Here at The Bailey Group, we keep our skills sharp by participating in monthly continuing education events. Recently, we hosted a round table discussion on Impostor Syndrome. While you may not be familiar with the formal name, we have found that many leaders are all too familiar with the experience. Some of the feelings and thoughts associated with Impostor Syndrome include:
- Feeling like an intellectual fake or fraud in the context of current success.
- Believing that you do not deserve your success and that others have been deceived into thinking otherwise.
- Believing that you are less intelligent and competent than appearances would suggest.
- Believing that your success is due to luck, fate, charm or anything other than your own talent.
- Over-emphasizing your weaknesses or deficiencies and downplaying your strengths.
The term Impostor Phenomenon was first used by clinical psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes back in the 1970s, so that gives you an idea of how long it has been around. The more recent work of Brene Brown on leadership courage, fear of exposure and vulnerability also illustrates just how common it is, even today, to feel like an impostor. Not all the time, certainly and luckily. However, I have rarely met a leader who did not “suffer” from this syndrome. Some leaders feel like an impostor often and some only in certain circumstances. Some would say they have NEVER felt it. If you’re one of those, let me remind you that I’m a psychologist and a coach with 30 years experience—I have probably seen it in you, too!
If, like me, there are times you feel like an impostor, what can you do? Here are my top five coping strategies:
- Admit/name the feeling. If to no one else, just to yourself. Don’t run away from it or deny it. Neuroscience research shows that denying/ignoring feelings and/or talking endlessly about the problem does nothing to dissipate the feeling experience (as measured by firing of neurons in the negative emotion region in our brain). Instead, naming accurately, concisely and specifically what you feel and why DOES allow the neurons to settle down!
- Remind yourself of your successes. Yes, objectively you know them, you just happen to believe at that moment that they happened IN SPITE of you, not because of you. Keep a file of “kudos”—emails, notes, experiences—that provide incontrovertible truth you ARE successful. Refer to it.
- Find someone you can trust to just talk to. Now, choose this person carefully. You don’t want someone to just “talk you out of your feeling.” They can’t. Find those rare people who allow you to feel what you feel, are empathetic about it, but also share their own experiences that convince THEM you are not the impostor you feel like at the moment. This is a nuanced difference, but it makes all the difference in the world. They are sharing their OWN beliefs, not trying to change yours!
- Don’t believe everything you think. Ever heard this phrase? Well, now is the time to actually do that. Yes, you could have an internal debate with yourself to “prove” the belief is true (not helpful), but I suggest you gently remind yourself that beliefs are not always true, even if you feel they are. Look at your behavior, the results of your work. You have delivered in the past and you will again.
- Pay attention to the here and now. Take some deep breaths and focus on your internal body signals without judgment. Just be in the moment. If that doesn’t work, distract yourself until those feelings go away—whether it’s Sudoku, TV, a podcast, music—anything external that distracts from the internal. These feelings will pass, but you may be able to help them pass quicker.
Let me know if these strategies work for you. And if you find yourself believing you are an impostor more often than is helpful to your career, let’s talk.