The first time I ever read about impostor syndrome, I recognised it in myself immediately. If you haven’t heard of it, impostor syndrome is defined as “an individual experience of self-perceived intellectual phoniness”. In other words, feeling like all of your accomplishments and successes come down to either somehow having cheated the system or just plain luck.
The phenomenon was introduced by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. It’s since been described as feeling like a fraud, feeling like praise is undeserved or wrongly attributed, feeling like any second, everyone is going to realise that you’ve been faking it this whole time and you’re actually a talentless, a try-hard, over-privileged sham.
Impostor syndrome is often associated with high achieving women with perfectionist tendencies. I’m not really sure why that is. It could be that we feel we have something to prove and so work harder, only to then feel like all that hard work was somehow ‘inauthentic’. It could be that we compare ourselves to other women, discounting our own accomplishments because they don’t fit what society seems to value in women.
Men also experience impostor syndrome. Again, it’s usually the high achievers, the ones who link their accomplishments with their own intrinsic self-worth. The ones who can never seem to be good enough.
The funny thing is, impostor syndrome isn’t just about thinking you’re not good enough. It’s also about thinking you’re so good that it can’t possibly be real. This weird combination of low self esteem and hubris makes it even more confusing to approach.
What it looks like
We try to rebrand our fear of putting ourselves out there as modesty. We work extra hard to attain good grades or excellent feedback but can’t be proud because we probably put in twice the effort of anyone else. We know that we deserve that promotion but we’re also sure that someone with real ‘natural talent’ could easily overtake us if they wanted to.
The worst part of all of this in my opinion, is that we’re so afraid of failure, that we refuse to even try in the first place. We say things like “Who do I think I am to be applying for this position?”, “Who am I to offer advice?” and “What’s the point of starting if I’m not going to be the best?”
See, therein lies the problem. We’re not satisfied with trying and failing. We’re not satisfied with average. We think that if we’re not at the top, then we’ve wasted our time, embarrassed ourselves and ruined our reputation. While people are always trying to frame perfectionism as a good thing, I think it’s actually holding so many of us back.
We think that holding ourselves to higher standards means that we’ll do better work, but the reverse is often true. Being afraid of failure means that we’re less likely to seek help and advice from people who could seriously help us improve. We hoard the work instead of delegating and end up stressed, burnt out and frustrated. It comes as no surprise, then, that impostor syndrome is linked to depression, generalized anxiety and low self-esteem.
How to overcome it
Impostor syndrome is hard to overcome. It’s very nature is illogical, so simply talking yourself out of it isn’t going to cut it in most cases. Just like overcoming any fear, I think it may be helpful to confront it head on with these actions:
1. Talk To People To Realise That Everyone Is Faking It
Whether you’re going for a professional role, inspired to start your own business or put yourself out there in some way, opening up to someone and admitting that you feel out of your depth can help take some of that pressure off. In most cases, you’ll be surprised to hear the other person tell you that they also have no idea what they’re doing. The fact is, everyone has their flaws and challenges and no one is perfect. When you take down that façade, you open up brand new potential for learning and growth.
Communication is key. Have you ever spoken to the CEO of your company? Have you ever had a conversation with a successful business owner that you admire? The chances are that if you did take the time to reach out and have that chat, you’d realise that behind all the titles, corporate suits and personal branding, there’s a person just like you who shows up every day and gives it a go. They might even have experienced a touch of impostor syndrome too!
2. Give Yourself Permission To Fail
This is a trick that I used to use before every high school exam. I would ask myself: what’s the worst that could happen? If I score less than my desired mark, will it be the end of the world? No. If I fail this exam, will it be the end of the world? No. At the end of the day, I still have my health, a family that loves me. And yes, I’m sure I’ll still pass the exam.
A scientist doesn’t throw in the towel when she gets results that aren’t in line with her original hypothesis. She simply makes some detailed notes, might adjust her approach, reset the experiment, and do it again. It’s nothing personal, it’s just science.
Practice failing on purpose. If you’re uncoordinated, sign up for a dance class. If you’re a terrible singer, go to a karaoke bar and get up on stage. The purpose isn’t just to learn something new, but also to learn that failure isn’t the end of the world. So what, your surfing instructor said you were the worst student he’s ever taught- you’re still closer to success than the people wading in the shallow end.
The truth is, most situations are not life and death. A lot of the stressing that we do and extra effort that we put in- staying up studying for hours or putting in overtime at work- probably has a very minor, if not negative, effect on our results. I’d challenge you to honestly ask yourself:
“What’s the worst that could happen if I politely decline checking my emails outside of hours?”
“What’s the worst that could happen if I leave this ‘urgent’ task until tomorrow?”
“What’s the worst that could happen if I start the business and then it fails?”
Maybe your concerned about what other people will think. In reality, people don’t judge us half as much as we think they do, and even if they did, isn’t that their problem and not ours? In any case, even when we do make mistakes and fail, we end up learning something new along the way, bringing us ever closer to success.
3. Just Do It.
I admire people who just jump in and strike while the iron is hot. People who don’t worry about what others will think or what could possibly go wrong. People who trust their intuition. Yes, some people are born fearless, but if you’re a serial overthinker and contingency planner like me, this doesn’t come naturally.
Set yourself a challenge to step outside of your comfort zone: start that blog/website/YouTube channel or side business. Apply for that job that’s just a little out of your reach. Send that random unsolicited email to that person whose career you admire. Put your hand up for promotions and awards.
Set yourself a date and time. Get your equipment ready. Make yourself a to-do list. Give yourself the same respect that you would give your employer by showing up on time and giving 100%.
If you fail, you fail. At least you can say you tried.
Do you suffer from Impostor Syndrome? What’s something that you’ve been holding off from trying due to feelings of inadequacy? Let me know in the comments below if you have any tips on how you overcome it!