Throughout our careers, at some point, we’re likely to feel as though we’re not really supposed to be here – we fall victim to Imposter Syndrome.
Imposter Syndrome is that psychological pattern where we doubt ourselves and our achievements to the point that we fear we’ll be exposed as the frauds we must truly be. It may be a niggling feeling that we shouldn’t have been hired for the role we’re in, or that that last promotion was just down to luck. It could be that regardless of how hard we’ve worked we believe we could only have got to where we are because we were somehow deceitful. Regardless of the evidence, we still doubt ourselves.
Even though evidence shows it can affect anyone, research highlights that this is more of a problem for women. Clance and Imes (1978) (who coined the term “imposter phenomenon”) interviewed 150 highly successful women who had all obtained and earned degrees, high scores on standardised tests, or professional recognition from colleagues or organisations – yet these women still internally felt a lack of success. This gender specific element is even more prominent when women work in environments in which society proclaims they do not belong, such as STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) (McIntosh, 1989). So not only are women struggling to break into these fields, potentially having to work harder to prove themselves than their male counterparts, when they do, they’re telling themselves they don’t deserve to be there.
Evolutionary Psychology shines a light on some of the causes of Imposter Syndrome. As humans we strive to be safe and protected, and by nature we are pack mammals. By being on the edge of our pack, standing out, we’re vulnerable to being attacked – in fact standing out from the crowd, something today’s society heavily promotes, threatens our very survival. In order to achieve the kind of success that paradoxically makes us question our own worthiness, we have to stand out. At some point, probably several points, we’ve had to take a leap and push ourselves above others, thus making us more likely to be attacked. If we aren’t in the pack then we are outside of the pack, unprotected, and that unsafe feeling is the root cause of imposter syndrome. Unfortunately, we need only look at the online abuse directed towards many successful women in the public eye, to see that this often holds true.
The greatest risk of this Imposter Syndrome is that it starts to turn into a self fulfilling prophecy. If you are told, even by yourself, that you don’t belong, soon enough you’ll start believing it and will behave accordingly.
So stop! Stop now. Listen to that critical voice in your head, and realise what’s happening. Knowing that there is a name for those feelings is a start, and knowing that you’re definitely not the only one who has them can really help. Focus on the facts, not your feelings. Look at your achievements, your experience, the path you have taken to get where you are today. Spend some time reflecting on the evidence that surrounds you, write it down if you need to, and separate the imposter syndrome from the objective facts. Challenge your thoughts by presenting the evidence, and try to put a positive spin on the facts.
Develop a new script. When you start a new job, instead of saying “I have no idea what I’m doing”, try “I don’t know what I’m doing right now, but I am clever and strong enough to work it out.” Remind yourself that it’s ok to not always be 100% in control or know everything. Wonderful things happen just outside the comfort zone, when we are stressed to the optimum level (Link here to my previous post about how stress is a good thing). Use the self fulfilling prophecy in a positive way – rather than listening to those negative thoughts and allowing yourself to succumb, listen to those positive words and strive to achieve even more.
In the words of Harvard Psychologist, Amy Cuddy “Don’t just fake it ‘til you make it, fake it until you become it.”