Feeling a fraud, not believing you are worthy of success or compliments, disbelief that you haven’t been found out is more common than many people believe. In fact, research suggests as much as 70% of people suffer from imposter syndrome at one time or another. So, what is imposter syndrome and how does it manifest?
Imposter Syndrome is an equal opportunity pest! Perfectionists suffer as do people struggling from low self-esteem. Suffering can manifest due to impossible targets or pressure people put on themselves or due to a total lack of self-belief. Imposter syndrome is indiscriminate!
Like many mental health and confidence issues imposter syndrome works on a spectrum and in differing ways. For me, it showed up in genuine disbelief that I hadn’t been found out and how didn’t people see that I was rubbish. Its manifestation was really around a vice-like grip around my throat when presenting or speaking up in meetings…in other words Anxiety. As with most mental health conditions they rarely sit in isolation. My feelings of being a fraud showed up as anxiety disorder; or was it the other way around?? This is a tricky one to answer and doesn’t really matter.
Many of us will recognise imposter syndrome symptoms and I think it would be useful to investigate the types of characters who can suffer. I suspect many of us will recognise one or more of these: –
The Perfectionist is never satisfied with their work. They always strive for perfection, which is near impossible. They tend to focus on their flaws or failings rather than their successes. Whilst this level of self-pressure can be a superpower for some, it can create high levels of anxiety for others.
The Super-hero feels they are inadequate. Because of this underlying feeling the super-hero pushes themselves to work as hard as possible.
The Expert is never satisfied with their level of understanding and knowledge. They probably know as much as others in their position but generally feel they don’t know enough and therefore push themselves to learn more rather than taking the time to learn on the job and accept things can take time. They tend to underrate their knowledge and expertise.
The Natural Genius tends to set incredibly tough goals for themselves and then feel destroyed when they don’t achieve them at the first attempt.
The Soloist works as an individual. Their self-worth is often built around their perceived productivity, so they tend to reject offers of help and can come across to colleagues as martyrs. Soloists often view asking for help as a weakness.
So, we can see imposter syndrome can and does affect anyone and can go hand in hand with conditions such as anxiety. Anxiety is driven by the body’s natural survival system; often called our fight, flight or freeze system or our sympathetic nervous system. Imposter Syndrome and Anxiety work in a vicious circle which can be tricky to manage particularly if anxiety is the dominant factor at play. However, focusing on Imposter Syndrome; there are many ways for people to learn to cope with and indeed use Imposter Syndrome as a super-power and not something to overwhelm them.
It is important to learn to recognise the symptoms and not fear them. Acceptance and recognition are key factors in learning management techniques. Denial will only exacerbate any negative reaction a person has. By recognising any negative thought processes, you have an opportunity to re-write the narrative you subconsciously move into. Given c.70% of people suffer at some time, talking to people about how you feel will often get others to open up and talk about their experiences; hence normalising the conversation. It is often helpful to consider the context where the imposter syndrome set in. There is a difference between a day-to-day meeting and a large super important meeting. Both can cause symptoms to flare up, but it is worth noting what the context is. The much-used phrase “I don’t fail I just learn” is useful here, try reframing perceived failure as learning.
Along with talking to people, it is important to seek support where you can, from peers, family and friends and/or professional help, certainly if your imposter syndrome becomes debilitating in your everyday or work life. Bear in mind this topic normally is discussed around work, but it can affect your personal life. A classic example is where someone feels their partner is too good for them; there is also reverse imposter syndrome meaning the opposite!! AKA arrogant and delusional!
The most important piece of advice I can give is to be kind to yourself. No one is perfect and if you can take the positives and suppress the negatives this may even become a super-power!
Marc Caulfield Ltd.