Reframing the imposter conversation
No matter how successful some people are, they can end up feeling like a complete fraud at work, says Lauren Taylor
NOVELIST and poet Maya Angelou once famously said: “I have written 11 books but each time I think, ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out’.”
While Meryl Streep has said: “You think, ‘Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?’”
How do you know if you’ve got imposter syndrome or just self-doubt?
“Most people experience self-doubt when, say, starting a new job or opening a business or doing something new,” says Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts Of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From The Impostor Syndrome And How To Thrive In Spite of It.
“Self-doubt is certainly a part of impostor syndrome, but people who feel like impostors have a difficult time internalising their accomplishments. Instead, they attribute them to things like luck, timing or personality.”
As well as feeling unworthy of their achievements, people with a case of imposter syndrome often have unsustainably high self-expectations around competence as well.
Young says: “They experience shame when they fail, which, depending on how they define competence, can mean anything from not knowing the answer to a question, struggling to master a subject or skill, having to ask for help, to some minor glitch in an otherwise stellar performance.” How does it develop? Hilda Burke, psychotherapist, couples counsellor and life coach, says imposter syndrome traits can be ingrained from childhood: “Most of us inherit a script from our parents about what we’ll amount to whether explicit or implicit. Some may have been endowed with the belief that they won’t be very successful, that they’re destined to just scrape by. If someone in whom those beliefs have been instilled does go on to earn millions, they might still feel that their success doesn’t quite fit.”
It can also develop later, people have reached what they thought was the ceiling of their capabilities.
“The ego holds limiting beliefs about oneself; when those beliefs are shattered when we surpass what we thought was possible for us, that’s when the sense of being an imposter can creep in,” says Burke.
“It’s important to remember that what we tell ourselves about who we are, what we are capable of, is created in our heads.”
Are some groups of people more likely to suffer from it than others?
“Many men feel like impostors — some painfully so. I’ve known of engineers, physicians and attorneys [who have imposter syndrome],” says Young.
“However, women as a group are more prone to setting the internal bar excessively.
“[There’s] the well-re-after searched tendency for girls and women to blame themselves when they fail or make a mistake, whereas boys and men, as a group, are more likely to blame factors outside of themselves.
“Criticism is more personalised for many women. Tell a woman her work is inadequate and what we hear is, ‘I’m inadequate’. [But] whenever you belong to a group for whom there are stereotypes about compet-just ence — whether based on gender, race, age, disability — you’re more susceptible to impostor feelings.”
What can you do to move past it?
Aliya Vigor-Robertson, co-founder at Journey-HR, suggests: “Something as simple as a ‘feel good’ folder, where employees can file all their positive feedback, can make all the difference.”
It’s also important to remember that what you thought was possible 10 years ago may have been true then — but things have changed since, and you’re probably capable of far more than you were in the past.
Hilda says: “It’s healthy to keep refreshing our self-beliefs. By staying frozen in an old ego state, we deny ourselves [the chance] to really experience what is happening to us in the now.”
Ultimately though, it’s about changing the way you think. “People who don’t feel like impostors are no more intelligent or capable than those who do,” Valarie says. “The only difference between them and us is they think different thoughts.”
This is good news though, because it means it’s possible to change. “Pay attention to the impostor conversation going on in your head and then reframe it the way a non-impostor would,” suggests Valarie.
“It’s the difference between thinking, ‘OMG I have no idea what I’m doing!’ And, ‘Wow, I’m really going to learn a lot’.”
SELF CRITICAL: Women are more likely to blame themselves for a mistake than men.