“I’m not good enough”
“I shouldn’t be here”
“It was just good luck”
Do any of these phrases sound familiar when you think about what you have achieved?
It came to my attention last week that I have a classic case of Impostor syndrome. *Cue the dramatic music please*
What is Impostor syndrome?
For anyone new to the concept, Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome) describes individuals who, despite their objective successes, fail to internalize their accomplishments and have persistent self-doubt and fear of being exposed as a fraud or impostor1.
Psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes first described impostor phenomenon in 19782, and it came to widespread public attention after Clance’s 1985 book: The Impostor Phenomenon: When Success Makes You Feel Like a Fake3. Whilst Clance originally identified the syndrome being present among high-achieving professional women, more recent research has documented these feelings of inadequacy among both men and women, across many professional settings, and among multiple ethnic and racial groups4.
And it doesn’t just affect us mere mortals either. Despite her status as a literary legend, Maya Angelou famously spoke about the feelings of self-doubt she experienced when publishing her books: “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out.”5
In my case, I was writing a series of articles to coincide with the recent launch of my new coaching business. I stopped short of publishing them online because I felt my opinion wasn’t worthy of your attention. I repeatedly told myself: “Who am I to tell anyone about the importance of challenging their own limiting beliefs? I’m not the psychological queen of the universe!”
Specifically, one of the biggest issues with Impostor syndrome is not whether we have a fear of failure or looking foolish when we’re “found out”, per se; it is whether we give those limiting beliefs the absolute power to stop us from taking the actions needed to achieve our goals.
A bit about me
Let’s take a sidebar for a sec, and I’ll give you a sneak peek into my upbringing, where hopefully this destructive thought pattern might start to make sense.
I’m the eldest daughter of two Royal Naval personnel. My father was a commander and holds an MBE for his work in Bosnia, and my mother was the only woman in the naval rifle team. Safe to say our household was run like the tightest of ships; if we were leaving for school at 0800 hours, dad would already be in the car getting impatient at 0750. Mum packed our bags for school with a spare water bottle, winter coat and sunscreen for every possible weather fluctuation. There was no room for error, and don’t even think about enjoying the journey (!) it was all about getting to the destination as quickly and efficiently as humanly possible. Every single time.
It’ll come as no shock to hear that I grew up to be a very high achiever. But I never felt empowered to express strong opinions about anything. I’d listen and absorb other people’s ideas, particularly those who held positions of power. I learnt to distrust or downplay my own; So, when it came to putting ideas for my articles down on paper, my primary belief was that other people were more intelligent, more qualified, and more worthy of putting their thoughts out there.
How to Overcome Impostor Syndrome
Jumping back into the main story, and the question now becomes, how can we get over the feeling that we are on occasion, a fraud in our own lives?
Think about it this way, at its core, Impostor syndrome is simply a collection of thoughts and feelings that you have experienced over and over until they have become habit. It can be incredibly isolating when you think you are the only person who experiences these feelings. Hopefully now you know it’s not just you, I have it too, and so does the majority of the creative industry (Performers are literally paid to pretend to be other people!) Remember that Impostor Syndrome has absolutely nothing to do with your actual talent, intelligence, or qualifications.
So, step one is to acknowledge you are not alone, which hopefully goes some way to neutralise some of the negativity playing up in your head.
Secondly, an affirmation from me that what you, or what I, have to say about the world is ALWAYS valid. Just think: how wonderful would it be if our opinions inspired others to do further research on a particular subject or considered their own opinions on the world? If you wait until you have a PhD before writing a book (as I have considered many a time), you’ve missed out on the exploration of putting your own ideas out there, seeing what fits and receiving feedback for further consideration. The key is to be flexible and be willing to constantly evaluate and develop your opinions with time, knowledge, and experience.
So here I am putting myself and my thoughts out there – and it’s actually not so scary! When I start to panic, I tell myself this: if only one person gets something positive from reading this article, I’ve done my job.
Have the Courage to be Imperfect
The bottom line is that Impostor Syndrome can have a hugely limiting impact on your life and give you a reason not to stand up for yourself and chase the dreams you want. But don’t let it. Have the courage to be imperfect. You are NOT an impostor – you have something very worthwhile and valid to give to the world, so start backing yourself like the boss that you are, and do that one scary thing which gets you out there and one step closer to who you want, and deserve, to be.
- ^ Kolligian J, Jr, Sternberg RJ. Perceived fraudulence in young adults: is there an “imposter syndrome”? J Pers Assess. 1991;56(2):308–26
- ^ Clance PR, Imes SA. The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychother Theory Res Pract. 1978;15(3):241–7
- ^ Clance PR. The Impostor Phenomenon: When Success Makes You Feel Like a Fake. Atlanta: Peachtree Publishers; 1985
- ^ Hawley K. Feeling a Fraud? It’s not your fault! We can all work together against Imposter Syndrome [Internet]. 2016 [cited 2020 Sept 10]. Available from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/trust/201607/feeling-fraud-its-not-your-fault
- ^ Richards, Carl (October 26, 2015). “Learning to Deal With the Impostor Syndrome”. The New York Times. [cited 2020 Sept 14] Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/26/your-money/learning-to-deal-with-the-impostor-syndrome.html