She smiled but her eyes told me something different. Paula admits: ‘I feel like a fraud. When I look at my team I don’t know why I lead this team. What on earth am I doing here!’. ‘It was by accident you know’, she continued. ‘The position as manager of this department became vacant and I just jumped in. I guess I was just in the right place at the right time. And here I am. Who do I think I am that I can do this! There comes a day I am going to be found out, you know.‘
Paula is not the only one.
Have you ever had thoughts like her? I bet you have. I know I have. Almost no one is immune to this feeling and way more people than you think, have these thoughts at least once in their life. The number I read lately is 70% of the population who can relate to this feeling. That’s a lot, right?!
‘My success is not mine’
Interesting enough the mentioned 70% is, like Paula, a group of people from whom you won’t expect it to have these beliefs. These are not slackers of incompetents.
Most of the times these are people (men and women) with impressive accomplishments. Think about the CEO of that one Multinational, the actress who won an Oscar, successful business owners, top managers, Olympic athletes etc. High achievers who suffer from the feeling of not being good enough. Who think: ‘My success is not mine. How did I end up here. I am not good enough and one day I will be found out.
The ‘Imposter Syndrome’
Like almost everything this phenomenon has a name: it’s called the ‘Imposter Syndrome’ and is described as follows: ‘Form of intellectual self-doubt that is accompanied by anxiety and often by depression as well’.
People who suffer from this ‘syndrome’ feel like frauds. Deep down they are convinced that they are not as good as other people think they are. Instead of being proud of what they achieved they focus more on what they haven’t achieved yet.
Besides having in common that they feel like a fraud they also have in common that they are moodier, less confident and suffer from performance anxiety:
Where does this come from?
It seems that the people who suffer from the ‘Imposter Syndrome’ come from families where achievement is highly valued. For them achievement determines their sense of self-worth. Another reason is that you might feel different then your peers. A third reason could be ‘perfectionism’.
When I dove deeper into this topic I read something that draw my attention. A possible fourth reason for the Imposter Syndrome, one I find very interesting and, I know, helped Paula very much:
Reason nr. 4: The Expert and their Brain
As mentioned before a large (if not all) number of the persons who suffer from this syndrome, are high achievers in their field. Experts. We all know that when you are experienced, you rely on your knowledge and experience. Your decision making process goes almost, if not always, intuitive.
It is also known that intuitive and routine actions are hardly or not registered by the brain. (The brain only registers exceptions very well.) Therefore the actions are not conscious and therefore not or harder to recall.
With as result you cannot remember how you made the decision, why you made that decision. It seems there was no effort. It seems you haven’t thought about it. There is no information. You cannot recall anything. This can make you feel inadequate. At least not accountable for any success.
Just as the writer of the source of this thought I would like to turn things around: The fact that you can rely on our experience, that you are able to execute important decisions unconsciously is not a ‘lack of’ but a characteristic of an expert.
What is not helpful:
If you think an accomplishment would help to overcome this feeling, I have bad news for you. The contrary is true: success adds to the feeling of being an imposter. So what about a compliment? Nope….. Accolades? No, does not help either. Why not? Paula and the others suffer from performance anxiety, you remember? 😉 For them these things means more successes => more at stake.
What does help:
Embrace it – Paula worked on this one. She acknowledged and accepted it as a part of who she was- and is. As such it helped her to talk the nasty feeling down.
Take inventory: She took time to write down all the things she was good at. To her surprise the list was longer than she thought. She noticed how many she had achieved and was able to see her strengths.
Don’t compare: She stopped comparing herself to others. Paula is Paula.
Get a ‘second opinion’: She looked for outside evaluations, feedback and promotions.Although hard to accept these, she bravely did.
Stay competitive: Set some realistic expectations that will leave you slightly over challenged, not overwhelmed.
Don’t keep silent: Share your feeling with people you trust.
Find a mentor: Someone who truly believes you can break the spell.
Be a mentor: This can help you realize how many valuable knowledge you have.
Say thank you: I love this one as you might know. Graciously acknowledging praise is good for both, the giver and receiver.
And last but not least: Celebrate! Never ever forget to celebrate. Take time to acknowledge your success. Do something special for yourself before you move on to another challenge.
Good luck and whenever you need help dealing with this topic, I am one push on the button away.
– Karen van Hout