Are you holding on to a dirty little secret?

13 Jan 2020
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Breaking free from Imposter Syndrome

Have you heard about Imposter Syndrome? You might not have, but if you’re an adult you’ll almost certainly have felt its effects at one time or another…

It’s those times when you feel like you’re a child playing at being an adult, or you’re worrying that someone at work is going to find out that you’re really not up to the job, or you’re going to give a presentation or speech and the audience will know you’re not really qualified to address them, or you secretly dream of achieving something (writing a book, doing a Ted talk, setting up your own business, going for that promotion) and you put off taking any action because, well, who are you to do this thing, what makes you special..?
It’s when who we think we should be doesn’t match how we see ourselves, how we feel inside.
It’s this dirty little secret that many people have, including a surprising number of high achievers, those people who seem like they’ve never had a wobble in their lives. It’s a deep seated feeling of being a complete fraud, that everything you have achieved is down to luck and you’re going to be found out any minute now.
It’s a psychological phenomenon that makes you think you’re not good enough, even a failure, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary and it takes several forms, depending on your background, personality and circumstances.
Imposter syndrome sufferers can be broken down into groups:
1. The Perfectionist: Dr. Brene Brown sums this up perfectly “When perfectionism is driving, shame is always riding shotgun — and fear is the annoying back seat driver.”
Being a perfectionist means setting excessively high goals – being ‘perfect’ which is literally an impossibility. So when we fail we experience self-doubt and severe measuring up. It manifests in things like being a micromanager, not letting others do things (because they’ll get it wrong) or delegating tasks but being frustrated when they’re not completed ‘just so’, being hyper self-critical, or being stunted into inactivity because you have to be perfect 100% of the time – and you can’t be
The key to setting the perfectionist free is cultivating self-confidence (because this drive for perfection is often rooted in a lack of confidence), learning to accept being perfectly imperfect is a better way, which allows more freedom to achieve over procrastinating or blocking action because it’s not, well, perfect – because there never is a perfect time, your work will never be 100%. And that’s okay.
2. The Workaholic: these people convince themselves that they are phonies so they push themselves to the limit in order to measure up, but it’s just a mask to cover their deep-seated insecurities. And the pressure of the workload they heap on themselves often leads to mental health and relationship issues. In their own eyes, they have to keep running just to stand still.
How do you tell if you have workaholic tendencies? Maybe you’re always the last to leave the office, even if everything’s done you still need to hang back to make sure you’re there last, you focus all your energies on work and find it difficult (or a waste of time) to relax. What about any interests or hobbies, have they been sacrificed for work? And are you always looking over your shoulder, waiting to be ‘found out’ because you don’t feel like you’ve earned your position (despite the qualifications, the path through various jobs, the positive feedback from colleagues and managers, the salary)?
Imposter workaholics are addicted to the validation that comes from working, it’s not really about the work itself. It’s all about external validation. The key to overcoming it is to work on the inside, to understand that no one has the power to make you feel good about yourself but you. Learning to nurture your inner confidence, take pride in your competence and skills, and re-evaluate your work energy.
3. The Natural Achiever: this group judges success on their abilities as opposed to their efforts – if they have to work hard at something, they assume they will be bad at it. Similar to the perfectionist, the natural achiever sets an impossibly high standard but they must also do it at the first try.
A natural achiever will have a track record of academic success, they might have been singled out as the ‘intelligent child’ in the family or peer group. They dislike the idea of having a mentor because, well, they can do it fine by themselves. But this comes at a price, a big fall in confidence at any setback and disproportionate feelings of shame (back to Dr. Brene Brown: “Perfectionism means being terrified of shame. If I get everything right then I’ll never be shamed.”), and can result in avoidance strategies (you can’t fail if you don’t try, can you?).
Instead of trying to be the best at everything without effort, try looking at tasks as stepping stones, skill building that improves over time.
4. The Independent: asking for help is an anathema for these individuals, to them it’s like they’re revealing they’re not up to the job. They soldier on, on their own refusing assistance which can be to the detriment of the group or task.
These are not easy team players, needing to accomplish tasks on their own. It’s tough changing your internal story, the one we all have that informs our behaviours and actions, but reaching out to others and learning to accept help brings its own rewards.
5. The Expert: these Imposters have deep-seated feelings that they’ve somehow tricked or lucked their way into their jobs, and they fear being ‘exposed’. This manifests in indecision and inaction – procrastinating on applying for promotion or jobs unless they meet specific qualification requirements (because they do at least have these in hard form), they might be serial training course attendees or always looking to improve their skills to shore their ‘expertise’ up – and they always feel like they still don’t know enough.
Of course there’s always more to learn but ask yourself if the courses you’re looking at are really worthwhile or are you learning for the sake of learning? Do they increase your skill set to keep you competitive or is it really a form of procrastination?
Badge collecting or hoarding knowledge doesn’t really help you, but learning to improve in areas that are pertinent does. Understanding that there’s no shame in asking for help, utilising other people’s skills or seeking advice from colleagues or managers is integral to building a cohesive team which is far more productive. And flipping the coin by mentoring younger members of the workforce (or volunteer mentoring outside work) can be a great way to discover you actually do know quite a lot worth knowing – sharing your knowledge helps you heal your fraudulent feelings.
No matter which one your profile is, if you struggle with confidence you are not alone. At some point in your career you might have chalked up your accomplishments to chance, charm, connections, luck, the universe, whatever it may be, but you are then
But just maybe you can start to accept your own capabilities.
Taking a step back and gaining perspective is one of the most important skills a person can have, and a big step towards making changes to those self-limiting beliefs and habits we have developed as a shield, especially when we’re stretching out of a comfort zone.
And here are some practical steps to help you move forward, out of Imposter Sydrome and into standing in your Spotlight:
1. Recognise it exists – do you see any similarities in the 5 groups above?
2. Analyse how you receive feedback – do you embrace positive feedback or do you turn it into a negative (my boss said this was good, but what about that part, why didn’t they mention that?)
3. Don’t attribute success to luck – give yourself a break! You deserve your success, enjoy it and wear it like a warm hug, don’t push it away as a fluke, nothing really to do with you
4. Watch you self-talk – don’t downplay your abilities or successes with words like ‘only’, ‘just’, ‘merely’, ‘simply’, ‘anyone could have done it’
5. Keep a note of your successes (and failures, it’s all a learning curve!) in a diary or journal, write as much or as little as you like, but having a little evidence gives you insight about them later on, and you can re-read them for reassurance if you slip back into negative self-talk
6. Be perfectly imperfect – remember 100% perfection is an impossibility, it’s more important to show up and take part than to be perfect
7. Be proud of what you’ve achieved – there’s no shame in succeeding so allow yourself a little boasting time (without becoming a boor of course!), and you might start taking it onboard internally
8. It’s okay to ask for help – we are better as a tribe than as individuals, so asking for help strengthens you and your team
If you’d like to address Imposter Syndrome, overcoming low confidence, or maybe you’re preparing for a talk or presentation and you could do with help, get in touch. We work with organisations and individuals to prevent stress in the workplace, and prevent stress overwhelm:
tel. 01798 344879

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