Have you ever had that feeling at work that you have no idea what you’re doing or what you’re meant to do next? Do you worry that your achievements are the result of luck rather than skill? Is the fear that you’re faking it and that you’re going to be exposed as a fraud a constant niggle in the back of your mind? Don’t worry, you’re not alone!
I have these feelings at least once or twice a week. Anxiety and stress hit me like a flood and I end up putting in more hours than is necessary just to make sure that I stay on top of everything and keep all of my work ‘plates’ spinning. I’m sure that I’m not alone in doing this but I’m also sure that other people don’t always feel this way or at least, not quite as often as I do.
Imposter Syndrome is the psychological phenomenon that your success stems from luck and not from your qualifications, hard work and talent. It can affect all kinds of people in various different professions who aren’t able to internalize and accept their own success. Instead, they feel like they’re ‘winging it’ and have gotten where they are in life through luck.
In today’s world, where we all strive for perfection in our lives both at work and at home, it’s no wonder that so many of us experience intense moments of doubt that leave us feeling like incompetent frauds. In an article on the BBC website earlier this year, Brian Daniel Norton, a psychotherapist and executive coach in New York identified those most at risk from experiencing imposter syndrome as “women, women of colour, especially black women, as well as the LGBTQ community.” He went on to say, ‘when you experience systemic oppression or are directly or indirectly told your whole life that you are less-than or underserving of success and you begin to achieve things in a way that goes against a long-standing narrative in the mind, imposter syndrome will occur.”
What Brian Daniel Norton says makes a lot of sense to me. I grew up an only child and was raised in a ‘traditional’ household. My dad went out to work and earned the money – he was the main provider. My mum worked as well and kept house and did all the chores and yet her achievements were viewed with less importance somehow. Her main goal for me in life was that I get married and have someone to look after me. She would never dream that I’d be able to do that all by myself.
I remember when I got accepted to university and she spent a fair few weeks trying to convince me not to go. She wanted me to get a job at the local supermarket and stay at home with her. I realise that this was mostly because she didn’t want me to leave home but I also think that the idea of a woman having an advanced education was a bit beyond her. How on earth would I find a husband doing that? To a certain extent, I feel like I have carried my mother’s values with me and therefore, end up feeling like a bit of a fraud from time to time. Also, I’m still unmarried and she never wants to talk about my work on the phone.
In her book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, Dr. Valerie Young has pulled together decades of research into the fraudulent feelings of high achievers. It’s a very good read and I highly recommend that anyone who regularly suffers from the feelings I’ve described in this article picks up a copy. An expert on Imposter Syndrome, Dr. Young, has identified five categories or competence types that people who struggle with their confidence try to follow:
Perfectionists:- These individuals set extremely high expectations for themselves. Even if they meet 99% of their goals, the failure to reach that 1% is going to make them feel unworthy of their success. Small mistakes will make them question their own competence which is why this category are often control freaks and micro managers who feel like they have to do everything themselves in order to make sure it is done properly and correctly.
For the Perfectionist, success is rarely celebrated as they will always believe that they could have done it better. This attitude really isn’t healthy at all and could ultimately lead to burnout. Owning and celebrating your success and your achievements and those of your team will help you to gain self-confidence. Truthfully, the time is never ‘perfect’ for anything so if there is a project you have been delaying until the time is ‘just right’, make sure you push yourself to make a start. Your work will never be 100% perfect and the sooner you accept that, the better the position you’ll be in to move forward and learn from your mistakes as you go.
Superwomen/men: For these types, overworking is the name of the game (guilty). To prove that they are not imposters, they strive to put in more hours than the rest of the world and work harder and harder to try and measure up to their colleagues. They sacrifice their free time so that they can feel more accomplished in the workplace. Often this puts an undue strain on their relationships outside of work and they risk harming their mental health in the process.
These workaholics often gain gratification from the validation that comes from working extra hours, rather than the work itself. For those suffering from this aspect of the syndrome (including myself) the advice is to start training yourself to avoid this need for external validation. You should concentrate on making yourself feel good rather than getting that metaphorical ‘pat on the head’ from a boss or a colleague. You should also learn to take constructive criticism and not take it personally. Once you’ve nurtured your confidence and learnt to make yourself feel good, you’ll be able to assess how much work is really needed of you.
Natural Geniuses: Those who are naturally gifted at a subject or profession often struggle when they can’t instantly master a new skill or way of working. If they have to put in more time than they usually would to grasp it, they feel shame and experience feelings of self-doubt. Like Perfectionists, Natural Geniuses set the bar very high but also expect to get everything right on the first try.
In order to get a grip on this attitude, their perspective needs to change from seeing themselves as ‘finished’ to viewing themselves as a ‘work in progress’. Rather than feeling down that you are not able to master something on the first try, identify specific actions and behaviours that can be improved over time. Instead of insisting that you just can’t do something because you tried it once and failed, try improving your skills in that area, little by little, until you feel confident enough to tackle the project again.
Soloists: These are the people who refuse to ask for help, fearing that if they do they will be regarded as incompetents and failures. They strive on doing everything themselves and find it difficult to work as part of a team. Soloists need to learn that it is okay to ask for help. No one knows everything and no one person can carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. There is no weakness is asking for assistance when you need it, especially to do your job.
Rather than living with the anxiety that you may get something wrong, it’s easier to ask a colleague for help. You must learn to accept that everyone at your workplace and in your life has asked for help at some point. It’s not a weakness. Asking for help is a strength and you’re being courageous by doing it.
Experts: – Individuals who feel that they need to have every piece of knowledge and information concerning a project before it even starts. Unless they have a complete understanding of everything, they just won’t start it. They are scared of asking questions as they fear that it will make them look stupid because they don’t already know the answer. They don’t apply for jobs unless they meet ALL of the criteria (even though we all know the job description rarely matches the actual job most of the time).
Whilst it’s true that there’s always more to learn, endlessly seeking out more information can actually become a form of procrastination. Try undertaking learning when you need it–for example, if your responsibilities change–rather than gathering knowledge for (false) comfort. You don’t need to know everything. Like the advice to the Soloists, there’s no shame in asking for help from your colleagues. Sharing your knowledge and experience with junior team members will also help to grow your confidence and help you to develop trust in your team.
Whatever type of Imposter Syndrome tendency you identify with, it’s important to understand that you are not alone. We all have moments of self-doubt and some of us have them more frequently then others. Take steps today to help you acknowledge that you have earned your place, not by luck, but by skill, hard work and your own commitment to your life and career. You’re not a fraud and you deserve every success in this world.