The term Imposter Syndrome is one in common use and is one that I have at times used for myself. However, after reading a bit more around the topic, I am now questioning if some of us are applying this term, blanket fashion, to situations and scenarios that could benefit from something more nuanced and less loaded.
What is it? Well, there are 7.1 million results in Google should you feel inclined. To keep it as straightforward as possible, let’s revert to the dictionary for a succinct definition:
“the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own effort or skills”.
There are some well used architypes when it comes to the imposters. When I first learnt of them, I was curious to see where I identified myself:
The Perfectionist: has problems delegating, obsesses with detail and beats themselves up for not achieving targets (that are unrealistic!). Less than 100% is a fail.
The Soloist: would rather work alone than have their work seen and scrutinised. Asking for help is a no no.
The Genius – has an ease and a speed around what they do. The go to person. Don’t want to move or progress as this could cause disappointment.
The Expert – never feels qualified enough. Seeks out more training and certifications. Absolutely ALL criteria must be met before they would apply for a role.
The Superhero – the over workers, seeking to prove they are good enough.
Spotted yourself? I was in all of them to a greater or lesser extent!
Many people I have spoken to, both friends and clients, who identify themselves with imposter syndrome, speak of the element of luck. Lucky to have been offered the job, lucky to have been promoted, lucky to still be here, lucky to be in this relationship. And there is a distinction between luck and being appreciative and grateful which should be highlighted. Yes, we can appreciate and be grateful for our circumstances, in my case additionally my privileges, and I feel we can additionally praise ourselves for the actionable part we have played in getting here and maintaining it. It is not very common to hear someone recognise their own hard work, their talent and abilities, to acknowledge that this event or status has come about through effort and endeavour.
Let us also air the male female debate around imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is largely attributed to women. Indeed, the initial study by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes back in 1978, was a study of women only. More recently it is acknowledged that this is certainly experienced also by men, indeed it is estimated 70% of people experience imposter feelings at some point (source: review article published in the International Journal of Behavioural Science), and yet it remains a label that mostly women claim or receive.
An insightful article in the Harvard Business Review “Stop telling women they have imposter syndrome” by Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey, Feb 2021, makes fascinating observation after fascinating observation. Tulshyan and Burey explore the workplace, what role this plays in “fostering and exacerbating it in women” and also exploring race in the debate. One question which caused me pause was that Imposter Syndrome appears in women’s networking, training, and learning events with predictable regularity. In what frequency does it at similar male orientated or non-gender specific events? Should we conclude that so few men experience this form of anxiety as to be not statistically relevant to the debate? Or perhaps that it is more acceptable for women to acknowledge this, or indeed that women are more likely to be open in the discussion? I asked my husband for his opinion – he thought the latter.
So, my reading has made me cautious about the term itself and have me question its application. However, my own personal experience tells me there is something, whatever I call it, that manifested at times in my career specifically, but also in my personal life. I have always been comfortable in acknowledging that I worked hard to achieve. In education and in the world of work, of course I had areas of natural skill, but I believe it was effort and determination that landed me grades, roles and promotions. And yet at times my confidence evaded me, and I sat at my desk waiting for the proclamation “you don’t know what you are doing”, the hanging risk of “being found out”. Even when the awareness was there to separate fact from fiction, when I could recognise that I was performing, and performing well, in my role; still that fear of bumping into the person that knew more, that would see through me, was present.
With hindsight I can see this coincided with bigger projects, with new teams, stakeholders and clients. Where the stakes were, at least in my eyes, greater. Where it was important to me to preserve, reinforce or advance my reputation as someone reliable, competent, expert.
I believe most of us, myself included, would label these feelings as Imposter Syndrome and perhaps having this handy, cover all, label is useful as an easy universal term. But does it, can it, also hamper? Isn’t it only natural to experience some apprehension and anxiety over something new and challenging? I wonder now what the impact could have been if it were more normal to voice these thoughts and feelings and to acknowledge them for just what they were, natural anxiety in a new situation, as opposed to labelling them as a syndrome – which could be interpreted as having something wrong with us.
Whatever “it” is called or labelled, how to tackle it when it does arise, will, most likely be uppermost in our thoughts. Naming it, acknowledging it, speaking about it, if this feels at all possible, has to be, in my experience the most powerful antidote. As with many scary things, the dark makes them seem worse; shining a light directly at them reveals them for what they really are, usually something far more mundane than we were imagining. If we can create a space where we can share these experiences we continue to normalise and legitimise these feelings, critical, especially in the professional space. We begin to see others like us.
“A sense of belonging fosters confidence. The more people who look or sound like you, the more confident you feel. And conversely, the fewer people who look or sound like you, it can and does for many people impact their confidence.” (Valerie Young. Author - The secret thoughts of successful women).
I return also to bang my awareness drum: is this a thought or is this a fact? Being able to observe this offers a perspective that we can so easily miss when we are caught in the emotion of it all. Ultimately, with practice, this is about learning to give ourselves both a reality check and a break. We are so hard on ourselves, so critical, horrible in some cases. We would never treat a colleague or co-worker the way we do ourselves when we are in this place. I see it time and time again in clients and I did it myself; and it is important for me to tell you I still do. I do it much less, but it happens, and I forgive myself for these times too. I find it very hard to witness a client in this place – I want to fix it for them, to immediately stop them from hurting themselves, all the time knowing that they must be the change and there is imperative learning from the journey, I can just hold the torch and shine it into the dark with them, to help them see.
My personal imposter toolbox, crafted and continually under construction from my own learning journey, consists therefore of awareness in the moment and my inner resources in the form of my allies*. For the imposter in me I wheel out the big gun that is Verruca Salt – she’s so self-absorbed she doesn’t give a shit what anyone thinks of her, ever; and Mr Scorsby who just wants to explore everything and loves saying yes to new things and is a stronger power than a monster that likes to dwell in the shadows. As a combination of caring less what people think of me and being curious and leaning into new things, the feelings of inadequacy and not fitting, are diminished.
*Ally – an inner resource, a structure, created in coaching to help dial up a behaviour or quality that we seek to have more of, or indeed to help us dial down something that is inhibiting us.
They help, it’s a way to manage the feelings. Perhaps when we all can acknowledge that as humans we experience a degree of anxiety around change, around stress, around performance – that this is biologically hardwired as a survival mechanism, perhaps then we won’t need or want to label these feelings as a syndrome. Perhaps we can just call it human.
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