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What’s imposter syndrome?  How might it be having a detrimental impact on your life and how can you recognise and overcome it?

“I want to do something different, but I don’t have any skills”.  “I’d love to start a business, but I’m not good enough”.  “I’ve got this promotion but now I’m terrified I’m going to get things wrong”.

These are all real comments I’ve heard from my coaching clients.

When I question these thoughts, 99% of the time we find there is no evidence whatsoever behind the statements.   Yes, there may have been (horrible and unhelpful) people in the past who’ve hinted we aren’t good enough (or in some cases directly told us).  Usually, though,  it’s all in our own minds.  That little gremlin of a voice setting us impossibly high standards and then beating us up when we don’t hit them…

Clients themselves have also come to me naming this thing as ‘imposter syndrome’.  It got me thinking…

 

What Exactly Is Imposter Syndrome

 

According to the Oxford dictionary, imposter syndrome is the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills.

But where does it come from?  How does it show up and what the heck can we do about it?!

Always the lover of an online quiz, I started my research by googling ‘do I have imposter syndrome?’

It turns out I do, to an extent, although I have developed pretty good self-belief in my abilities over recent years (it’s taken a lot of work).

What I discovered was that I still often see my successes as luck or some kind of fluke of nature and I tend to downplay any achievements I make.

This exercise has also shown me that it’s easier to spot imposter syndrome in others, but it can be much harder to recognise it in yourself when emotions are involved and your thoughts seem very factual.

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You Are Not Alone

 

“No matter what we’ve done, there comes a point where you think, ‘How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?’  – Tom Hanks

 

If this is resonating, I want to let you know first of all that you are definitely not alone.  We are in excellent company!  Famous people with imposter syndrome include Michelle Obama, Maya Angelou, David Bowie, Olivia Colman and Tom Hanks.

I also once met a senior, renowned surgeon who confided that he suffered terribly with imposter syndrome.  He was waiting for that moment when everyone would find out that he had been winging it all along…

As you can see, it’s common to feel this way, but we can’t all be imposters, can we?!

 

Understanding Imposter Syndrome

 

“It’s genuinely quite stressful. This is hilarious. I got an Oscar! – Olivia Colman

 

Where does this feeling of being an imposter come from?  You might be surprised to hear that it affects high achievers.   It can also particularly impact during times of change (I’ve definitely seen this with my clients who are going for or have recently secured a promotion or new job).

In my research into this topic, I was fascinated to read that there are  5 imposter syndrome competence types.

See which ones you recognise?  Which of them fit with your idea of ‘competence’.  And then ask yourself what impact this is having on your life.

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the 5 types of imposter

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Perfectionist

The primary focus for the perfectionist is how something is done.  They will tend to set themselves excessively high standards and have an expectation of perfect performance 100% of the time.    Perfectionists have a tendency to focus on what they could have done better.  They may also measure friends, family and colleagues by this standard too which leads to them finding it difficult to trust others to do things.

Natural genius

The natural genius cares very much about how and when accomplishments happen.  They will set themselves a high bar and will judge if they get things right on the first try.  The natural genius will strive to master any new skill quickly.  They tell themselves that if they have to work hard at it then they can’t be good at it.  When they don’t succeed on the first try they tell themselves they aren’t good enough and don’t tend to preserve.

Soloist

The soloist will only see something as an achievement if they have done it by themselves.   They will tend not to ask for or will turn down offers of help, which they see as a sign of failure.

Expert

The expert is the knowledge version of the perfectionist.  They judge competence by what and how much they know.  If they were really clever, they’d know already, wouldn’t they?  They want to make sure that they have a comprehensive understanding of a topic before they take action.  Their fear of being exposed leads them to endlessly seek out information.  I’ve seen this manifest with my clients who won’t apply for a job as they don’t 100% meet the requirements of a job description for example.

Superperson

The superperson measures success by how many roles they can juggle and excel in.  They expect they should be able to fulfil all of them (and perfectly).  Think of a perfectionist octopus!    They’ll tend to set themselves unrealistically high standards in all areas, never taking a break.  You can probably see that this will eventually lead to burnout.

Looking at these descriptions I realised that I am the expert!  I love learning new things but, if I’m honest, sometimes this can get in the way of me taking any action.  I think to myself ‘I’ll just read up on this and then I’ll do it’.  And then I don’t, as there is always something else to learn.

Awareness is the first key to this.  Recognising these tendencies can help us to find a healthier and happier route.

 

Could you use some extra help overcoming imposter syndrome?  Book your FREE one-hour strategy session and let’s chat about how I can help you.

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Where Does Imposter Syndrome Come From?

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child reaching for door handle

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As with many things in life, imposter syndrome can start in childhood.  If we received negative messages from our parents, however subtle, this is likely to continue to impact us in later life.  For example, if we aren’t encouraged to ask for help and told ‘not to bother’ people then this can lead to us thinking we are a failure if we do need to ask for help.

Or perhaps you received mixed messages about achievement.  For example, imagine the child who gets 95% in a test but their parent quizzes them as to why they didn’t get 100%.

It’s worth having a think about the messages you received as a child.  Also, any significant events from when you are younger, for example being bullied at school.  What influence have these had on you?

Once these beliefs about ourselves are formed, we tend to stick with them.  The brain uses beliefs as shortcuts, so it takes more energy to challenge them.   We also have a leaning towards what’s known as ‘confirmation bias’, which basically means we take notice of evidence that supports our (skewed) view of ourselves and ignore any evidence to the contrary.

 

What’s the Impact?

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two women close together in grey dresses

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Dr Hibberd talks about the ‘Imposter Twins’ in her brilliant book ‘The Imposter Cure‘.   These twins are overwork and avoidance.

Everything you do when your brain is telling you you’re an imposter is to stop others from finding out ‘the truth’ about you and your abilities.

When you are overworking you will tend to:

  • Set impossibly high standards
  • Aim for perfectionism
  • Not take on board success and achievements

The trouble is that it can impact your whole life.

However much you do, it doesn’t feel like it’s enough.

Challenge someone on this and they may tell you that it gives them motivation, ensures they don’t become arrogant and helps them to aim higher.  It’s got them this far in life after all, so they find it far too risky to try a different approach.

Let’s look at the second imposter twin, avoidance.  When you are falling into avoidance you will tend to:

  • Fail to ask for help
  • Lack assertiveness
  • Criticise and blame others
  • Under prepare
  • Stay under the radar
  • Self-sabotage

Your brain is telling you that by avoiding things and situations,  you can’t fail and you will stay safe.  What it actually does is stop you from moving forward.

 

How Do I Overcome Imposter Syndrome?

 

The good news is, you CAN overcome this.

Yes, it will take time, practice and persistence.   No, you won’t change years of conditioning overnight, but practice the following tips on a regular basis and then come back and tell me the difference!

Dr Hibberd talks about 3 key steps to change.  These are:

  • Wanting to change
  • Learning strategies and theory
  • Trying out the strategies

I would also add getting support, taking it in small chunks and being consistent in your efforts to this list.

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woman with glasses writing in journal

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Here are some strategies to try:

  • Slow down, enjoy the journey, don’t always be focussing on achieving the next thing
  • Reframe ‘having to win’ to ‘ I will do my best/give it my best shot’
  • Learn about and practice self-compassion
  • Let go of the need to be right
  • Talk to someone about it
  • Take time to reflect after learning something new or trying things out
  • Make notes.  Writing things down allows you to reflect and is a great motivator.  I do this in my journal and it’s great to look back to see how much I’ve learned and how far I’ve come.  Writing things down can help you to commit and gain a new perspective.
  • Externalise the imposter voice.  Perhaps turn it into a creature or a cartoon character which you can make fun of.   You could also shrink it down really small.  Try anything that works, that voice doesn’t have to be a bully.
  • Remember that your thoughts aren’t facts.  Just because that voice in your head is telling you that something is true, it doesn’t mean it is.  Ask yourself what’s the evidence?  Do you have any experiences that show a different view?
  • Talk to other people, start looking for others who feel the same way as you do.
  • Remember that you can’t control everything

 

Those with imposter syndrome tend to be extremely self-critical.

There’s a myth that self-criticism makes you perform better, however research shows that this isn’t true.  What self-criticism actually does is make it harder to achieve goals and can lead to anxiety and depression.

The antidote to self-criticism is self-compassion.  You might see this as a soft option but it isn’t.  Showing yourself compassion takes courage.  It means accepting yourself as a human being (who makes mistakes).  It means recognising your strengths but also working on your development.  Work and commitment are also needed, it’s not something you can change immediately overnight.

The benefits are worth the work.  Self-compassionate people tend to be more resilient,  they will take steps to improve themselves and learn from failures rather than beating themselves up about mistakes.

Work on developing a more compassionate inner voice.

Kristen Neff, who has written a lot on the topic of self-compassion, says we can do this by:

  • Recognising when we are stressed/struggling without being judgemental
  • Being supportive, gentle and understanding to ourselves
  • Remembering everyone makes mistakes

Become aware of what you say to yourself.  If you aren’t sure how meditation or journaling can help to unlock those thoughts.

Once you have the words your critical voice is saying, think of them as being on a radio where you need to turn the volume down on the self-critical channel, but up on the self-compassion channel!

Also, consider the words that are being said and the tone of voice.  How can you change this to be more compassionate?  If you are struggling, think of someone you know who is compassionate.  What’s their tone of voice?  What words do they use?  What’s their body language?  How can you use these ideas to give yourself a more positive internal narrative?

 

Summing Up

I hope that you now have a better understanding of what imposter syndrome is along with some tips to overcome it.  Here are the key points to remember:

  • You are not alone
  • No-one is perfect (it would be impossible to be)
  • It’s OK to fail (and learn from the failures)
  • Self-compassion is the antidote to self-criticism
  • You can change.   It will take time and practice but things will get easier if you commit to change and practice regularly.

 

Has my post resonated with you?  Do you suffer from imposter syndrome?   What will be your first step to overcome it?

 

Could you use some extra help?   Book your FREE one-hour strategy session and let’s chat.

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