I came across the term ‘imposter syndrome’ in a newspaper article about four or five years ago. I found it interesting, but it was one of those yeah, shrug, and forget about it articles. You know the kind I mean. Then a few days later I was talking with someone at work, someone I saw as a bit of a mentor, definitely someone I could learn a lot from. I can’t emphasise this enough: she was experienced in our work (I was in a different job and career back then) and really knew her stuff. You could ask her anything about what we were working on and she would have the answer I would need to spend a good while looking up. In fact I happily quizzed her daily to avoid having to look things up. OK?
Anyway, during this conversation she suddenly said, almost to herself, “I sometimes think I will wake up to discover that I have been fired. I don’t know how I got this job.” My flabber was absolutely ghasted and my jaw probably dropped. Surprised it didn’t hit the floor. This woman was the epitome of cool, calm and oozing confidence and experience. The moment passed. Her mask went back up as quickly as it had slipped but my thoughts went back to the article I had read a few days previously.
And I have been fascinated by imposter syndrome ever since then. I have recognised it in myself on occasion, and it something I come across again and again and again (and again…) in my coaching clients.
Imposter syndrome is defined by the Caltech Counselling Center as ‘a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in face of information that indicates that the opposite is true. It is experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence.’
We all have an inner voice, and it can be very critical, bringing us down and denting our self-esteem. People who suffer from imposter syndrome have a particularly strong and malicious inner voice which goes on at them all the time, and shouts loudest when they do something well. They mostly keep their feelings to themselves, but you may hear them say things which you see as modesty. You might even think they are saying these things to fish for compliments.
Here are some examples:
- Congratulations on your awesome new job!
- Yeah, don’t know why they picked me. The other candidates must have been having a bad day.
- You got straight A’s? That is amazing!
- Oh no, I was lucky with the questions.
- What? The <insert huge success here>? I was just in the right place at the right time.
And believe me when I tell you that that is nothing compared to the conversation is going on in their own head. They will convince themselves that their achievements are down to luck, or that the big deal they landed at work was due to other team members, that timing played a part
There is an interesting thing about imposter syndrome, and this is backed up by a lot of the reading I have done around it: women get it more often, and worse, than men. And academic qualifications and promotions and gazillions of successes don’t get rid of it. It can strike any one or several aspects of a woman’s life, however successful she may appear to be. It can impact how she feels at work, as a mother and /or as a partner. It can even stop her from succeeding further. The little voice telling her she is not good enough to go for that great job, enrol in an MBA, or accept an invitation to lecture or whatever. It may well stop her from reaching her potential.
That’s scary stuff isn’t it? Are you recognising yourself slightly here? If so you are in no way alone. In fact you are in excellent company: Tina Fey, Sheryl Sandberg and Emma Watson have all admitted to having it.
Let me know if any of this is ringing a bell for you. Do you secretly see yourself as a fraud? Is it stopping you from aiming higher? Do you put your achievements down to luck, outside help or your horoscope?
I will be writing more on this soon. As I said on my home page, imposter syndrome is high up on my shit list.