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The Imposter Syndrome: When Working Harder and Smarter isn't the Answer

Insight

01 April 2015

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The imposter syndrome is a form of self-doubt that is becoming increasingly common among high achievers. It is characterised by a feeling of inauthenticity or of being out of your depth, despite a successful track record and plenty of evidence of sufficient competence.  

 

If this feels familiar, consider the following questions:

  • Do you attribute your successes and accomplishments to luck and timing yet feel personally responsible for failures?
  • Do you feel you are coasting on charm and personality rather than talent and capability?
  • Do you secretly fear you don’t deserve to be where you are and that any day soon you may be revealed as a fraud?

 

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions you may well suffer from “Imposter Syndrome”.

Oliver Burkeman's article highlights the classic trap of, “comparing your insides to other people’s outsides”. Very shrewdly, he points out that we all, to some extent, need to put across a persona when working in a professional capacity, regardless of what we feel inside. However, a growing number of individuals are coming to believe their self-doubt is more justified than anyone else’s, creating a fertile ground for imposter syndrome to take hold.  

 

In my own work as a coach, I am frequently confronted with those who suffer feelings of inadequacy despite an extraordinary external record of success and achievement. What is interesting, is that in order to counteract the feelings of inadequacy, there is a compulsion among these individuals to work harder and harder, achieve more and gain more expertise. Yet, ironically the more successful they are, the greater the internal tension that seems to exist between inner feelings and outside.

I believe the answer to controlling the imposter syndrome lies in looking “inside,” not “outside”. Developing aspects of personal resilience such as self-belief is really the only way to prevent the syndrome taking hold. Our self-belief is often eroded when we place a disproportionate focus on outputs (ultimate goals or targets) which are not completely within our control, rather than valuing and focusing on our inputs (efforts, qualities, skills) that create those outputs. 

 

Being mindful of and managing our thoughts and feelings is also critical to self-belief. The simple recognition that our thoughts are not facts, can help us to get perspective and understand the difference between our own thoughts or feelings and reality. Some people tend to believe that if they feel something strongly it must be true. “If I feel so incompetent, it must be that I am incompetent.” When you catch yourself thinking that way change it to a coping statement “the fact that I feel incompetent does not mean that I really am.”  

We may have formed habitual thought patterns and beliefs in early childhood that are out of date and no longer relevant to our adult reality. The nature of how these beliefs were formed, makes updating the “script,” with new information difficult. In the grip of these assumptions, we can ignore disconfirming evidence, go onto a kind of autopilot, and lose our presence in the here and now. There are five well known thought patterns or “scripts” that we can fall prey to: Please others, Try hard, Be perfect, Hurry up and Be strong. Raising awareness of which patterns operate for you and developing coping mechanisms to counteract them, can also help build self-belief.

 

Finally, leaders within organisations can help to avoid the imposter syndrome in their organisations by modelling vulnerability. There is an expectation that leaders should conceal their feelings and not expose weaknesses. Therefore admitting you are wrong and you don’t have all the answers takes genuine courage. As a leader, role modelling that life is an experiment, freely admitting your own shortcomings and learning from mistakes, all create space for others to do the same.

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