Each week we have a team meeting, and on one such team meeting I was not able to be there, so the team gave me several tasks to do, byway of writing blog posts; one of the subjects was The Imposter Syndrome. I am surrounded by a truly marvellous team of successful individuals, yet they too confess to feeling self-doubt.
So, what is Imposter Syndrome? It’s the self-doubt, often in successful people, that manifests itself as self-denigrating responses to compliments,combined with a fear of failure and tendency towards perfectionism. It’s really hard to get rid of it and,indeed, one might ask whether perhaps one shouldn’t completely get rid of it because, of course, it gives you drive for success. However, it becomes a problem when this feeling becomes acute; a feeling of unworthiness that then affects your whole life and motivation. The interesting thing is, of course, that those with a high level of imposter syndrome are often highly motivated, but it is sad that they cannot enjoy their successes for fear of being exposed as a fraud. The philosopher Bertrand Russell once wrote: “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”
Some statistical research that was done reported that at least 70 percent of the population have experienced the Imposter Syndrome. Perhaps we all do, to some greater or lesser extent. If the symptoms of anxiety, drive for perfection and the fear of failure and self-doubt plague you constantly, then you definitely fall into the category of suffering from the Imposter Syndrome. Giving a label to things can help, but it can also hinder. It’s all about excess and,as the ancient Greeks said: ‘Nothing in Excess’. There is some merit in applying this to the Imposter Syndrome.
What causes it? It’s usually something in our own background, whether familial or educational, where one has faced serious conflict or constant criticism. However well you do, the inner voice echoes the voices you may have heard from outside– “could be better”, “you’re a fake”, “they’ll find you out”. We all have this voice that sits on our shoulders, to some greater or lesser extent. The irony is that people who suffer acutely from this tend to be attracted to high stress jobs, to prove to themselves and others that the negative voice is wrong. You can hear it in other people when you pay them a compliment, and they make light of it,saying “I’ve been lucky” or “oh no, it’s only….”. So, one can start dealing with the Imposter Syndrome by using assertive responses to compliments. A simple ‘thank you’ is enough.
Some of you will know the feeling when you’ve made a tiny mistake. You beat yourselves up, and it stays in your mind; that voice that sits there, telling you you’re not good enough.
There are various things that one can do to counteract this negativity, e.g. using the other voice, the confident voice in your head. You need to identify and get hold of that positive voice and counteract the negative voice with it. I remember being told various things about myself as a child, including how shy and quiet I was, and this was echoed again at school. One day, in my twenties, I woke up and decided that the image I’d had reflected to me wasn’t, in fact, me. I decided to be the person I am now. I do know that even though the Imposter Syndrome provides some drive to thwart the negative voice, you actually achieve lots more when you can crush the negative voice with your own positivity, and measure your success against your own ideas of success; your own, rather than someone else’s measures of success.
Limiting beliefs and limiting language can thwart potential. When bringing up children I have tried to ban the word ‘but’ and ‘try’, and other limiting words and expressions like ‘we’ll see’.
Freud said that we are brought into this world ‘to love and to work’, and these are the areas in which we have the negative feedback which reinforces our potential Imposter Syndrome. It’s good to recognise one’s vulnerability, and there is a lot written these days on Leadership with Vulnerability. Somebody who has complete self-belief and entitlement comes across as pretty unbearable, so we would probably like to maintain some of our drive to be successful, but against our own values, and to push back if somebody puts onto you an image or metaphorical clothing that does not fit, and articulate your objection to that. Those people who are quiet tend to find it harder to throw off the Imposter Syndrome, but it is worth stepping over that reluctance to correct any negative image that is being conveyed. One can empower oneself but, also looking at colleagues at work and performance issues and your own team, empowerment is likely to have a far greater impact than criticism and thus reinforcement of what might be already an Imposter Syndrome.In the long term, criticism may lead to anxiety, depression and addiction.
We often find ourselves dealing with performance issues at work and the application of a statutory procedure, such as Grievance, Disciplinary or Capability procedures and so forth. Maybe we need to look more at the root causes and perhaps introduce measures such as coaching rather than heading straight to statutory guidelines. Maybe we need to try harder to throw a spotlight on the areas of success and the positive qualities, both in others and ourselves. Maybe we need to call out negativity, and foster positivity, both in thoughts and language. It’s a fine balance though as sometimes both the circumstances and employment law call for the use of a statutory procedure and procrastination results in procedure being used too late as a ‘big stick’.