The Extra Sip Blog Episode 4

Resolving the false imposter in you.

Decades ago, I sat around a large table in a hospital, as a shiny new psychologist. Around me sat paediatricians, neuropsychologist, psychiatrists, general practitioners, and a team of allied health professionals. My client was a young male with multiple mental health challenges. I can remember clearly looking around and wondering what on earth I was doing at the table. Everyone invited to the case meeting had years of experience over me. I worried what level of contribution I could actually make, and worse, my budding professional experience was going to be exposed and I would be humiliated. I was positive I was punching well above my weight.

Why is it when we finally get the job, success or career move so wanted, we can become riddled with self-doubt? What makes us feel like an imposter, regardless of the skills and experience we bring to any role in our lives? How often have we all waited for someone to realise that we’ve fluked our way into the success we’ve arrived at?

It was first noticed in 1970’s by psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, who identified a strange phenomenon amongst high achievers. They appeared unable to internalize and accept their success.

 ‘They often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud.’

At this time, it was predominately women struggling to claim their success.

‘In spite of consistent objective data to the contrary, they attributed their successes to serendipity, luck, contacts, timing, perseverance, charm, or even the ability to appear more capable than they felt themselves to be.’ 

Suzanne Imes proposed a contributing factor was when ‘families placed a big emphasis on achievement’ or bounced between ‘over-praise and criticism.’ False Imposter Of course add on to a background of unstable ego building, social, cultural and academic pressure and it is no wonder we struggle to feel worthy of success at times.

Not so much a syndrome as a phenomenon.

Well, here’s the good news. Feeling like an imposter is not actually a syndrome. A syndrome is generally related to a small cohort of people while perceptions of being a false imposter is felt on mass. It is called pluralistic ignorance, which means we all think we are the only ones plagued with self-doubt waiting to be exposed. The reality is we all will experience moments, if not days, of worrying we are not good enough. In fact, around 70% of people feel ill-equipped to fill their own shoes in the job they have. Irrelevant of the logical argument that the promotion, or application you were successful at getting, indicates you are more than adequate to do the job.

The downside of not openly talking about our crippling self-doubt is that we limit our potential by leaving the belief unchallenged. This self-sabotaging behaviour helps no-one and can feed into the misconstrued belief that we are not good enough.

Don’t be too humble.

For some we display exaggerated humility which research believes is a protective impulse: ‘the need for an exit strategy’  Feeling Like a Fake.  In this sense the minimalising of achievement and being too humble (‘aw shucks it was nothing, no it’s not that great, I could have done more,’) creates a plausible way out if you were to be suddenly discovered as a failure. The issue here is we all will fail at some time, at something and acting with an exit strategy mindset becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

When you emerge as an excessively humble CEO, to manage feeling like an imposter, not only is it inauthentic but a reliance on outsourcing and advisors to avoid failure, becomes a compensatory mechanism rather than an effective tool. And this behaviour undermines the best way to overcome feeling like an imposter.

Our tips to shake that fake feeling are:

  1. Self-evaluate. You are the best person to evaluate your capabilities, value added skills and performance.
  2. Get a team. Have a kick ass group of mentors and coaches to keep your view in perspective (listen to our Episode 2).
  3. Don’t compare. You are unique. You are where you are, in the job you are in, because of your difference. No one wants a team of robots who all think the same. Not in the future workplaces anyway.
  4. Put your hand up to train others. It is a great way to realise what you know and what you contribute. We learn more from supervising and coaching others about what we know and have learnt, than at any other time.
  5. You do you. Acknowledge what you do really well and what are areas of improvement, so you have a balanced approach to your skill base.
  6. Accept you will fail. And say the wrong thing, be challenged and have opinions dismissed. Learn from these moments rather than be offended or see them as criticism.
  7. Reframe, rethink and rewire. Invite challenges that push you, challenge your fear of failure, small steps at first until you realise you are as equal.

Or you can try what I did, as I watched the highly experienced consultants talk on my client’s presentation in that hospital meeting. I took a deep breath and backed myself. I talked honestly about my perspective and what I believed would be the best path forward. I relied on the knowledge and experience I did have and stayed in my lane. I won’t say it was a comfortable couple of hours, but I walked away, feeling better than when I went in. Sometimes that is a win.

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