Finding a cure for imposter syndrome


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:

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:

  1. 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".)
  2. 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.)
  3. 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!”)
  4. 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...")?
  5. doubted the judgment of people who praised you? (Or even questioned their sincerity?)

It’s exhausting.

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?

The three domains of our "way of being" - Language, Moods and Body

The three domains of our "way of being" - Language, Moods and Body

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.

What to do when things go (horribly) wrong

Like many others around the world, I found myself having a strong emotional reaction to the news that Donald Trump is going to be the 45th President of the United States.

Shock, anger, confusion... I raced through Kübler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief before finally landing on acceptance sometime around 7.30pm.

Hang on a minute. Acceptance? How did I get there? Was I actually just in denial (the first of the five stages), or had I genuinely found a way to make peace with the news?

Not coincidentally, I had spent the day at an Ontological Coaching conference with global expert Alan Seiler of the Newfield Institute. Ontological Coaching focuses on the client’s ‘way of being’ (which loosely correlates with 'mindset') as the entry point to unlocking more constructive strategies for behaviour and communication. One of the areas we had focused on was that of ‘breakdowns’, which are interruptions to the flow of our lives - in other words, when thing don't go as we expect them to. I had expected Hillary Clinton to win, and to learn that this was unlikely was a fairly significant breakdown for me.

(The word 'breakdown' tends to conjure up images of a person curled up on the floor in the foetal position, but a breakdown could be as minor as stubbing your toe - if it's unexpected. Technically, it also includes unexpected good news, which would be a positive breakdown.)

A ‘breakdown’ is so called because it represents a breaking down of something that we have been taking for granted – e.g. an assumption or view of the world. Prior to the breakdown, we more or less assume that things are the way we see them, and we expect things to flow in a certain way based on our assumptions. When events unfold differently to our expectations, our assumptions are challenged, and so we experience a breakdown of what was otherwise so obvious to us that we don't even think about it.

Here's where things get interesting.

If we choose to plough on with life, we can be experience strong, lasting negative emotion (anger, despair, anxiety) and the breakdown can persist or even worsen. On the other hand, if we use the breakdown as an opportunity to identify and examine the underlying assumptions, it can provide us with a valuable learning opportunity.

Let’s be frank: this is not easy when you're caught up in strong negative emotions. A few hours after I heard that Donald Trump was likely to win, I telephoned my father. He was surprisingly philosophical about the situation and offered me a few logical reasons that the election was unfolding as it was. But I didn’t want to hear it. I was so caught up in my indignation and dismay that I wasn’t ready for any learning. Yet.

Thankfully, my my indignation was overtaken by a far more useful emotion: curiosity. Ultimately, I was driven by a need to understand how more than 50 million American voters had knowingly cast a ballot for such an obnoxious, unqualified, hate-filled man.

This led me to ask myself the following questions, which are embedded in the ontological approach:

  • What is it about the way that I am observing this situation that is causing a breakdown for me?
  • How could I see it differently?

As I watched the news coverage unfold (in particular, the footage of Trump's supporters explaining why they had voted for him), it dawned on me that more than 50 million Americans were really happy about the outcome of the election. They were assessing the situation from a completely different frame of reference - theirs, not mine. So what could I learn from their frame of reference?

As much as Americans are criticised for being ignorant about the world beyond their borders (with apologies to my American friends), I’m going to say that the rest of the world is equally ignorant about the extent of disempowerment experienced by a huge proportion of the American population. Those of us who enjoy a stable income, education and good health have no idea what it’s like for those who are (for example) locked out of employment because the manufacturing sector has come to a grinding halt. It seems that Trump spoke to those people's concerns more effectively than Clinton did, and we saw the result of that across our screens today. There is much to learn here.

It’s easy to blame this outcome on gender inequality, and that was almost certainly a factor. But it wasn't everything, based on what I've heard about the proportion of women who voted for Trump. And it’s also incredibly disempowering to interpret this outcome as a rejection of the notion of female leadership, when Europe and Asia have provided us with so many examples of women leading their countries without gender being such a divisive issue. Again, there is much to be learned here.

I am in no way suggesting that this breakdown has changed my view on how challenging the election outcome will be for the American population and the world in general. And it will probably further my commitment to disengaging from the traditional news media. But it seems to me that life (through Brexit, Trump, etc) is holding up a mirror, and it’s up to us to take a good look at what it’s showing us, preferably before Pauline Hanson re-enters Australian politics. Oh, whoops.

We’re all waking up today to a different paradigm – not least of all the considerable proportion of Americans who didn't vote for Trump. It’s highly unlikely that this outcome will change. But from a place of acceptance of what we cannot change, there is the opportunity to recognise what we can change and move forward from there.

Ultimately, compassion and courage will serve us better than condemnation.

Of course, none of this just applies to the U.S. election results. Life is a series of breakdowns, and our ability to learn from them determines how well we cope with life. In other words, our resilience. So next time you find yourself struggling with an unanticipated challenge, ask yourself the two questions above. It may not change the outcome, but it will almost certainly change your perspective of it.

Learning trumps losing, every time.

“When they go low, we go high.” ~Michelle Obama

(On a slightly different note, I ate two New York cheesecakes to take the edge off my shock, and the irony of this is not lost on me.)