Three ways to get past feeling like an imposter

“I have written eleven books, but each time I think‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’” – Maya Angelou

Literary figures, actors, and business professionals have all provided anecdotes about suffering from “imposter syndrome” — a concept describing high-achieving individuals who nonetheless can’t accept their accomplishments at face value. It sounds benign except that sufferers of imposter phenomenon report living with a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”, even when recognized or promoted for their good works. The neurosis isn’t yet recognized as a disease or disability, but it is prevalent enough that it has triggered its own line of psychological research, spawned popular science articles, and inspired Ted Talks. Perhaps, then, it merits discussion here.

Who is most likely to doubt their achievements? Initial research suggested females were, but that has since been explained away by women’s tendency to be more forthcoming about their feelings and stresses. Today’s thinking is that imposter anxiety is a gender-neutral worry. Is it a minority complex over being different inside of an industry or departmental peer group? Perhaps culture plays a role, but why it would is being reconsidered after a 2013 study conducted at the University of Texas – Austin. It revealed that Asian-Americans were more likely than African-Americans or Latino-Americans to experience impostor feelings.

According to Dr. Pauline Clance, who first described the phenomenon in 1985, perfectionism is an underlying player for most of the target population. Further research indicates that many people with the anxiety grew up in families that stressed achievement but did not consistently reward for it, instead raising the standard even higher after the stated goal was met. Other research indicates that imposter syndrome might rear its ugly head when someone is between achievement levels, such as when one is in graduate school (between college and professional work), or when one becomes a mid-level manager with dreams of promotion to the C-suite. This pressure to rise may create a fear that outside judges will not find a person’s past experiences or achievements to be of a high enough quality for even the post they currently hold.

Regardless of the cause, the anxiety can be crippling, so let’s turn our attention to three suggestions sufferers and clinicians have offered as to what to do about it.

  1. Forget the ego. Focus instead on the value your work brings. Instead of thinking about self (“am I good enough?”), refocusing on the work itself. Be mindful that you’re part of a team working on a company goal — not the Lone Ranger. A reframing of your role can help offer reassurance that you’re where you deserve to be and help to remind you that you do, in fact, add value to the enterprise.
  2. Keep a victory log. It’s simple – jot down on a piece of paper or put a note in your tablet every time you do something well or receive a compliment. You need a counter-balance to that voice in your head that says you aren’t good enough. When you lack the ability to internalize success, you may need an external reminder, and a log of your good works is a healthy reminder that you’re not a fraud.
  3. Name the problem. If your feelings of being a fraud are persistent and unfounded (i.e., you aren’t a professional con artist), it’s a syndrome, it isn’t you. As Dr. Phil McGraw often says, you can’t change what you don’t acknowledge. Just as relevant may be McGraw’s other standby line: “How’s that [believing you’re a fraud] working for you?” Identify the syndrome, accept that it is a marred way of thinking, and try new approaches. Most people feel insecure at different stages in their lives, and like them, you can get past it.

About Jody Glynn Patrick

Jody is President of Glynn Patrick & Associates, which provides management consulting, executive coaching and strategic planning services. She is Publisher Emeritus of In Business magazine, which she published for 17 years. Selected as the “U.S. Business Journalist of the Year” in 2007 in Washington, DC, by the U.S. Small Business Administration, Jody has been a business reporter, editor, radio talk show host , and has won other state and national journalism awards. At the same time, she has helped corporate clients grow their businesses -- the basis for her practical coaching advice here. She also was the 2005 Athena Award recipient for her leadership role in mentoring other professional women. Jody will be talking with you weekly on TDS’ blog to share her insights and tips from the C-Suite perspective. Follow on G+.

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