we start developing new beliefs. It’s interesting to note that our core beliefs, the ones formed during childhood, can be really tough to break and these are the ones you should really pay attention to.

For example if you were never encouraged as a child to try out new things you will internalise this belief that “You don’t have the ability to do certain things” and as an adult you’re more likely to stay in your comfort zone.  

One of the crucial aspects of self limiting beliefs is the fact that these are not real. Let me say that again: BELIEFS ARE NOT REAL 

Beliefs come in different forms and some of the categories are: 

Unhealthy Beliefs About Yourself – Concluding that you are a loser, a failure, unlikable, or incapable will prevent you from doing your best. Even overly optimistic beliefs can be unhealthy. Thinking you’re the best at everything you do or that you are above the rules can be just as dangerous to your well-being as an exaggeratedly negative core belief about yourself.

Unhealthy Beliefs About Others – Believing everyone is against you, untrustworthy, or manipulative will make it impossible to develop healthy relationships. Similarly, believing everyone can be trusted or that everyone is a kind person can cause you to be taken advantage of or to get into relationships that aren’t good for you.

Unhealthy Beliefs About the World – Assuming that you can’t succeed in today’s world or thinking that the world is too dark of a place to ever be happy will take a toll on your life. On the flip side, minimising social problems and looking at the world through rose-colored glasses isn’t helpful either.

So what can you do in order to address your self-limiting beliefs?

The first step, like with anything else, is becoming aware of this; understand that we all guide our lives based on a set of beliefs that might or might not be accurate. As mentioned above, typically, these beliefs are rooted in your own fears, can be commonly held societal views or opinions among your peers. As you’re trying to break them it’s natural to experience fear and certain push back. Take a hard look at where you’re at emotionally in this very moment. How do you feel? Are you feeling stuck, overwhelmed, is everyone against you? A typical example of a self limiting belief would be “I can’t change my career path now because I am too old”. 

Top tip: Think of 3 main self beliefs you have about yourself and write them down. How are these hindering your personal/professional life? What is causing this frustration? Once you pinpoint the exact emotion and its trigger you start becoming more aware of it. As you become more aware, you start noticing the triggers and as you start noticing the triggers, you can start addressing them. It’s also very helpful to reframe the situation. For example, you might hold a belief that you’re a victim and everyone is against you. The moment you start giving yourself more power and reframe the situation in such a way, you take back some control, you realise that certain situations are up to you, that you can create your own rules and your own path. You make the rules and there are no limits. 

To give you an example from my own life, one of my limiting beliefs was: “I cannot share what I know because I am not an expert. Why should people listen to me and so on.” The way I reframed it was by using the example I mentioned at the beginning of the article. There’s always going to be someone who’s a few steps behind and what I share, will help them. By not sharing, I’m depriving other people of that. It helps when you detach yourself from it, it’s not about you, it’s about how you can help others. If you can do that by being yourself and doing what you love, what’s not to like about that? Also, the moment you put your hand up and admit you’re not an expert but someone who’s on a constant learning journey, there’s no pressure to get it right all the time. 

Realise you’re not alone 

I want to end this by reminding you of the importance of realising that you’re not alone in this. As Valerie Young puts it in her book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It

First and foremost you are neither broken nor sick. Something is not right about your impostor feelings but there is nothing wrong with you.

We need to have more open conversations about this topic. Countless women and men suffer from imposter syndrome and I don’t get why the heck we don’t address it more often. In fact, it seems like the more successful you are, the more likely you are to have it! 

So as a parting note I want to leave you with this: 

  • You are enough just the way you are right now
  • You can manage your imposter syndrome
  • You can work on your self limiting beliefs 
  • You have to realise that everyone has fears and feeling like an imposter from time to time it’s perfectly normal 
  • Choose progression over perfection 

If you want to dive deeper and spend a day with us where we share more tips and take you through fun and interactive exercises, our Becoming a Leader workshop – Women Series – might be just the thing you need. You will leave the day uncovering your self limiting beliefs, with an action plan that you can start implementing straight away and with an accountability partner.

Author: Ionela Spinu

Photo by Johnson Wang on Unsplash

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