A former colleague of mine was recently diagnosed with cancer. 55 years young and the president of a marketing company, to the outside world she is the epitome of health and success. When she was first diagnosed she chose not to disclose her medical condition to her staff and peers out of fear they would see her as less capable. I write this with nothing but respect for her many and varied accomplishments – I know how hard she’s worked to get where she is today. She’s a fighter. She’s ambitious. She’s also an imposter.
What I mean by “imposter” is that she feels like an imposter. Despite all the accolades from her peers; despite all her skills and abilities, and her meteoric rise within the company, in her mind she believes it’s only a matter of time before everyone discovers that she’s “faking it.” Rather than offering assurance, each new achievement and subsequent challenge only serves to intensify her ever-present fear of being found out.
There’s a name for this phenomenon: Imposter Syndrome. Research that began in 1978 with the work of psychotherapists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes found that many women with notable achievements also had high levels of self-doubt which couldn’t be equated with self-esteem, anxiety, or other traits, and appeared to involve a deep sense of inauthenticity and an inability to internalize their successes.
These individuals often have the belief they are “fooling” other people, are “faking it” or getting by because they have the right contacts or are just plain “lucky.” Many hold a belief they’ll be exposed as frauds or fakes. Imposter Syndrome goes far beyond normal bouts of self-doubt. Referring to impostor feelings among career women, trainer, public speaker and consultant Valerie Young, PhD notes that their fears can “prevent them from fully enjoying their success and seizing opportunities, and can cause them to overwork to compensate for supposed deficiencies. “
“But ‘impostors’ are not the only ones who pay a price,” she continues, “the cost to their companies in terms of unrealized human potential can be enormous… When qualified workers fear risks, get caught in the ‘expert trap,’ and are prone to perfectionism and procrastination, there’s a leak in the corporation’s human resources pool.” To become more aware of impostor thinking, Young suggests, among other things, looking for stereotyping and self-defeating attitudes that can be reflected in speech, such as women prefacing sentences with disclaimers like “This may not be right, but…” and discounting accomplishments with “Anyone could have done it” or “It wasn’t much.”
For those dealing with Imposter Syndrome, some standard behaviors emerge which include:
** dismissive attitude when praised
** feeling that peers with the same responsibilities are more mature
** reluctance to accept new responsibilities or challenges for fear of failure
** unnatural reaction to constructive criticism
** worrying that others will begin to realize their shortcomings
Women executives like my friend commonly suffer from Imposter Syndrome, especially as they climb the corporate ladder. Some reports state that females more than males feel conflicted between jobs and family. In addition, they may develop inferior feelings in the face of male peers who exhibit greater confidence in the workplace. All of these issues, ranging from guilt to inequitable pay, can contribute to Imposter Syndrome in successful women.
Experts also suggest that women tend to internalize their feelings to a greater extent than men. Researchers therefore theorize that if something goes wrong, women tend to blame themselves, whether or not they were, in fact, at fault. Men, on the other hand, more readily accept the fact that some things are beyond their control. Internalizing these beliefs, rather than discussing them can lead to other emotional issues, including depression and low self-esteem. Over time, harbored Imposter Syndrome can make it difficult to accept praise for any level of accomplishment.
Ironically, it was the cancer diagnosis that freed her from the relentless grip of Imposter Syndrome. There’s nothing like the possibility of death to force you to face self-defeating behaviors. It was difficult for her to describe the feeling that came with discovering her vague feelings of self-doubt, angst and intellectual fraudulence had a name, and realizing she wasn’t alone was liberating. The experience proved to be a turning point in her life, both professionally and personally. She made the life-altering decision to learn why so many intelligent women like herself set themselves up to fall short.
There are a number of ways to mitigate the negative effects of Imposter Syndrome:
Rewrite your mental script. Instead of telling yourself they are going to find you out or that you don’t deserve success, remind yourself that it’s normal not to know everything and that you will find out more as you progress.
Recognize imposter feelings when they come up. Awareness is the first step to change, so ensure you track these thoughts: what they are and when they emerge.
Talk about your feelings. There may be others who feel like imposters too – it’s better to have an open dialogue rather than harbor negative thoughts alone.
Consider the context. Most people will experience occasions where they don’t feel 100% confident. There may be times when you feel out of your element and self-doubt can be a normal reaction. If you catch yourself thinking that you are useless, reframe it: “The fact that I feel useless right now doesn’t mean that I really am.”
Reframe failure as a learning opportunity. Find out the lessons and use them constructively in the future. Use what you’ve learned to minimize your future feelings of self-doubt.
Be kind to yourself. Remember that you’re entitled to make mistakes occasionally and forgive yourself. Don’t forget to reward yourself for getting the important things right.
Seek support. Everyone needs help: recognize that you can seek assistance and that you don’t have to do everything alone. Whether it’s a therapist, a friend or someone experiencing the same phenomenon, reach out and bring the problem out in the open where it can be addressed.
Visualize your success. Keep your eye on the outcome – completing the task or making the presentation, which will keep you focused and calm.