In every workplace, there lurks a silent killer.
It may not be life-threatening, but it may be killing your productivity, your wellbeing and your confidence.
It affects about 70% of people – usually high achievers – and consumes significant amounts of mental and emotional energy. While not a disorder in the clinical sense, it is associated with anxiety and depression. And, because it seems to disproportionately affect women, there's a good chance that it's contributing to the woeful lack of women in leadership roles.
I’m talking about “imposter syndrome”.
What is imposter syndrome?
If you haven't heard of imposter syndrome before, you could be forgiven for thinking that it's something that happens when a person of dubious intent hacks into your computer and steals your credit card details. But imposter syndrome isn't identity theft (although it can feel a bit like your true identity has been hijacked).
Imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon that is usually described as the experience of feeling like an intellectual fraud, despite all evidence to the contrary (e.g. qualifications, achievements and recognition). For some, it is accompanied by an irrational fear of being "found out".
Since when is this a "thing"?
The condition itself isn't anything new. It was identified as "imposter phenomenon" almost 40 years ago by two American psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, after they noticed a pattern in the thinking and behaviour of 150 highly successful women that they worked with over a five-year period.
Its resurgence in the organisational context seems to be associated with the focus on women in leadership.
You’ve heard the statistics. As I write this:
- Just 5% of CEOs in ASX200-listed companies are women.
- There are 13 ASX200-listed companies that have no female directors at all.
- The ABS reports that only one out of five managers is female.
Studies suggest that imposter syndrome occurs more frequently - and more intensely - in women than it does in men (although this could be because men are less likely to talk about it). And the further women move up the corporate ladder, the more likely they are to question themselves and their abilities.
Having spent most of my career working in and around the construction industry, I’m well-accustomed to being the only female in meetings and feeling like I don’t belong (or, sadly, feeling “privileged” to be there). Throw imposter syndrome into the mix and it's no wonder there are so few females in key leadership roles.
That said, this is not about gender.
But hang on... I'm not a fraud!
I get it. The word "fraud" doesn't resonate with me either.
It seems to me that imposter syndrome is suffering from a marketing problem. Even in 2017, I've talked to several people who still hadn’t heard of it. And, of those who had, only a few were willing to admit that they’d experienced it. I mean, who wants to admit to feeling like a fraud?
But when you look at the common symptoms, it really resonates. We're talking "generalised anxiety, lack of self-confidence, depression, and frustration related to the inability to meet self-imposed standards of achievement". Sound familiar, anyone?
What I've realised though is that the reason I don't identify with the textbook experience of feeling like a fraud is that I've gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid it.
For example, have you ever:
- felt an almost compulsive need to work harder, put in longer hours and contribute more to prove that you're pulling your weight? (Nothing's ever "good enough".)
- downplayed your accomplishments because you’re focusing on how imperfect it felt on the inside rather than how impressive it looked to others from the outside? (Not surprisingly, imposter syndrome has been linked to perfectionism.)
- proactively declared your shortcomings so that no one could call you out on them later? (“I told you I was not as good as you thought I was!”)
- held yourself back from opportunities, and made excuses about not being qualified enough or skilled enough or experienced enough, because you don’t feel like you deserve them ("I'll ask for that promotion or pay rise when I achieve X...")?
- doubted the judgment of people who praised you? (Or even questioned their sincerity?)
And the more you achieve, the worse it seems to get. It's a vicious cycle - feel inadequate, work hard, achieve things, feel even more inadequate. Rinse and repeat.
While a bit of self-doubt can provide a valuable check and balance against the excesses of vanity and ego, the problem with imposter syndrome is that most people get caught up in it and believe that it's true. It's a bit like being shrouded in Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak without even knowing that it’s there, let alone how to take it off.
So what's the good news?
The good news is that imposter syndrome doesn't have to be a way of life. Once you become aware of it, you've taken a huge step towards the "cure".
Personally, I've found it useful to think of imposter syndrome as a "way of being".
Your "way of being" is essentially your mindset. By becoming more mindful of your "way of being", you have the opportunity to notice when imposter syndrome is showing up in your life - e.g. in high-stakes meetings, presentations or other circumstances - and the possibility of choosing a different way of being that is more empowering for you.
What does this mean in practice?
Google "imposter syndrome", and you'll find numerous articles listing strategies for dealing with it. No doubt, many of those strategies are helpful, but they are almost entirely focused on one aspect of our way of being - our thoughts (Language).
The thing is - we are not just our thoughts. Our thoughts are connected to our moods and physiology, and these three elements interact and reinforce each other to create our "way of being" in the way that sleep, nutrition and exercise contribute to our physical health.
So a purely cognitive approach to imposter syndrome is a bit like giving a diabetic a list of foods to avoid but not telling them about the need for exercise.
A more holistic approach would encompass our whole “way of being”.
Here are some suggestions:
1. Language: Notice (and shift) your self-talk
Imposter syndrome is largely embedded in the conversations we have with ourselves - in other words, the negative self-talk that we engage in, largely out of habit.
By becoming more aware of your own internal narrative, you have the opportunity to change it to something more constructive.
For example, a person who is experiencing textbook imposter syndrome might be telling themselves, “Who are you to be applying for this role? You don’t have enough experience. They’re going to laugh at you!” On the other hand, a more supportive dialogue might be: “Good on you for challenging yourself! How can you best prepare yourself for the process?”
Next time you notice those old familiar feelings of self-doubt, ask yourself this: "What would I say to encourage someone I was coaching or mentoring?"
For more: How to break up with your inner critic
2. Moods: Cultivate curiosity
As we advance in our careers, the pressure to demonstrate our competence can sometimes come at the expense of our openness to learning. This can lead to a mood of anxiety, which occurs when we are attached to knowing the outcome of a situation (i.e. getting it “right”) and refuse to tolerate the uncertainty of not knowing.
For example: What if someone asks me a question I can't answer? Will they question my competence?
The antidote to anxiety is curiosity.
You can cultivate curiosity by adopting a learning or growth mindset. Being willing to be a learner requires humility and the courage to say "I don't know", but the payoff is the freedom to discover new ways of looking at old problems.
For more: How to kick your addiction to certainty
3. Physiology: Breathe!
A powerful but often neglected aspect of our "way of being" is our physiology. My working theory is that imposter syndrome occurs when you know intellectually that you are successful, but your body hasn't quite caught up.
By making subtle shifts in our posture and breathing, we can generate significant changes in our thinking and moods.
A simple experiment: Think of a tough problem you've been struggling to solve. Really focus on it and notice where you feel it in your body. Now go for a short walk (even just 5-10 minutes) and focus on breathing into that space. What do you notice? What new insights arise?
For those who have developed strongly engrained habits of thought and/or moods, a physiological approach can be a refreshing alternative to more cognitively-based approaches. People have been telling me to "get out of my head" for years - but until I discovered how to be in my body, I didn't know where else to go!
For more: How to cultivate authentic presence
Where to from here?
If this article resonated with you, I can help.
I'm not a psychologist and I don't have all of the answers, but I have accumulated a substantial toolkit of strategies and techniques that can help you to manage your self-doubt and improve your productivity, wellbeing and confidence.
Some of these strategies are better experienced in person than explained on paper, so I’ve developed a workshop that will equip you with a range of approaches towards curing imposter syndrome in whatever form you might be experiencing it.
The workshop will be held in Melbourne on Wednesday 1 November 2017 and is open to all, regardless of gender. The only prerequisites are an open mind, a courageous heart and a sense of humour! Further details will be released soon, so please get in touch if you'd like to learn more.
By applying these strategies in my own life, I am learning to manage my experience of my self-doubt so that it comes in waves rather than floods, punctuated by periods of joyful creativity, productivity and optimism that are becoming longer and more stable.
And so can you.