Is it weird that as a seasoned professional I always feel “impostor syndrome” when I attempt something new? Is this normal as a mature adult?
You are normal, but that doesn’t mean that you have to be :) You can take action to change the beliefs and thinking fueling your imposter syndrome!
I’ve been taking a course that has me surrounded by newbie entrepreneurs, and in that group, the feeling of imposter syndrome flies around more than baseballs at Yankee Stadium! Impostor syndrome can rear its ugly head in the business world and in home life. When I was a new mom, I had a bad case of impostor syndrome. I couldn’t believe that the hospital staff sent me home with this little being that I had no idea how to care for. I was sure someone would come knocking on my door and call me out on it! But, they never did, and I learned to change a diaper in the dark, half asleep while humming a lullaby.
Impostor syndrome is the belief that you aren’t qualified to be pursuing the line of work, passions, life roles that you desire and that sooner or later, someone will find out that you aren’t qualified and will expose you. Research indicates that approximately 40% of people surveyed currently felt like an imposter, and as much as 70% of the population has felt the strangle-hold of imposter syndrome at some time in their lives. Although the term impostor syndrome seems like a recent invention, it was coined by two clinical psychologists in 1978 (Clance & Imes, 1978). So, almost 40 years of documented impostor syndrome-ness. The problem seems more prevalent today thanks to social media and the ease of putting one’s self on the web….everyone can put themselves out there, so the question that surfaces is, “Who am I do to this when I see X, Y, and Z person doing it SO well?”
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the most common demographic for impostor syndrome is high-achieving women. That’s right…some of the most highly educated, competent people on the planet are often the most afflicted. Before she became a financial news dynamo, Nicole Lapin knew nothing about finance in her first days on the floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange. But this affects men, too. Tom Hank has stated that he still experiences impostor syndrome and self-doubt after decades as an accomplished actor (Hanks, 2013).
People with impostor syndrome don’t always come out and talk about it because they are afraid that the will be “found out.” Common behaviors and thoughts include: perfectionism, continually seeking out additional trainings in an effort to feel that they have learned “enough,” avoiding displays of confidence, feeling phony and fake, being over-conscientiousness/perfectionistic, attribution of failures to internal sources (i.e., not smart enough, don’t have the right skills, not web-savvy enough, etc.) and attribution of successes to external sources (i.e., I did well because I didn’t have any competition, I was lucky, etc.). Impostor syndrome manifests as stress, anxiety, depression, and even physical symptoms.
So now that you know what it is and who it affects, let’s focus on what you can do about it.
First, increase awareness and do some cognitive reframing. Tune into the stream of self-talk running through your head. It is always there…we just don’t often consciously pay attention to it. When you catch yourself having a thought or self-talk about not being enough, stop and acknowledge it. Self-awareness is the key. Then, take a breath (this actually helps to change your physiology to being more a more relaxed, receptive and objective state) and ask yourself if that thought is really true. Would your friend believe it to be true? Challenge that thought…What would a more realistic thought be? This may seem like work, but after your practice it for a while, it becomes easier and you reprogram your thoughts to be more realistic, so you don’t have as many negative thoughts to challenge.
Second, write down your accomplishments and qualifications. And life experience counts, too! Don’t just think them in your head, write them on paper. Writing helps to make the qualifications more objective (e.g., courses you’ve taken, obstacles you’ve overcome, degrees you have, articles you read, podcasts you regularly listen to in your field, colleagues you engage with, etc.). Refer to this list many times a day, especially when the aforementioned negative, self-impostor-ish thoughts appear
Third, ask yourself if these thoughts and associated fears are serving a purpose. You may give me a big fat, “Huh? Nuh-uh” to that, but consider this…often times those fears of succeeding that often accompany impostor syndrome are present to protect us from getting hurt. Without digging too deeply into your early memories, you may be able to recall an instance (or 600 instances) of being judged or criticized for something very similar to what is triggering the impostor thoughts. Or perhaps you grew up in a household in which achievement was highly emphasized. In addition to family pressure, Dr. Suzanne Imes, one of the psychologists coining the term, states that society adds fuel to the fire…love, worthiness, and approval are often confused and inter-mingled (APA, 2013) (i.e., the idea that Facebook likes equate with worthiness). Given family and society influences, it is only natural that your body and mind would want to try to protect you. Only this is different. You are an adult, and you can handle this. Imagine yourself going back to those moments in childhood and telling your younger self what you wished you would have heard in place of the critical comments. Sounds a little out there, but it really does help. And society is not running your life...you are. What other people think (or don’t like about your Facebook page) is their business, not yours. So, don’t waste your precious time worrying about them when you could be using that time to pursue your professional and personal dreams.
Fourth, are those thoughts preventing you from doing the things you need to do to really shine? Our impostor fears can also prevent us from doing the things that we need to do to move forward. For example, do your feelings of impostor syndrome strike just before you think about teaching a class or leading a group? “Who am I to tell/show these people about this?” Therefore, you postpone calling the community center organizer to schedule a time and date for your class? Avoidance breeds anxiety…it doesn’t alleviate it, meaning the more you avoid, the more you reinforce that fear because the bad thing that you feared didn’t happen because you avoided the situation altogether and never faced it, so the anxiety-avoidance cycle continues!
Finally, get some support. Find people, groups, or at least a person who will be honest with you and support you through this. If you don’t have family or friends in your life who can do that now, look to online groups, business development groups, or special interest groups in your community. Remember, dear reader, with 70% of the population experiencing this, you are not alone! Focus on your successes and don't let fear and perfection drive you.
Does this reader’s question resonate with you? Have you ever felt as if you are an impostor in your work or home life? If so, what did you do to move through it? Tell me about it in the comments below. Also, if someone you know is struggling with impostor syndrome but you see what a rock star they really are, please share this article with them. And finally, if you have a question you’d like me to answer, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or tag me on facebook #askdrkelly.
American Psychological Association (APA) Grad Psych Bulletin, 2013.
Clance, P.R.& Imes, S.A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: dynamics and therapeutic intervention.. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice. 15 (3): 241–247.
Hanks, T. Tom Hanks Says Self-Doubt is “A High Wire Act That We All Walk.” NPR.org. Retrieved 2017-03-29.