The very first thing I ever won in business was some free coaching. I was terrified. Six sessions to be delivered by A Very Impressive Person, with half a ton of letters after their name, coming into my business and inevitably exposing that any success I had ever had was all an error, or, at best, just outrageous good luck. It was years afterwards that I read about Imposter Syndrome and realised that my shaking terrors had been a classic case. Researchers believe that about 70% of people suffer from Imposter Syndrome, otherwise known as Fraud Syndrome at some time in their lives.
An inability to accept praise, fear of failure, fear of being “found out”, believing we do not merit our successes – all these are typical symptoms.
As Mike Myers puts it “I still believe that at any time the no-talent police will come and arrest me”. And yes, men do suffer from imposter syndrome too – Tom Hanks and Neil Gaiman are others. We are still unsure if women suffer much more than men do or if women are just more open to admitting it.
However, as Valerie Young, author The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, says “Being female means you and your work automatically stand a greater chance of being ignored, discounted, trivialized, devalued or otherwise taken less seriously than a man’s”. This immediately makes us more vulnerable. Women also tend to over-evaluate others, and having done so, compare ourselves unfavourably.
For any sufferer, being consumed by Imposter Syndrome is a horrible feeling. It is also damaging in lots of ways, not least in that those afflicted believe that we have to work themselves into the ground just to justify our positions and are at high risk from burnout. Even when we have reduced themselves to our knees with exhaustion, we still believe we are not doing enough, because the standards Imposter Syndrome sets are impossibly unrealistic and out of reach.
We are all much more aware of Imposter Syndrome now and the symptoms are very easy to recognize. If you find yourselves hit by Imposter panic, try the following steps to help:
- Share your feelings – talk to peers, managers or other sufferers and remember you are not alone. Admit to them that you feel like a fraud.
- Remind yourself that because we are all unique, there will always be someone better than you at something, but this also means that you will be better than others at an awful lot of things. This shows you just how pointless this endless comparison is.
- Re-find and focus on your successes: keep a folder with all the very real successes you have achieved, all the nice things people have ever said about you, all the highlights of your career and look at it on a daily basis. Remind yourself of the steps you have already climbed on your journey.
- Put reading those inspirational books you are supposed to read on hold. Great though they are, when fully in the grips of I.S, comparing ourselves to mega-achievers can be counter-productive and just add to the feelings of inadequacy. Try instead to read about people who have been given every opportunity in comparison to you, and yet still make even more mistakes than you. This will help you keep things in proportion.
- Keep the importance of what you do in perspective: It is easy to lose balance when you are suffering from I.S. At work, concentrate on giving help and value to your customers, rather than stress about “success” and at home make time to concentrate on the little things.
- Remind yourself of the things you do, and the way you feel and act, when you are being a “success”.
- If you panic over lack of knowledge, take a deep breath and remember no-one knows everything, so it is ok if you don’t either.
- Remember that everyone makes mistakes and you never judge them as failures because of a mistake. There it follows that the same applies if you make a mistake. Making mistakes is not the same as being an imposter nor does it make the rest of your successes fake.
- Practice accepting praise. Women are incredibly bad at this but as a symptom of Imposter Syndrome, it is a weakness that absolutely has to be worked on. Remind yourself that you have not just got lucky, you worked hard to get where you are, to achieve what you have.
- Learn to recognize when you are using self-depreciating language, saying “sorry” a lot, or saying “I am just …..” or “I am only….”. Especially watch out for saying sorry when you have not actually done anything wrong.
- Let go of obsessing about your failures and recognize that perfection is never a realistic goal.