Julia is a successful CFO at a hypergrowth marketing business. She heads a team of eight, earns an enviable salary, regularly speaks at industry events, and last year, she was awarded an OBE for her campaign to encourage women to be pioneers in the business. But if you asked Julia about her glossy career, she’d shrug her shoulders, bat away the praise and say something about ‘being lucky’. She might even insist her achievements are all down to her parents who had the foresight to send her to a decent school. The one thing that Julia wouldn’t do is believe that she is truly worthy of her respected position.
You see, Julia struggles with Imposter Syndrome. This doesn’t mean she is simply some naysayer who looks at life through gloom-tinted glasses. It is a recognised condition, first upheld by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978 when they noticed those female students with high grades didn’t believe they deserved a place at university.
A person who struggles with Imposter Syndrome will experience pervasive negativity about themselves and their accomplishments, often thinking they are not good enough, they don’t deserve their successes, and at any minute they are going to be exposed as the fraud they have always been. And in many cases, the more triumphs a sufferer notches up, the more they believe they are accelerating the delusions of grandeur and so, of course, the fall from grace will be even more devastating. This sense of perpetually looking over their shoulder, waiting to be unmasked, tends to come with crushing levels of anxiety and fear.
As Maya Angelou said, “The real difficulty is to overcome how you think about yourself.” Studies have indicated that up to 70% of successful people suffer from Imposter Syndrome at some point in their life, but this seems like a conservative figure. Haven’t most of us felt that niggling doubt of “how have I got here?” or “people like me don’t do this well!” And, typically, there are particular groups who are more likely to fall into this destructive response system - women, minority populations, victims of trauma, those who have been culturally taught not to ‘show off’ or ‘believe you can have it all. Celebrated journalist and author, Bryony Gordon always talks openly about her plus-size body and has run the London marathon in her underwear. It landed her the universal respect of females, but she says, “I am always surprised that I have inspired anyone, because like everyone else I suffer from Imposter Syndrome and feel like a bit of an idiot most of the time.”
But this self-deprecating tendency to insist we are dull, stupid, unattractive, useless damages us. It can hold us back from sharing valuable ideas, rooting for the progress of others, applying for jobs, and nurturing life-changing connections. In Gillian Anderson’s and Jennifer Nadel’s book We – A Manifesto for Women Everywhere (Thorsons), the authors write: “The more we focus on possible negative outcomes, the more fearful we become and ironically the more likely they are to happen… We play it safe and turn down opportunities and wonder why we’re lonely, unfulfilled, anxious and afraid.”
And the omnipresent fug of social media telling us that everyone else in the universe is living a glossy life on Instagram and Facebook endorses these warped insecurities of subservience. The Imposter Syndrome is often tied in with extreme levels of perfectionism too. Sufferers tend to knuckle down to achieve their best (although they feel it never is) and will people please to the point of doting. As our sensible self knows, perfection is an anomaly, and the pursuit of that unattainable goal can result in the definition of misery.
The reasons why a person may struggle with Imposter Syndrome are complex: trauma in childhood, criticism from an early age, unrealistic high standards imposed by parents or peers, devastating failure in a particular area, or simply being a product of the innate reactive personality that nature has dealt us… And while the feelings that tip us into that ‘not being good enough’ arena may always be lurking, there are tools that can help.
First of all, recognise it. Notice the triggers that fire it up. Discuss it with others. In his book The Body Keeps The Score (Penguin), Dutch Psychiatrist, Bessel Van Der Kolk, says, “Traumatised people are often afraid of feeling…. Apprehension about being hijacked by uncomfortable sensations keeps the body frozen and the mind shut.” Sufferers of Imposter Syndrome tend to say that once they understand that their condition is a perception, not a reality, it helps them cope better.
Hanna, a CEO at a fast-growing online food delivery service, reveals that her ability to stand up to IP changed when she started sharing her feelings with colleagues, “One day I took my head graphic designer out to lunch and for some reason, we began talking about feeling like a fraud,” she says. “He confessed that he constantly felt he wasn’t worthy of his success, and he also knew that his assistant felt the same. Later that week I called a meeting with the team. I told them what we’d admitted to each other and asked others if they shared the same insecurities. Quite a few hands went up. We went on to have a deep discussion about it and afterwards, people thanked me for calling it out. Having an honest chat about something that most of us go through was hugely inspiring and took away the sense of isolation.”
In her TED talk, The Surprising Solution To The Imposter Syndrome, Lou Solomon (CEO of Interact, a communications business) admits that she has given her IP its own persona. “I’ve named her Miss Vader, after Darth Vader”. Soloman advocates, “Once you can hear that voice and understand it, you can do something about it…” To fight against that inner demon, she has also named her opposing ‘radical hero’, Betty Lou – who is wise, strong, has a fabulous laugh and stands up to the internal lies that Miss Vader throws out. It’s a useful and tangible way of drawing on her suppressed inner resources of courage and empathy.
And while fear can be a destructive emotion, it’s helpful to remember that it can also be the gateway to change and motivation. When insecurity invades, you might want to consider a few key questions. Is it really because of your own shortcomings or are there outside influences that are beyond your control? Are you clinging on to your ‘safe zone’ because anxiety is getting in the way? Do you believe that making a mistake is a shameful disaster rather than understanding that the most innovative people take huge leaps forward by consistently learning through their blunders?
Negative thoughts – we all have them. Failing - happens to everyone. The secret to managing setbacks is to believe that imperfection is normal. As research professor and revered Ted talker, Brene Brown says, “Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we’ll ever do.”