Take Control of Your Impostor Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is a subject that comes up often in my work, especially in my one-to-one coaching sessions.  More recently one of our aspiring trainers did an excellent presentation on the subject which inspired me to write this blog. 

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Impostor syndrome is sometimes difficult for people who experience it to understand.  It is an internal and very uncomfortable feeling that causes you to believe that you are not as good as people think you are.  People who experience imposter syndrome may believe that ‘being good enough’ is a direct result of intelligence or achievement. If we break it down to a simple explanation, imposter syndrome is the experience of feeling like a fraud; someone who is experiencing imposter syndrome will constantly feel that at any moment they are about to be ‘found out’.  They feel as if they don’t belong and the only reason for their success is just old-fashioned good luck.  Anyone can be affected by Imposter Syndrome; it has no preferences for status, education, work context or experience.  The research suggests that up to 70% of the population may experience Imposter Syndrome at least once in their lives yet it is not recognised as a mental illness.

Where did Imposter Syndrome Originate?

The term ‘imposter phenomenon’ was first introduced in 1978 by two renowned researchers Pauline Rose Clance & Suzanne Imes.  In their original research, they theorised that Imposter Syndrome was unique to women; it has since been shown in subsequent research that imposter syndrome affects both Women and Men. Clance & Imes discovered some psychological traits that were more common in people who experience Imposter Phenomenon such as perfectionism, neuroticism and social anxiety.  Research has also linked having overly protective/ or controlling parents to people who suffer from imposter syndrome.

Signs to Look Out for

If you think that Imposter Syndrome might be holding you back the first thing to do is to recognise the signs and acknowledge it for what it is ‘a state of mind’.  Here are some signs to look out for:

  • Are there times when you feel like a fraud?
  • Are you very hard on yourself and critical of even the most minor mistakes?
  • Do you sometimes attribute your success to luck rather than giving yourself credit for achieving success?
  • Do you find it hard to take a compliment for your work preferring to downplay and underestimate your efforts?
  • Do you react badly to criticism or constructive criticism?

External Triggers

Sometimes imposter syndrome is triggered by life events. There are times when we are required to operate outside of our comfort zone; for instance, starting college, changing jobs or gaining a promotion.  These new social situations combined with the pressure to succeed can trigger an episode of Imposter Syndrome leaving a person feeling inadequate and helpless.  Social anxiety and Imposter Syndrome have similar symptoms. Imposter syndrome can cause otherwise non-anxious people to feel anxious in situations where they feel inadequate.  Chance and Imes identified several Imposter Syndrome types:

  • Perfectionists believe that things will never be good enough and they will fixate on errors and mistakes. Instead of being pleased with 90/100 in an examination, the perfectionist will ruminate over the lost 10 marks.
  • The superhero will constantly push themselves to be bigger and better to prove their worth.
  • The expert will strive to learn more and will never be satisfied with their level of achievement; regularly underrating their expertise or experience.
  • The natural genius sets excessive goals for him/herself yet will feel utterly defeated if a goal is not met.
  • The soloist prefers to work alone believing that asking for help is a sign of weakness and incompetency.

How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome:

Just because Imposter Syndrome is not recognised as a mental illness doesn’t mean that it is OK or that it doesn’t hold us back. It is very important if you think that you are experiencing Imposter Syndrome to seek help from a therapist or a trusted confidante. There is an old saying that ‘a trouble shared is a trouble halved’. It may be comforting to know that you are not alone as many famous people have admitted to experiencing Imposter Syndrome including Tom Hanks who famously said, “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?’ ” Others include Sheryl Sandberg, Lady Gaga, Mark Higgins (Shark Tank), Olivia Coleman and Howard Schultz. Here are some tips to help you to manage your Imposter Syndrome when it raises its head:

Turn Down the Volume: imposter syndrome will try to override the rational thoughts in your head. Once you notice these doubts and the internal voice that goes with them make a point to acknowledge what is going on and then use an affirmation; for instance, say to yourself “I choose to listen to my positive self” and then imagine that you are physically turning down the volume on the negative self-talk that comes with Imposter thoughts. Visualising and affirmations are extremely powerful tools in any situation where you are experiencing self-doubt.

Learn to Celebrate your Successes: it is important to acknowledge your successes not just in the moment, you should check in regularly with your successful self to ensure that you are feeding frequent ‘I have achieved’ messages to your brain. Journaling or even keeping a notebook can be really useful, especially during times when your brain is flooded with imposter thoughts.

Learn to Acknowledge and Accept Failures or Shortcomings: it is very liberating to voice our feelings when we are unsuccessful at something or if we are anxious about taking on a new task. At first, this may seem impossible but on the other hand, if you allow your imposter thoughts to prevail you run the risk of burnout.  By addressing your feelings around failure, you will work towards acceptance and management of your negative imposter thoughts

Free Yourself from Perfectionism: this may take a little longer to achieve but perfectionism is just a habit and habits can be broken. Change your dialogue around success and failure. If we look at failure as an opportunity to grow rather than a stick to beat ourselves with, we will eventually learn that it’s OK not to be perfect all the time.

Practice Mindfulness: this helps us to stay in the present moment. Present moment thinking and being is a powerful tool to combat the effects of Imposter thinking. There are some excellent exercises here.   

Pauline Rose Clance created the Clance impostor phenomenon scale (CIPS) which is a very useful tool for personal use.  She cautions that it is not a diagnostic tool, and it should be used to help you to understand yourself better if imposter thinking is holding you back.  Here is the link directly to her website.

“Any little girl who’s practising her speech on the telly, you never know. I used to work as a cleaner and I loved that job but I did spend quite a lot of my time imagining this.”

(Olivia Coleman Oscar Acceptance Speech)

If you would like to learn more about our workplace communications or one-to-one coaching sessions workshops you can visit our website at https://www.newlinkstraining.com or if you would like to schedule a consultation please feel free to contact me on 086 3897409. 

Janet Tumulty

28th June 2022