When I was a new manager, I participated in a wonderful leadership development program that changed my view of myself and the world around me. One of the things I learned was that everyone (ok, most people) suffer from a level of imposter syndrome - that nagging doubt that what you have achieved is a result of good luck, good timing, or is in fact a mistake and it’s just a matter of time before the world around you notices that you are a fake.
In the years since, I have met many high performing, executives who display this persistent fear of being exposed as “not good enough” and despite clear evidence of their competence they seem convinced that they do not deserve the success they have achieved.
The research on this phenomenon tells us the while impostor syndrome can impact anyone, it is particularly common among high-achieving women and my personal experiences working with numerous female leaders reinforces this.
Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes have written a wonderful paper on “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women”. In it they tell of numerous amazingly credentialed, high-achieving women who suffer terribly from thinking of themselves as impostors. One story that particularly struck me was a women with two Master’s degrees, a PhD, and numerous professional publications (awesome right?!) who considered herself unqualified to teach remedial college classes in her field. IN HER FIELD!
Clance and Imes outline that those who suffer from these fears are worried that eventually someone “will figure them out”. As one women stated, “I was convinced that I would be discovered as a phony when I took my Doctoral examination…In one way, I was relieved at this prospect because the pretense would finally be over. I was shocked when my chairman told me that my answers were excellent and that my paper was one of the best he had seen in his entire career.”
The fear “of being discovered" is ever-present so the person works incredibly hard, over a long time, to prevent discovery. This pays off in excellent performance and approval from authority, which reinforces the cycle. Exhausting preparation rituals often guarantee overt success, but the feelings of satisfaction or comfort are short lived because the underlying belief of pretense remains.
So if you have a case of the "not good enoughs", here are some tips to kick Impostor Syndrome’s butt:
- Tune in to your rituals: What do you do to prepare for important meetings and what are you telling yourself? How many hours pre-work are you putting in? Are you trying to cover for every single question that could be asked of you? Are you looking for perfection?
- Choose your mindset: Shift to a strength-based mindset "I will do well in this meeting" rather than the fear inducing "I may fail." After a successful meeting where you have used your strength-based mindset you will have a data point to help undo your fear based ritual of predicting failure.
- Think about all of the people you think you have “fooled”: Write a list and then imagine (out loud) telling them how you fooled, conned or tricked them. Then imagine (yes, again out loud) how each person would respond. Would they agree with you that they were fooled, tricked and had the wool pulled over their eyes? Or might they think that you’re actually giving yourself too much credit and that they, thank-you-very-much, were in full knowledge of your limitations but thought you were ready for your next challenge/project/promotion despite your imperfections?
- Write down the positive feedback you have received: and write down how you feel about it - in your old way of thinking you will probably find ways of not genuinely accepting this feedback, thinking it was luck, the situation, the team, and many other multiple factors. Then do the opposite, take in the positive views and get as much nourishment as possible out of them. Consider all the things you did to deserve the feedback, honestly believe that the giver meant what they said and understood the multiple factors at play. Bask in the sunshine of the feedback and really let it in your defences (Cue: “Let the Sunshine in”).
- Reach out for help: Everyone has a support network, you just need to reach out to engage it. It might be your Employee Assistance Program (EAP), a trusted friend or coach, or in some cases it may be professional psychological intervention and support. Be brave and reach out for the help you need.
What would it feel like to leave the “not good enoughs” behind? To actually feel worthy, to believe in your own abilities and strengths, to be free of the burden of believing you are not worthy and fully participate in the joy and power of you accomplishments?