What is imposter syndrome?

For some, the jury is out on Imposter Syndrome – it is definitely a popular buzzword at the moment but is it really “a thing” or is it just the self-doubt that we all feel? Is it just part of being human? Or is it something more?

It was first identified in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes and the dictionary definition is “the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills”.

It’s a feeling that you’re actually a fraud and that any moment you will be “found out”, despite all the evidence to the contrary. The feeling of being an imposter can be so strong that sufferers spend years adding to their qualifications or overworking in a bid to feel more like they are deserving of the credit that they are given. Problem is, they never do, because it turns out it was never about the qualifications or the hard work but an inner self doubt that was holding them back.

Around 70% of people have been found to have some degree of imposter syndrome, so most people reading this will be able to relate.

Am I an imposter?

I think it’s important right now for me to admit I really do feel like this sometimes. Ok, a lot. Imposter syndrome has held me back at many points in my career. It has held me back from writing this blog post – the self-doubt that I have enough authority to write about it! It’s then taken me weeks to come back to edit and publish it, all due to a fear of not feeling like an authority on the subject! Turns out personal experience is part of authority, so here goes…

I particularly identify with the need for qualifications – early in my career, I felt the need to train to be a chef in my own time because I was working in food product development but didn’t feel “foodie enough” (I had a BSc in Food and Nutrition, which had included culinary training) and later on when I moved into a Sales & Marketing role, I constantly asked for training in Excel, Negotiation & Presentation skills, or whatever else I thought I needed that everyone else could see I already had a natural talent for.

I wasn’t given the training. My bosses could see it was a waste of their budget because I was already good at these things. The voice in my head kept shouting louder and louder “THEY ARE GOING TO FIND OUT THAT YOU’RE NOT GOOD ENOUGH”. So, I worked harder and harder, longer and longer hours… and eventually I burnt out.

So, yeah, I wasn’t actually an imposter, I was completely and utterly capable BUT the self-doubt did create the perfect storm and the result wasn’t pretty.

And here’s the thing – if you THINK you are an imposter, then you probably aren’t! In the same way that worrying you’re a bad parent means you’re probably not – or you wouldn’t be worrying about it! True imposters have no idea that they are not capable and that they shouldn’t be doing something.

What are the signs of Imposter Syndrome?

So, for me it always manifested as a feeling like I was always on high alert – that I was always going to be “found out” at any moment that I wasn’t good enough at the job I was doing.

It also manifests in an inability to “own” your successes, to internalise them. So, when somebody gives you positive feedback or tells you how awesome you are at something you tend to a) feel super uncomfortable and have no idea how to respond. And b) you brush the complement aside and put it down to “luck” or being in the right place at the right time or my old favourite “it was a team effort”.

Sometimes, this is because you are actually the absolute opposite of an imposter – because something comes naturally to you it doesn’t feel like an achievement. Sometimes, its because you think to yourself “you have no idea the work and long hours I had to put into pulling that off!”

Another sign of imposter syndrome (well human nature actually, but we’re talking here about when it tips into the really unhelpful) is only ever focusing on your weaknesses and rarely acknowledging your strengths.

From the outside, somebody with imposter syndrome can look like they totally have it together (they are so fearful of being “found out” that they put on an amazing mask) but inside the inner dialogue that we all have, has tipped over into a really unhelpful behaviour.

So, what are the 5 signs of Imposter Syndrome at work?

1. Overworking – working long hours, more than is necessary to do an adequate job. The voices in your head are telling you “if I just do everything and work really hard, they will never know!”

2. Perfectionism – the theory here is if you don’t get it 100% right, you’ll get found out. But the reality of this is that it leads to overworking and as perfection doesn’t actually exist you will never be happy with the end result. This also rears its head in being unable to take on compliments and being absolutely devastated by the tiniest of criticism

3. Procrastination and avoidance – so you may be working really hard and long hours but you also may be avoiding the difficult stuff. The fear of getting something wrong creates a fear of starting it at all.

4. Martyrdom / Superwoman syndrome – We all know the person that has to prove that they’re working harder than everyone else and wears the busy badge of honour with pride. This is rooted in an inability to ask for help – “if I can’t do it on my own, then It’s not an achievement or I will be found out”. Sufferers of Imposter Syndrome are often under the illusion that this makes them stronger / more indispensable when on the outside it is clear that isn’t always the case and it would just be better if they delegated more and asked for help!

5. Just one more course / qualification – If you never believe you are good enough, you always want to improve. Now, caveat here – as a life long learner here I am not discouraging learning new things, striving to improve your knowledge. Particularly if there is a proven gap in your knowledge and you need it to do a good job. This is about it coming from a place of feeling like you are not good enough right now and a place of fear.

So, what can you do about it?

Well, there’s going to be a whole other blog post on that (so make sure you follow me on socials to get notified of that!). And frankly, I can do a whole course of coaching sessions just on this subject (It definitely shows up for most of my clients!) but here is just one simple exercise I get my clients to do, if I can see they are doubting themselves to a point that is unhealthy.

“What’s the evidence?” : a simple exercise

1. Sit down with a pen, paper and no other distractions

2. Gather all the evidence you can that you are NOT an imposter by writing down ALL the achievements in your life

3. Now go back and add in some more. You forgot your swimming badges when you were a kid didn’t you? Add them in!

4. Review the list and think about what it says about you – do you see any patterns? Does it highlight your strengths? How do those strengths support you now in whatever it is you are doubting yourself about?

5. Write some “I am… “ statements based on what you have found. e.g. I am a strong leader, I am motivated by helping others, I am able to create momentum on projects – whatever comes up for you.

If you find this useful (or even if you don’t), there are lots of other ways I can help you unpack your Imposter Syndrome once and for all and send her on her merry way.

Follow me on  https://www.instagram.com/amywilkinsoncoach where I share other resources about imposter syndrome and how it holds us back, or connect on me on linkedin https://www.linkedin.com/in/amy-wilkinson-0a5b7617/ and book in a free discovery call to find out more about how I can help you either get rid of your Imposter Syndrome or learn to live with her!