That feeling that perhaps you “shouldn’t be here” or “should not be” doing what you’re doing. I know I’ve experienced that sometimes in my career. Maybe you have too. I think any time you are presenting, running something, stepping into something new and unknown, stepping up to leadership can bring on these feelings. But is that imposter syndrome or merely self-doubt? What is the difference? Self-doubt is natural with something new or when we are in our “stretch zone” and learning but imposter syndrome is more about feeling like a fraud, doubting our own abilities despite significant accomplishment and getting into a vicious cycle of never feeling like what we do is enough.

Imposter syndrome is rooted in multiple factors including personality traits (perfectionism), upbringing (valuing achievement from early age) and family background. Even early academic success in childhood which perhaps did not translate well into achieving to the same standard in higher education can instil imposter syndrome.

Impostor syndrome goes beyond a mere lack of confidence. 

There are 5 “types” of imposter syndrome:

  1. The Perfectionist’s primary focus is on “how” something is done. This includes how the work is conducted and how it turns out. One minor flaw in an otherwise stellar performance or 99 out of 100 equals failure and thus shame.
  2. The Expert is the knowledge version of the Perfectionist. Here, the primary concern is on “what” and “how much” you know or can do. Because you expect to know everything, even a minor lack of knowledge denotes failure and shame.
  3. The Soloist cares mostly about “who” completes the task. To make it on the achievement list, it has to be you and you alone. Because you think you need to do and figure out everything on your own, needing help is a sign of failure that evokes shame.
  4. The Natural Genius also cares about “how” and “when” accomplishments happen. But for you, competence is measured in terms of ease and speed. The fact that you have to struggle to master a subject or skill or that you’re not able to bang out your masterpiece on the first try equals failure which evokes shame.
  5. The Superwoman/Superman/Super Student measures competence based on “how many” roles they can both juggle and excel in. Falling short in any role — as a parent, partner, on the home-front, host/hostess, friend, volunteer — all evoke shame because they feel they should be able to handle it all — perfectly and easily.

So, what are the signs and symptoms of imposter syndrome? 

Imposter syndrome can show up in a number of ways:

Emma Sue presentingEntering a new role, starting something new – whether a new business, a new career or just something different can trigger it. True imposter feelings involve self-doubt, uncertainty about your talents and abilities, and a sense of unworthiness that doesn’t align with what others think about you. You may experience persistent “ticker tape” negative self-talk constantly feeling you aren’t good enough or competent enough.

This then feeds into a cycle of ever higher standards meaning you work much much harder in efforts to prove yourself. This creates immense pressure and doesn’t help because the feelings of not being good enough persist and the cycle just continues.

Your further accomplishments don’t reassure you — you consider them nothing more than the product of your efforts to maintain the “illusion” of your success.

Over time, this can fuel a cycle of anxiety, depression, and guilt and eventual burn out.

Even after writing eleven books and winning several awards, Maya Angelou couldn’t escape the doubt that she hadn’t earned her accomplishments. This feeling of fraudulence is extremely common. Why can’t so many of us shake feelings that our ideas and skills aren’t worthy of others’ attention? Elizabeth Cox describes the psychology behind the imposter syndrome, and what you can do to combat it.

How can we learn to overcome imposter syndrome?

  • The first step is self-awareness. Are you able to articulate these experiences and feelings? That might be through journaling, coaching or finding a good mentor and source of support who can give you feedback and help you with reality checks.
  • Build connections – have a strong support network for validating your strengths, encouraging your efforts, helping you to reframe situations.
  • Learn to separate feelings from fact. Learn how to reframe situations. One of the first steps to overcoming impostor feelings is to acknowledge the thoughts it generates and put them into perspective.
  • Challenge your doubts. When imposter feelings surface, ask yourself whether any actual facts support these beliefs. Then, look for pieces of evidence to counter them.
  • Avoid comparing yourself to others – social media does not help with this! You may not excel in every task you attempt, but you don’t have to, either. Almost no one can “do it all.” Even when it seems like someone has everything under control, you may not know the full story. It’s OK to need a little time to learn something new, even if someone else seems to grasp that skill immediately.
  • If you are in a leadership position do everything to create an environment that fosters a variety of leadership styles and embraces diversity. Watching out for negative language in how others might describe things and helping give reality checks or reframing.
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