It can be nice to take a break from COVID-19 topics. In this blog I am writing about something else I find myself discussing often: imposter syndrome. I would say I discuss it most often with young professionals, but I’ve heard from people of all ages that they experience it, which goes to show it is not just caused by a lack of experience.
Imposter syndrome is the feeling that you don’t actually belong in the spaces you are in. It's the thought that on paper you may have qualifications and achievements, but those accomplishments weren't deserved. It’s a fear that you will be “found out”; that the wool will be pulled off the eyes of those around you and they will change their minds about you for the worse.
It turns out there is research on the imposter phenomenon dating back to the 1970’s. Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes of Georgia State University researched what they termed “highly successful women” who believe themselves to be “imposters”.
In their research two origin themes from participants emerged. One was a family narrative that the participant’s other sibling was the high achieving one in the family. The participant strove to get recognition for their own achievements but secretly knew that any products of their striving would never match up to the “inherent” abilities of the “smarter” sibling. The other origin theme was a parent's narrative that their child was naturally perfect at any and everything. The problem with this narrative is that, at some point, real life experience shows the child this is not true. This realization leads the child to doubt their abilities as well as the beliefs of their parents, yet they still feel committed to keeping up the façade of perfection.
It’s important to note that the participants were mostly white, middle to upper class women. It’s noted that based on the researchers’ experience, they believed men felt imposter syndrome with less frequency and intensity but that this conclusion was met with “mixed opinions from male colleagues”. I have talked with men who have experienced imposter syndrome. And I should note that since the ‘70’s, gender norms and expectations have changed. It’s also important to recognize that people in minority groups are likely to experience imposter syndrome for additional reasons. Harmful messages about their worth can be received whether historically and/or present day, overtly or subtly, institutionally or personally.
My key takeaway from the study on imposter syndrome was the finding, “We have not found repeated successes alone sufficient to break the cycle.” Yet this is one of the ways we seek to get rid of that “not good enough” feeling. We strive for achievements hoping that one day we’ll finally feel like we’ve “arrived”.
So if achievement won’t get rid of these feelings, what else can we try? Here are my thoughts on some ways to cope and change the narrative.
Instinctual versus Rational Fear
We feel the need to be part of a group because historically our survival depended on it. We can recognize that the threat of being “kicked out” of a group is something our brain is wired to look for. That fear is instinctual and rational. However, we can experience this fear for irrational reasons. An irrational reason might be the thought that we'll be ostracized simply because we say the wrong thing in a meeting. We can validate our feelings while challenging the causes. We can start by changing our response: “Thanks brain for being on alert! But I’m actually safe right now; it wasn't really a threat”.
Perfectionism can have the same kind of stronghold on our thinking as imposter syndrome. I like the concept of reframing perfectionism to “healthy striving”. Brene Brown writes that perfectionism is “other-focused” and asks, “What will they think?”. Whereas healthy striving is “self-focused” and asks, “How can I improve?”. Can you interrupt that other-focused thinking and offer the self-focused question instead?
It is Possible to Change
It can feel impossible to change our thinking. Sometimes, it’s helpful just to know that there is hope for change. This short 2 minute video explains neuroplasticity and how we can develop new pathways with repeated practice.
Look for Your Gold Stars
I love the idea from SuperBetter that we should look for “power ups” throughout our day. These are similar to the gold coins or stars that we collect in video games that keep us coming back to play even if we lose a level. You can learn more by reading SuperBetter by Jane McGonigal, or you can download the SuperBetter App that will lead you through challenges backed by science.
Ratio of Positive to Negative
Based on research, Gottman has defined the “magic ratio” for healthy relationships as being five positive interactions for every negative interaction. While I don’t have the science to prove this, I would imagine that maintaining the same ratio for our own self-talk may be a ratio to strive for. For some reason it seems more acceptable to talk badly about ourselves than to talk positively. You can experiment by saying something positive to yourself and see if you feel any kind of discomfort or conflicted feeling. If this doesn't feel comfortable at first, as that video on neuroplasticity shows, it can be worthwhile to practice positive self-talk. You can find many positive affirmations on a Pinterest or Google search. Guided meditation apps like the free Insight Timer can walk you through practices of self compassion and affirmations. You can also start with the simple but worthwhile, “I am doing my best”.
Change Your Language
Language is powerful. This a great post from Ideas.Ted.Com with ideas of what to say instead of “sorry”. Sociologist Maja Jovanovic suggests that the “sorrys” we unnecessarily offer can “undercut our confidence”. Jovanovic offers alternatives such as “I’d like to add” instead of “sorry to interrupt you”.
Lastly, a good therapist can always help to navigate imposter syndrome or any other kind of self-defeating thoughts that are impacting your relationships, your work, or any other part of your overall wellbeing.
Mentoring someone with imposter syndrome? This HBR article has strategies.