“I feel like an imposter, I don’t feel I am properly equipped to do this job. I don’t know everything; something new faces me every day, and I just have to figure it out. I love it and it scares me, although I manage at the end of the day.” These are the words of Tessa, a high functioning newly qualified medical doctor.
I have had the same reaction from executives and many other highly qualified individuals, who work across diverse disciplines, whom I have had the privilege to coach. Feeling like an imposter is a real issue confronting many people on a daily basis. Many of them are reluctant to open up about this issue, as they think that their fears may reflect poorly on them. So, a coach can be of great benefit to assist in helping them to confidently move forward, unencumbered by this feeling of being fake and be the high performing individuals that they are.
What is the Imposter Syndrome?
This phenomenon is usually seen in highly capable and intelligent people, where they are constantly plagued with the thought that they will be exposed as a fraud, consistently experience self-doubt even in areas where they excel, and perceive they are not seen as capable. They feel that any mistake will be viewed as evidence of this fraud. Those affected feel like they don’t belong, so acknowledging their expertise and accomplishments is key, as is reminding themselves that they earned their place in the academic or professional environment. Those who experience this syndrome have a strong need to prove themselves. They put a lot of pressure on themselves to complete every task flawlessly, and fear that they will reveal to others that they aren’t good or smart enough for the job.
The imposter syndrome stifles the potential for growth and meaning, by preventing people from pursuing new opportunities for growth at work, in relationships or around their hobbies. It can lead to overworking and result in burnout, a constant sense of a lack of balance and a strong level of insecurity. Research has shown that an average of 70% of people have reported experiencing this syndrome. Famous, successful and bright people who have disclosed experiencing this belief include Michelle Obama, Tom Hanks, Sheryl Sandberg and Maya Angelou.
Causes of Imposter Syndrome
Early studies found this syndrome to be connected to factors including early family dynamics and gender. Initially imposter syndrome was thought to involve mainly women and diverse groups, but later research revealed that there were occurrences in people of all backgrounds, ages and genders. Family upbringing, new school and work opportunities and personality can all influence those affected.
Family upbringing can play a major part in how individuals feel. Parenting styles by being overprotective or controlling can strongly affect a person, the value of overachievement as a primary source of validation and flipping between offering praise and support can be very confusing, amongst others.
Certain personality traits are linked to a higher risk of experiencing the imposter syndrome, e.g.:
Low self-efficacy – where people tend to see difficult tasks as threats they should avoid
Perfectionism – where people might think there is some perfect script of deliverables where they cannot put a foot wrong
Neuroticism – one of the big five personality dimensions that are linked to higher levels of anxiety, insecurity, tension or guilt
Social anxiety – being anxious about being seen to be socially incapable, where people feel they don’t belong or cannot perform adequately in social situations
How Can You Cope?
Confronting the imposter syndrome can help people continue to grow and thrive. The following strategies are of value:
Sharing feelings and speaking to trusted people can be of help, as irrational beliefs tend to fester and be reinforced when they are hidden.
Stay focused on measuring your own achievements, instead of comparing yourself to others.
Assessing your abilities by doing a proper assessment to get an objective view – and aligning on objective success metrics. Ask your manager what success looks like and consistently ask for feedback.
Value your self-care – working too hard will cause burnout. There are a number of signs of burnout, and it is important to be cognisant of what these are – and take action.
Ask yourself some hard questions, such as – Do I believe I am worthy of love, recognition or respect as I am? Must I be perfect for others to approve of me? This might be difficult as you might not even realise that you are experiencing this phenomenon.
There are ways of coping – the important thing is to recognise that you are experiencing this syndrome and to get help or develop techniques to assist. No person should struggle with this phenomenon alone. A good coach or mentor could assist with getting to a landing with this challenge and to help you realise your potential and be your best self.
“Jacquie’s presentation on The Imposter Syndrome to our Durban University of Technology (DUT) Business School students and staff was thought provoking. It highlighted challenges faced in the workplace by individuals regarding their feelings about being an imposter. Jacquie offers practical solutions on how to deal with these challenges and how to overcome the syndrome.
The presentation was found to be very insightful and is highly recommended.” Prof Veena Rawjee: Project Leader: DUT Business School.
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