If you’ve been following the news this week, you’ll have seen that Michelle Obama is in the UK on her ‘Becoming’ book tour, drawing large crowds and speaking at sold-out events. The popularity of such a high-profile, successful and charismatic woman is hardly surprising. What is surprising, however, is that the former First Lady has admitted that she still suffers from Imposter Syndrome; and that despite her amazing success and many achievements, she continues to doubt herself and her abilities.
On 4th December I appeared on the BBC Radio London Vanessa Feltz show to comment on Michelle Obama’s confession (you can listen on iplayer here) and to talk about the interesting issue this raises. How, when someone is one of the most admired, successful, gorgeous and inspirational women in the world, can they still suffer from Imposter Syndrome?
This question gets right to the very heart of the nature of Imposter Syndrome; a unique form of self-doubt suffered by high achievers. The term was first coined in 1978 by US psychologists Clance and Imes to describe the phenomenon of high-achieving women feeling that they didn’t deserve their success; that it was all down to luck and having the fear that at any minute, they could be exposed as frauds. Achieving great success and seemingly proving your worth doesn’t actually alleviate Imposter Syndrome; quite the opposite in fact. Often the more you achieve, like Michelle Obama, the worse your Imposter Syndrome becomes. I know this from my work with high-achieving clients and from my own career experiences too. When you move up to the next level of success; whether getting a job you didn’t think you were totally qualified for, winning a promotion or award, or even getting an ordinary compliment on a job well done – the pressure to be more than you think you are increases. It feels that this time, as the stakes are higher, you’re even more likely to be ‘found out’. And that now, surrounded by these higher achievers, it’s even more evident that you shouldn’t be among them.
Why is Imposter Syndrome a problem?
And this isn’t just a case of having a few silly thoughts that can be ignored or put to the back of your mind. Numerous studies since the 1970s have shown that Imposter Syndrome is a very real problem and is prevalent across a broad spectrum of high achievers (and not just women). It can have serious negative psychological and social implications for both your career and for your health. How?
It holds you back:
- By making you play small
Imposter Syndrome can hold you back in your career by making you play small. When you’re all consumed by the fear of being found out, unsurprisingly, it makes you afraid to do anything that will make you visible, draw attention to yourself, or stand out from the crowd. This is unhelpful in your career, because if you want to get ahead, to progress to the next level, you absolutely must find a way to stand out and make yourself visible to others.
- By making you unwilling to take risks
If you’re afraid of being found out, the last thing you want to do is seize opportunities, or take on projects where there is any risk of failure. If you’re only 80% sure of your success, you’ll hold back and then the opportunity will be missed. This too is a disaster for your career. You need to step outside of your comfort zone and risk failure if you are going to demonstrate your full potential to others; you need to seize opportunities and have the courage to act when there are no guarantees if you are going to convince others that you are ready to lead.
It causes stress and anxiety:
- By making you fearful
Living and working in the state of fear that is Imposter Syndrome causes immense stress and anxiety. All that worry, all those conscious calculations to avoid exposure, all that guilt from having success you don’t think you deserve – these take their toll emotionally, mentally and physically.
Own your Imposter Syndrome
If any of this sounds familiar, then let me reassure you. Imposter Syndrome need not be a career death sentence. I’ve written elsewhere about my long-standing battle with self-doubt, and about the episode in November 2015, on the eve of publishing my book which I describe as my Imposter Syndrome crisis.
Awful though that experience was, it was a major turning point for me. It was the moment when I realised that I couldn’t go on trying to run from my Imposter Syndrome, wishing I could beat it or that it would just go away. I needed to turn and face it head on. I realised, that instead of seeing it as my weakness, Imposter Syndrome was in fact something to embrace and gain strength from. It was an integral part of who I was and so it was here to stay.
If you’ve also found that existing tools and techniques for overcoming Imposter Syndrome don’t work for you, maybe it’s time for a new approach. Maybe, like me, it’s time to recognise that your Imposter Syndrome isn’t going to be shaken off easily. It’s time to confront your Imposter Syndrome, acknowledge it, own it, and use it to give you strength. Here’s what I did:
I reviewed my experiences
I thought back to all the times in my life when Imposter Syndrome had reared it’s ugly head; from the first day of school (as the only black kid in an all white school), through to starting my first job as a lawyer in the City, on to when I published my book in November 2015, and many times since when I’ve been standing on stage delivering a talk to a room full of high achievers.
I looked for the link
I asked myself what all these scenarios had in common.
- I felt out of my depth. That this was too challenging and that I wanted to turn back.
- I felt afraid of failure.
- I felt different from those around me.
- I felt that I needed to put in the work if I wanted to succeed.
- I felt that even though I didn’t want to take that next frightening step, I knew that if I wanted to grow, learn and progress, that that frightening step was the very step I had to take.
- That out of these feelings grew the resolve, determination and motivation to take up the challenge and give it my best shot.
I made Imposter Syndrome my friend.
It was then that I had my epiphany. Imposter Syndrome had been there by my side throughout my biggest successes and failures in life. By my side the whole time through thick and thin. Spurring me on. Reminding me of who I was and how far I’d come. It was my demanding, but ever-faithful friend. And that’s why I feel differently about Imposter Syndrome now. I know it has made me what I am today, and that it’s here to stay. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
And of all the amazing messages Michelle Obama brings us in her book and while speaking on this book tour, this for me is the most powerful. She has achieved such amazing success whilst suffering from Imposter Syndrome, not despite it. You don’t need to overcome or vanquish Imposter Syndrome to achieve success and reach the top of your game. You don’t need to just live with it. You can own it and make it your strength. And when you can do this, the rewards are huge in the authenticity, resilience, courage and motivation that you gain.
What about you? What role has Imposter Syndrome played in your life successes and failures? What can you learn from that? What If Imposter Syndrome was your friend, there to guide, motivate and inspire you? Wouldn’t you want it to stay? Write and let me know about your experiences.
Are you keen to learn more about Imposter Syndrome? I deliver Keynote speeches, workshops and 121 coaching on how to make Imposter Syndrome your strength instead of your weakness. To learn more, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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 email@example.com