Imposter Syndrome

This article is about a psychological condition called Imposter Syndrome, that causes self-doubt and an inability to internalise success.

Self-doubt happens to us all, and often this is due to a psychological condition called Imposter Syndrome. This article discusses this condition and why sometimes it’s alright to have a little doubt in yourself.

Have you got it?

First of all, please ask yourself these four questions that I regularly use on the people I coach to screen for imposter syndrome;

  • Have you ever thought that someone is going to find you out?
  • Do you ever look at others and feel inferior?
  • Have you ever been filled with self-doubt even when you know you are doing something really well?
  • Do you find it difficult to accept compliments from other people even when those compliments are well deserved?

Have a look at your answers, if you have answered yes to any of the questions above, you may indeed have a little bit of imposter syndrome, so it may be a good thing for you to read on to learn a little more about this condition.

How Common is it?

Imposter syndrome is a really common condition, and it is especially prevalent in successful people; often, it’s how that person perceives their self-doubt or the reason behind why they may find it challenging to appreciate and internalise their accomplishments. If you have Imposter Syndrome, you may feel that you are not good enough and have this persistent fear of being found out or being exposed as a fraud (which, of course, is why it gets its name).

What’s the fuss?

The real problem with Imposter Syndrome is not that you will get ‘found out’ or that you are not good enough (providing that is, that you are actually doing a good job). Instead, it’s the persistent feelings of self-doubt that accompanies Imposter Syndrome that causes most people issues when they have this condition. The issue with self-doubt is that it causes people to down-shift, stop trying, avoid challenges, and lower the bar to what they want to achieve. So if you are troubled with self-doubt, you may never achieve as much as you could, or it may hinder you from reaching your full potential.

Let’s also go back a few steps; Imposter Syndrome gets its name because of that feeling it gives you, but the take-home message is that;

even if you feel like you are just faking it, that doesn’t actually mean that you are a fake.

Almost everyone feels like they are ‘faking it’ at some time in their life, and especially when we are learning something new.

Self-doubt comes from a lack of confidence, and only when you gain experience, practice what you are doing, and get used to that new thing you are learning will your confidence build, and for that new activity to feel natural.

I’ve spent hours grinding out long hours and sleepless nights to get to where I am today, I’ve passed exams, I’ve done years of mandatory training, yet there are still times when I have self-doubt. Remember feeling a fraud and being a fraud should never be confused, so don’t fall into that trap, as it’s ok to feel unsure at times, in the words of Bertrand Russell;

‘The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.’

Bertrand Russell

Have you ever looked at your colleagues at work, perhaps those who are doing well and who exude confidence, and do they ever make you feel inferior or not good enough?

Another trait of Imposter Syndrome is that other people’s outside appearance of success and confidence can magnify the doubt we feel inside ourselves. But you can’t really know how someone else feels, neither can you compare their apparent competency with your internal feelings, so don’t do it. Instead, in my experience, peel back a few layers of their apparent bravado, and other people, no matter who they are, probably feel like you do; it’s just they are a little better than you at hiding it.

Setting Impossible Standards

Another thing I’ve learned is that we should never confuse competence with perfection. People with Imposter Syndrome are generally high achievers, and the trouble is that high achievers set very (almost impossibly) high standards for themselves. When doing this, they confuse their competence with their strive for perfection, and despite doing something really well, they feel bad because things weren’t perfect enough in their eyes.

Being competent and aware of your strengths and weaknesses, reflecting on your performance, and continual improvement is what you should focus on. Perfection is a journey, not a target. So make things perfect by continuously improving what you do rather than expecting it or waiting for it to happen.

Self-Doubt is part of growth

Self-doubt and uncertainty are a natural part of growth, and because high achievers push themselves, they are continually growing, learning, and taking on new challenges. When you aim to be better, and when you raise the bar, you are in effect creating a space for yourself to grow, but within this space always lies uncertainty, and with it also lies the self-doubt at the heart of Imposter Syndrome.

Yet continual growth is a trait needed for success, and doing new things for the first time always takes more effort, and it will also take more time. So it’s natural to feel out of your depth you are doing something new for the first time. You must learn to see that uncertainty and self-doubt are a natural part of personal growth, and if you aren’t feeling a little bit of doubt or uncertainty in your life regularly, you maybe aren’t pushing hard enough.

Doing something new takes time and effort; feeling that you are faking is possibly just you going through that conscious phase of learning. When you learn something new, you need to imprint every step in that task or activity into your neurology, and this will always feel a bit clunky. There’s even a special type of neurone called a mirror neurone whose job is to lay down neural paths when we observe, visualise, and mimic, so in this way, copying, rehearsing, and ‘faking it’ are sometimes essential parts of how we learn.

Learn how to take compliments

People with Imposter syndrome find it difficult to accept compliments from others, or as a psychologist would say, they find it difficult to internalise their success. For example, they don’t believe that their achievements are real or that any positive compliments they get are valid. So the result is that success fails to make them feel any different.

Thus, by not internalising their achievements, they minimise any rewarding positive feelings and fail to build their confidence, and unfortunately, because of this, their self-doubt continues to grow.

Another trait I’ve found in people with Imposter Syndrome is how they put their good fortune down to luck. The fact is, however lucky you may feel in life, it’s still pretty much all down to you. Even a lottery win is not chance alone because you bought the ticket in the first place. So there’s still cause and effect even in this example. As Gary Player said, the harder you practice, the luckier you’ll get, and sometimes we do actually make our luck in life.

So the message is never to discount your success because I bet you had a major role in it. Remember, it was you that turned up, it was you that made the call, and it was you that revised for that exam.

Too much modesty can cripple you, and the bottom line is that it is far better for your mental health to allow yourself to feel good. You need to learn how to take the compliments you can get in life because internalising your achievements helps you to value yourself; it dispels self-doubt and gives you a huge psychological boost.

If you have forgotten how to take compliments, try this; smile and say ‘thank you, that means a lot to me’ and see what effect that has on how you feel and your self-esteem. Taking complements in this way means you can still be humble, and you can still accept praise.

Final words

So the cure for imposter syndrome is not to fear you will be exposed, and instead, expose yourself to new things. Learn how to see imposter syndrome as positive feedback from a brain that it’s learning something new, and also don’t forget to allow yourself to feel good in your achievements along the way.

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