Career Advice, Leadership, Personal Development

Understanding and Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

Im·pos·ter Syn·drome (noun)

1. 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.

What is Imposter Syndrome? 

Imposter Syndrome is the belief that you are not as good as what other people think you are. Common “red flags” are the incessant belief that you are faking it and living with fear and anxiety and that you will be discovered as a fraud. Common symptoms include anxiety, self-confidence issues, depression, and an inability to ever relax and enjoy the fruits of your success. You simply can never do enough or achieve enough or meet your own standards. 

Imposter Syndrome in Women

It is a syndrome that affects both men and women. However, women are more much likely to be affected because of societal messages and constructs that define female roles and because of the inherent bias against women in our society. This is complicated by the fact women often have an inherent bias against themselves that they are completely unaware of. Because you can’t address something you are unaware of, the bias and patterns that go with it continue.

Those who suffer from Imposter Syndrome often report thoughts such as: “I’m in over my head,” “I don’t have the skills needed to do this,” “I’m not that intelligent,” or “I’m not qualified.” They often have low confidence and struggle with their sense of self. Sufferers don’t get to enjoy their success because they are overwhelmed with the fear of being discovered and having it all taken away. They tend to believe that their success is temporary or fleeting, a stroke of good fortune, or that it was simply hard work.

Average and underachievers are never affected. The good news is, that the very fact that you suffer from Imposter Syndrome means you are successful.  

When I work with Imposter Syndrome clients, I help them to understand that their thoughts and feelings are actually in conflict with reality. Let me share a recent example.

I’m doing leadership coaching with a client, Rachel, who in two years started a business that has expanded to 17 employees, numerous subcontractors, and 4 locations. In the first year, her profits exceeded her husband’s salary by 50% and he left his well-paid position, as an engineer, and her family had recently moved into a larger, nicer home because of her success.

During our first session, she commented, “I’m really not good at business, I just got lucky with my idea.” I ask her to explain. She proceeded to walk me through her business from concept nearly two years ago to her current-day situation and I was blown away not only as someone who holds an MBA but as a businesswoman of 17 years myself. What Rachel had done was nothing short of genius, but here she was letting me know right up front, “I’m not that good at business.”

The rest of the session was taken up with my helping Rachel to understand that what she was saying and how she saw herself were actually in direct opposition to reality and that if anyone who understood business or finances would hear her say that, they would probably recommend her for a psychiatric evaluation…it just isn’t true!

Imposter Syndrome Only Affects the Successful

I would like to say that Rachel’s struggle with reality is uncommon, but unfortunately, it is not. It’s believed that as many as 70% of us have suffered from some form of Imposter Syndrome during our lives.

Most people who suffer from Imposter Syndrome have deeply held beliefs that are not only pervasive but also stand the test of time despite all evidence to the contrary. I have worked with clients who have struggled their entire lives and throughout very successful careers where they have reached the pinnacles of success in their fields, grown hugely successful businesses, and amassed fortunes all while deeply suffering despite their success.

Understanding your emotions 

Imposter Syndrome is rooted in the four core universal reasons for all emotional struggles which are:

The belief I am not enough

This belief is always at the root of Imposter Syndrome and persists regardless of nearly all evidence to the contrary.

The belief that what I want is not available to me even if others can have it

This belief leads to thoughts such as, “It’s all going to be taken away.”

Fear of rejection

Oftentimes, those who struggle with Imposter Syndrome will believe that they will be rejected because of their success. So they downplay it to others (especially family) who will likely dismiss their success or be critical or judgmental of it. 

The need for connection

I find this reason to be common with individuals who have surpassed the expectations or achievements in their birth families or cultures.  Therefore they engage in behaviors that make them feel connected to others even when those behaviors are inherently uncomfortable or undesirable. 

Awareness is the key to recovery because, for all of us, it’s what you don’t know that you don’t know that runs the show. After all, you can’t do anything about something you are unaware of.

When I work with clients, especially leaders looking for coaching, I help them uncover their core universal reason (s) that is leading to their Imposter Syndrome and from there, we begin the process of healing.

5 Types of Imposter Syndrome

There are 5 common types of Imposter Syndrome, which one do you think you are? 

The Expert

They know their material inside and out so they feel as if they have been able to trick people into believing they are something they are not. The Expert doesn’t want to risk being wrong so if they are not 100% sure, they won’t speak up or contribute. 

The Genius

They are blessed with the ability to learn easily, often pick up on new concepts without much effort, and may have natural talents that make their developmental years relatively easy. The challenge comes when they get older and experience failure for the first time or find themselves in the company of other geniuses and suddenly they begin to question their intelligence and their sense of self falters. Geniuses often lack resilience because they have not experienced enough failure to learn how to work through challenges and uncomfortable circumstances.

The Perfectionist

They try to conceal their insecurities and their internal struggles by projecting perfection in their lives and/or careers. They often hold themselves to unreasonable standards and need to project an image of perfection that requires high standards for others like family members or the teams they lead. Micromanaging and the inability to relinquish control can be the hallmarks of the perfectionist. The Perfectionist is going to have every public aspect of their lives in order, but behind the scenes, there is often turmoil and pressure on others such as family members to perform.

The Rugged Independent

They don’t like to ask for help and will go to great lengths to not have to admit they need it. For them, they see asking for help as a weakness even if they don’t make that judgment about others. The Rugged Independent forges ahead and often leaves others left behind even when they want to contribute or be a part of the process or solution

The SuperStar

They are constantly trying to prove themselves and no amount of success will ever be enough. The SuperStar will exhaust themselves and feel driven to continue because they get their validation only from success as they define it and it is often defined by reaching higher and higher.

How imposter syndrome holds you back

Those who struggle with Imposter Syndrome not only have the emotional toll that it takes on them, but also hold themselves back in a myriad of ways. A few of the common examples I see with my clients are:

Giving away your power

When someone with Imposter Syndrome feels like they aren’t qualified, they typically give someone they perceive as better or smarter control in their lives or business. 

Using my client Rachel as an example, she gave away her power by making her husband not only the CFO of her business but also the Director of Operations.  What that meant was anytime she wanted to do anything in the business that required money or a change in processes, she had to go to him and “ask”. She admitted that sometimes he would give her “pushback” on what she wanted and that on some level she resented it, but she felt like she didn’t have a choice in the matter…he was an engineer and therefore somehow smarter than her.

Dimming your light

When someone with Imposter Syndrome feels like they will be rejected or lose connection because of their perceived success, they will downplay their accomplishments or explain them away.  

My client Yvonne came from a poor blue-collar working family. She was the first in her family to go to college and be successful in the corporate world. She felt very uncomfortable talking about her personal life and career with her family and even lived well below her means so that they didn’t know how much money she made for fear of being rejected or seen as an outsider. 

Being Risk-Averse

When someone has Imposter Syndrome, they are often afraid to take risks because they lack the confidence and sense of self to potentially fail. They equate failure with confirmation that they are an imposter. They often struggle with resilience because resilience is a byproduct of failure and that is not something they have allowed themselves to get comfortable with. 

The good news is, Imposter Syndrome is curable and the fact you suffer from it is evidence that you are already a success.

Overcoming imposter syndrome 

Shift the focus of how you see yourself. Start by imagining you are a separate person from yourself. Maybe a beloved child, a loving sister, or a good friend. What qualities, accomplishments, or achievements would you recognize about that other person?

Take the time to sit down and actually compile a list of your achievements and accomplishments. Chances are, you will be surprised at just how many there are once you begin to list them. All too often those with Imposter Syndrome simply take them in stride and just keep going without stopping to acknowledge what they have done.

Pay attention to your thoughts and the messages you give yourself and how you talk about yourself to others. Are these thoughts and messages lining up with reality? For Rachel, this was a powerful exercise because they allowed herself to see it was an undeniable fact that she is good at business. After all, the proof was in the success.

Ask someone who you trust for constructive feedback about how they see you and how you may be undermining yourself. Be careful to choose someone who is going to be able to be objective not someone who thinks everything you do is “perfect” and not someone who, because of their own emotional insecurities, will inhibit them from acknowledging your strengths and personal power. This is where a coach can be invaluable.

Question your knowledge and beliefs about yourself and what’s possible for you, but don’t question yourself. Know that you are inherently enough just the way you are and you don’t need to be anything “different” to be valuable. When you do, it makes you more open to  constructive criticism, feedback, and advice.

If you’re suffering from imposter syndrome and want to Unlock Bold Change™ contact me today!