Ever have that sinking feeling that today is going to be the day when you finally get caught out ? The day when the mistakes, white lies and near misses of your past are finally going to catch up with you? And everything you have, will slowly start to unravel as you are revealed as a fraud?
If so then read on…you are not alone, research has suggested that over 70% of us feel this way sometimes. Maybe a bit of science might calm your heart-rate?
The technical term given to it in 1978 by 2 American psychologists is “imposter syndrome”. It is so called because you feel yourself to be an “imposter” somehow living a life that you do not rightly deserve. That you don’t really have the skills and expertise at the level your position or salary seems to merit.
You may remember a Talking Heads song with the lines “You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile and you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife. And you may ask yourself, Well, how did I get here ?..”
In our house we call Imposter Syndrome “running from the blagging police” – we laugh over a beer about an old fashioned bobby, running red faced towards us and simultaneously blowing a whistle. When he finally catches up, he puts a friendly but firm hand on our shoulder and says “Come on mate. Times up. You’ve had a good run at it but it is time to admit you don’t really know what you are doing and hand back the car/house/wife.”
I have had clients who have told me that their life has changed quite literally overnight when they realised this was “real” thing. When I told them that research suggested this was the number 1 coaching topic for Executives you could almost hear their sigh of relief. I don’t like to refer to it as a “syndrome” anymore. It makes it sound like an illness or something quite rare. Now that we know it is part of the human experience for most people, I talk about it as Imposter Thinking – Here are the tips that I share with my clients so that they can not let Imposter Thinking get in their way. I hope they help you too.
Accept Imposter Thinking is a normal part of being successful.
Success usually relies on taking a few risks. Without taking some risks we can’t really make any mistakes. And we get our best learning from getting things a bit wrong and trying again. So making mistakes, rescuing some near misses and flying by the seat of your pants sometimes are likely to be part of the reason you are successful…Not evidence of the opposite!
Accept Imposter Thinking as an inevitable consequence of our brains not being wired to hear other people’s thoughts
We can only judge other people by what we see on the outside. By their results and outputs. What they say and do. We judge ourselves from the inside and judge ourselves based on our intentions. We process thousands of thoughts every minute. Thus we know intimately about every single time we had a near miss, or something we achieved was frankly down to a good dose of luck or chance. There are millions of pieces of evidence. But there are millions of pieces of evidence in everyone else’s mind too. It’s just that we can’t know about them. We simply don’t and can’t see into the minds of other people like we do our own.
Do the Maths – there are worse things to be than an Imposter…
Bertrand Russell said “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt”. Think about it. You have probably worked with enough people to have seen a few idiots and some wild overconfidence at first hand. Given that research suggests that 70% of people suffer from Imposter syndrome at some point and clinicians estimate that around 4% of the population are sociopaths and 1% are psychopaths….Yeah…Do the Maths. I’m blunt with my clients sometimes. “Don’t worry – it’s just evidence that you aren’t stupid or a psychopath”
If you feel like an Imposter sometimes, you are in good company
Many other, extremely successful people feel this way too. Take Sheryl Sandberg who says “There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am”. Howard Schulz describes how the experience doesn’t diminish if you get more senior. He said of the CEO’s that he knows that “very few people whether you have been in the job before or not, get into the seat and believe, today, that they are qualified”. It’s not restricted to business. Maya Angelou a hugely gifted writer who has won Tony’s, Grammy’s and been shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize wrote “I have written 11 books but each time I think “uh-oh” they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out”. There have been countless articles written on this topic – the Harvard Business Review, the BBC, The Guardian, The Times. It’s really not just you…
There are some things that have really helped me and my clients. They might help you too…
When it happens, welcome it. It is simply evidence that despite your success, you haven’t got too big for your boots and your brain still wants to learn more.
Accept you don’t have to achieve perfection to deserve what you have. No one is perfect or the finished article. And if you thought you were perfect…well…revert back to doing the Maths!
Realise that you can reduce the risks. You can set your bar lower so it will happen less often. But you will also be pretty mediocre by your own standards.
Don’t expect it to get any better – another promotion or more success won’t make this go away. If anything, you will just get more “evidence” that you have been over-promoted!
Actively work with smart, honest people who have different strengths to you. Make it safe for them to give you feedback. You can stop worrying you will miss something because they’ll let you know.
You have a choice about how much power to let it have. Decide not to give it head-space and energy that could be better spent reflecting on the facts that underpin your success and learning from mistakes.
Focus on what you did do when something went well. Not what you didn’t do. You don’t have to have done everything perfectly for the end result to be good enough. Remember the 80:20 rule.
Help your self and others by naming what it is. Dare to be vulnerable when your instincts are telling you to keep your cards close to your chest. It made it less insidious and easier to laugh about it.
Use the “worried” feeling that you don’t know enough to your advantage. Remember you are seeing things with fresh eyes. Research shows that many scientific breakthroughs come from non-experts daring to ask a “stupid question”
If it pops up, congratulate yourself that it is probably evidence you are conscientious, reflective, honest and modest. Would you really want to NOT feel it and be the opposite of those ?
For more information on coaching to help with Imposter Thinking get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org or to train teams on how to overcome it, ask us for help at email@example.com