Impostor Syndrome: What it is, how to know if you have it, and what to do about it.
A friend of yours is successful. Objectively so. They have a great job at a good company and are doing important work. And yet, they are not happy. They deeply believe they got where they are because of luck. And they are terrified they will be revealed as a fraud. They feel like an impostor.
You may have heard this term. You may have felt this way. Or you may hear this term and still believe you are a fraud: Impostor Syndrome. First coined in 1978 by Clance & Imes as the impostor phenomenon among high-achieving women, it has since been revealed to be prevalent among men and women equally.
What Is It?
According to psychotherapist Rena Staub Fisher, "Imposter Syndrome tends to be experienced by those of us who are high achievers, with exacting standards for our professional lives. Often, when we are in a professional position beyond our comfort zone, we feel like we're fraudulent or phony, or like we don't belong there. Often, there is shame lurking underneath this feeling of being "fake." We feel that we “should” have acquired certain skills or abilities “already," and we don't trust the experience and skills we have already acquired, as we deem them to be insufficient or inadequate. If you’re feeling the anxiety of imposter syndrome, try offering yourself compassion. Be kind to yourself around being in a new, challenging professional role, and instead of being hard on yourself, trust that you already know more than you think you do, you have every right to be where you are, and it's okay to lean on supportive mentors or coworkers for help."
It is difficult to detect because it runs so deep. Impostor Syndrome may manifest itself in unconscious behaviors like qualifiers and apologies. It is why some women won't apply for jobs unless they are 100% qualified (as opposed to men who apply with 60% of the qualifications). Despite this, I see it equally among male and female clients, from the c-suite to front-line staff.
I experienced it when I went from being an actor to directing theater. Even though I was raised in the theater, I felt like a fraud. At least that's what the voice in my head was telling me. It said, "How could you expect anyone to take you seriously? What right do you have to call yourself a director when you've only directed one, then two, then fifty shows?" The voice got quieter over time but never went away completely.
I was terrified of people seeing who I really was—a fraud. Even more, I was scared people would know I felt this way. I felt alone. I didn't know what to call it then. Now it has a name.
That doesn't mean it's any easier to deal with. When I started working as a Communication Coach, the voice got loud again. "You don't have any business experience. How dare you call yourself an entrepreneur? And charging money? Now they're really going to be able to see you're a fake." It was an odd comfort doing theater where there was very little money involved. It was scarier to transition to being a business owner where I (just might) succeed.
Then something magical happened. In talking to my clients, I found that most of them had it. Even my most high-achieving clients, people I was sure had it together, felt this way. And in talking about it, I could heal myself. The voice never went away. It never does. But I knew, in my head at least, that it was not true.
And then I had a baby.
I felt fine through pregnancy, but during my maternity leave, the voice was all I could hear. "You can't run your business and be a parent. You're going to crash and burn." What was the common denominator? In all of these instances, I was changing roles. My identity was shifting and I felt less sure of who I was going to become. I was new to something I had not yet mastered. It was a period of intense change. It was time again to get comfortable in the uncomfortable.
My first job back after having Billie was as the keynote speaker at a conference for healthcare managers in Florida. It was at a resort on the beach and at three months post-partum, my husband and the baby were coming with me. I was anxious on my way down to Florida, and it wasn't just the fact that we were flying as a family for the first time together.
We were sitting next to a woman on the flight and I immediately apologized to her for being in such close proximity with a screaming infant. She said she was a mother too and understood. She was kind and welcoming to us all. We struck up a conversation. I told her about my fears and the upcoming conference. She pointed out that I'd be speaking to a room of mostly mothers, given that 73% of healthcare managers are women. She suggested I not hide the fact that I was now a mother, but embrace it instead. This helped me to change my intention. And in doing that, I saw how I could be helpful to the audience of women I was going to address. Leyla helped me see that (thanks Leyla!).
It is happening again with what is happening politically. I am stretching the limits of my comfort zone by organizing, volunteering and picking up the phone. I see it happening across social media with friends not knowing how to channel their energy or leave their comfort zones. It is happening constantly. Here's what to do about it:
So, once you can see your impostor, what do you do about it? Here are a few tips to make that voice quieter (or at least give her some time off if she won't go away completely):
You are not alone
Rather than hiding the fact that you feel this way, talk about it. Tapping into the collective conscious of other people's impostors takes it's power away.
Get a second opinion
When the voice is loud and negative self-talk takes over, ask a trusted friend or colleague if what it's saying is true.
Seek it out
Rather than running from the feeling that accompanies doing something you are "not good at", go towards it. Seek out opportunities to feel uncomfortable. Practice not knowing what you are doing. Get out of your comfort zone.
Accept the reality
The truth is, no one knows what they are doing. Everyone who is succeeding is failing most of the time. Change is not pleasant and it takes courage. As Brene Brown says, "Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen." So go ahead. Be seen. All of you. Even the impostor within. She'll have a few friends out here in the light of day.