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Imposter Phenomenon

Updated: Dec 7, 2020

“Logically, I know I’m capable of anything. I can take on the world. In practice, I’m terrified someone will find out I'm a fraud.”

This is a quote from an article written by Terri Simpkin, an authority on the Imposter Phenomenon. As part of her research into the Impostor Phenomenon in women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, she notes she has been hearing this comment and variants of it from women all over the world. “Women, who on the face of it are capable and clever, confident and resilient, have been telling me stories of their internal struggle with their conviction that they are a fraud; an impostor in their own occupations and a faker in their workplace.”

How often do you give yourself the credit for things that go well? Are your achievements and successes put down to strokes of luck, or mistakes by others? Do you personally recognise the role that your efforts, expertise and skills play?

According to Dr Tara Swart, a neuroscientist, doctor and Faculty Member at MIT Sloan School of Management, there is a surprisingly common fear in our workplaces, and it relates to a gnawing feeling that we may be found out to be a fraud. She has also seen evidence of this in leaders across the world, that feeling that you are not sufficiently competent or expert enough to be in the position you are, or perhaps, that you don’t deserve being appointed to a higher post. Individuals may suffer from the belief that they are inadequate and incompetent, even when there is evidence to indicate that they are skilled and successful. If you don’t have confidence in yourself, and believe in yourself, how can you expect others to be confident in your ability? The messages that you project influence the trust and belief that others place in you. A lack of trust means a lack of following, and so there are distinct leadership implications.

The positive news is that we can learn to regulate the messages we send to ourselves and to others. A useful starting point, if you suspect you might have imposter syndrome, is to identify the possible type of syndrome you have. Dr. Valerie Young describes five types in her book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, which was written on the back of decades of research studying fraudulent feelings among high achievers. They are:

The Perfectionist: sets high goals and then worries about measuring up to them, can micromanage, can be hard on self and others. Try to accept that there will never be ‘the perfect time’, and that your work cannot always be flawless.

The Superwoman/man: the workaholic, trying to prove they are not the fraud they feel. They can stay late at the office, get stressed over ‘wasted’ downtime and let hobbies or passions fall by the wayside. Try better attuning to your own validation rather than the validation of others, and work on nurturing your inner confidence. Over time this should help to reset the dial of how much work is reasonable.

The Natural Genius: believes they need to be a natural genius and judges based on how easily and quickly they get things right “first time”, can feel shame when they don’t master a task immediately. Work on building a growth mindset, approach failure as learning and try not to avoid the things that you are not comfortable doing.

The Soloist: believes that asking for help signals that they are a fraud, and can work too much ‘solo’. Aim not to refuse assistance so that you can prove your worth, and talk about your needs as a person.

The Expert: bases their competence on what or how much they know, fears they will never know enough, fears being outed as inexperienced or unknowledgeable. The internal search for more information can be a form of procrastination. Practice just-in-time learning. Consider mentoring others to discover your inner expert and to heal those fraudulent feelings.

Simpkins has helpfully put together a list of actions to address impostor feelings/experiences, and you can find them in her LinkedIn post here. In brief, they are: seek evidence, allow yourself ‘worry’ time, stop needing to be the best, accept praise and help others.

It is natural for us to question ourselves from time to time, but if the contents of this blog resonate more than a little strongly for you, perhaps its time to find out more about the imposter phenomenon.

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