Do you suffer from Imposter Syndrome and are you struggling to find a solution that works?
What is Imposter Syndrome?
For those of you who are less familiar with Imposter Syndrome, it’s that feeling that you don’t deserve your success, that everything you have achieved so far has been down to luck, and that any minute now everybody around you is going to realise the mistake and kick you out. In other words, you feel like a fraud.
You could say that Imposter Syndrome is just the same as self doubt – just another way of saying that you lack self confidence. But the Imposter Syndrome mindset, although similar to self doubt, has it’s own unique form. Unlike with self doubt or low self confidence, with Imposter Syndrome the more you succeed, the worse it gets.
Why is the Imposter Syndrome mindset a problem?
At its best, Imposter Syndrome is just a ball of anxiety in the pit of your stomach which causes some discomfort but doesn’t stop you from functioning at a reasonable level. If your Imposter Syndrome is as mild as this and isn’t holding you back, then it may not be a problem you need to worry about. But if that anxiety is so severe it paralyses you, stops you moving forward, making yourself visible, seizing opportunities and doing all the other things you need to do to progress in your career, then it is a problem and it’s one that needs to be tackled.
The fear of exposure
The problem with the Imposter Syndrome mindset is that it makes you afraid. It leads you to avoid opportunities that might have brought you the promotion you have already earned; or causes you to shy away from risks that could showcase just how talented and experienced you are. It leaves you striving for perfection and unable to ask for help for fear of raising the alarm. So strong is the fear of being exposed and evicted, you’d rather risk never achieving that dream of being a partner, or doing a phD, or putting yourself on stage in front of a large audience. And all you’re left with is a sickening feeling of having missed out, and pangs of regret for not having tried.
So what are you supposed to do?
A new approach to Imposter Syndrome
There is no shortage of advice on how to conquer Imposter Syndrome, and I have read and researched much of it over the years. Deal with it, conquer it, get rid of it they say – as if it were a disease you need to eradicate in order to finally be the confident you that can achieve all your goals. I tried many of the recommendations and yet, my Imposter Syndrome remained.
Then one day it came to me:
What if the secret to dealing with Imposter Syndrome isn’t, as most articles tell you, to try to conquer it? What if the answer you’ve been looking for is the exact opposite of what they’ve been telling you all along?
Always the imposter
I’ve suffered from Imposter Syndrome for as long as I can remember. While it’s true I can look back with pride at my achievements to date – going to Cambridge; working as a finance lawyer at 2 of the world’s largest international law firms; founding a coaching business, writing Babyproof Your Career, building a speaking career – there isn’t one day that has gone by where I didn’t feel like a fraud.
I always felt like the imposter – the one school kid/student/trainee/lawyer/working mother who didn’t belong. This feeling like a fraud and all the anxieties and stress it carried with it, used to make me feel so terrible, so powerless, so afraid. I was too terrified to speak up in meetings, and I would shy away from stretch projects, certain that my luck (the only reason, surely, for my successes to date) was about to run out. Better to play safe, keep a low profile and desperately hope no one would realise. At least then, hopefully, they wouldn’t notice me and I’d get to stay.
Facing your Imposter Syndrome
But everything changed the day I found myself too exhausted to keep running and hiding from the fear. It took so much out of me to keep up the façade of belonging, to stay invisible, to avoid the meetings and questions and opportunities that I thought posed a serious risk to my world. So I decided to stop running from Imposter Syndrome and instead I turned to face it. It was like looking in the mirror and seeing myself for the first time. From that day forward, everything changed for me.
From that day I started to see Imposter Syndrome as a positive force in my life. From there emerged an inner strength, a personal power, and a steely resilience that allows me to look fear in the eye, brave the most ambitious of challenges and give my all in the battle to live a rich life and fulfil my greatest potential.
- Look fear in the eye.
- Brave the most ambitious of challenges.
- Live a rich life.
- Fulfil my greatest potential.
Doesn’t this sound amazing and uplifting? Take it from me, it is an amazing and uplifting feeling, and it’s the feeling that I want you to experience too. Instead of being held back Imposter Syndrome, I want to show you how to be empowered by it.
Empowered?! Who am I kidding? Well if you’re totally sceptical about this then as a long suffering victim of Imposter Syndrome, I understand. I know some of you will be thinking that your Imposter Syndrome is so deeply ingrained and that it makes you feel so uncomfortable, that you can’t begin to imagine how to make friends with it. If this is you, then the good news is you have come to exactly the right place. Here’s what you need to know:
The Imposter Syndrome Mindset – mistakes to avoid
The most important work you need to do on your Imposter Syndrome is to address your mindset. Here are the 3 Mindset Mistakes that I used to make myself and which I see fellow imposters making all the time. Master these Mindset Mistakes and you’ll have a solid foundation for your new rewarding empowering relationship with Imposter Syndrome.
Mindset Mistake #1. “I’m the only one”
I have no doubt that you are a unique and special individual. But the feeling that you are a fraud and that you don’t deserve your success, that feeling is not the reason why.
Part of the pain of feeling like an imposter all the time is that you think you’re the only one. You make the mistake of comparing your inside – feeling like an imposter- to everybody else’s outside – they appear so capable and confident! – especially in a high-achieving and competitive environment like a law firm. This misplaced comparison prevents you from talking openly about it so you never get the chance to actually find out the truth about how others feel.
This Forbes article by Margie Warrell alleges that the number of people suffering from Imposter Syndrome is as high as 70%, a number that is supported by my experience.
When I deliver a keynote speech or workshop on Imposter Syndrome, one of my favourite moments is when I ask the audience to raise their hand if they suffer from Imposter Syndrome and think they are the only one. Usually at least 80% of the audience raise their hands, at which point I ask them all to turn around and look at each other.
When you discover that you’re not the only one, it can be such a relief. So many people who come up to me at the end of an Imposter Syndrome workshop or presentation and say something to the effect of: “Oh, it’s such a relief to get it out there. So good to know I’m not the only one.” It’s as if they have had a burden lifted from their shoulders.
Mindset Mistake #2. “Imposter Syndrome is a weakness”
I’ve already described some of the negative feelings that many experience with Imposter Syndrome and which I have lived with my whole life. From the anxiety and nausea to the crippling fear and paralysis. Surely these are a sign that something is wrong with you, right? Because if you were on track for success and doing everything right, surely you wouldn’t feel like this, would you?
Well it turns out, actually, that you would. Though many know the feeling of Imposter Syndrome, few know its origin. The expression was first coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes. They used it to describe high achievers – that’s right, high achievers – who have a persistent fear of being found out and are unable to accept or recognise their achievements.
This has important implications. It means that Imposter Syndrome could actually be a sign of success, not weakness.
This is the view put forward by Olivia Goldhill in the Quartz article: “Is Imposter Syndrome a sign of Greatness?”. Goldhill even goes as far as saying that it’s more likely to be those who don’t suffer from Imposter Syndrome who are the real frauds! To support her argument, she lists a number of high achievers who have talked openly of experiencing Imposter Syndrome: Emma Watson, Meryl Streep, John Steinbeck, Kate Winslet, Don Cheadle, Sherly Sandberg and Maya Angelou to name just a few.
So take a minute to think about this. Think about the journey you have made through life so far, and the successes you have achieved to date. (Remember, imposters know they are successful, they just put that success down to luck.) Is there a correlation? Is it so far fetched to think that Imposter Syndrome played a part in your success?
Mindset Mistake #3. “I have to get rid of Imposter Syndrome”
I’ve already mentioned how I struggled over the years to get over Imposter Syndrome using the advice and suggestions that many confidence experts propose. No matter what I did, I always felt like an imposter. The feeling of helplessness this produced would never go away.
Until, that is, I stopped trying to get over it. I realised that being an imposter is part of me, and that all the reasons for my suffering from Imposter Syndrome are part of my story, they are who I am. I’ve even gone so far as to say it feels like part of my DNA.
The moment I accepted this, it felt like a huge burden had been lifted from my shoulders. I no longer had to expend all of that energy trying to change who I was. Instead I could accept it, lean into it and then learn to work with it.
Think for a minute about why you feel like an imposter. Is it your ethnicity or your gender? Perhaps it’s your religion or culture? Is it the way you were (or weren’t) educated? The way you were (or weren’t raised)? Or was it just one comment or judgement made about you years ago that you’ve never been able to shake?
Whatever the origin of your Imposter Syndrome, isn’t it a crucial part of who you are?
Imposter Syndrome is your strength
When you apply all of your energy towards trying to outrun or beat Imposter Syndrome, to remove it from your life altogether, you are fighting an endless losing battle against yourself. But turn to face it, accept it, embrace it as part of who you are, and you’ll learn to draw strength and power from your Imposter Syndrome and use it to create results that will blow your mind.
If you’d like to hear more about the Imposter Syndrome mindset and my strategy for embracing it to regain your power, then listen to my new podcast. Episode 1 is available here.
Caroline Flanagan is a Keynote Speaker, Babyproof Coach and Author of Babyproof Your Career, The Secret to Balancing Work and Family so you can Enjoy It All. Caroline believes passionately in the dream of having it all, and founded Babyproof Your Life to train and prepare ambitious career women for the marathon of working parenthood so they can find their own way to #enjoyitall and #makeitwork. You can reach Caroline at firstname.lastname@example.org