Imposter Syndrome Unmasked

By Dr Sam Collins

“Sometimes I wake up in the morning before going off to a shoot, and I think, I can’t do this. I’m a fraud.” — Kate Winslett

“I have written eleven 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.’” — Maya Angelou

Emma Watson, Sheryl Sandberg, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Nicola Sturgeon and Dame Helen Mirren have all admitted to having the feeling they’ll be discovered as frauds who’ve made it by only luck, by accident, or worse, a clever deception.

There are many, many others both well-known and unknown. In fact, 70 percent of us will experience the phenomenon at least once in life, and many are haunted by it daily. While it seems to be very prevalent among women, men deal with imposterism too. Astronaut Neil Armstrong, for one.

So even if walking on the moon hasn’t set you free from imposter syndrome, here are a few ideas that might help get you to launch …

What is imposter syndrome?

While not a clinical disorder, the impostor phenomenon was first mentioned in 1978 by Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes following clinical therapy sessions with high-achieving women. They observed that despite objective evidence of great success, these women believed they were intellectual frauds and lived in constant fear of being recognised as impostors, standing to lose everything. They suffered, as do all who live with imposter syndrome, from anxiety, fear of failure and dissatisfaction with life.

Since then, research has shown imposter syndrome is often a reaction to specific situations. For example, a manager may feel totally competent interacting with her direct reports but be a complete wreck addressing peers or senior executives, or say, speaking up at a parent-teacher association or council meeting.

But there are many other scenarios.

… A woman working in a predominantly male institution.

… A person of colour being part of an all-white interview panel.

… A disabled person being hired to an able team.

… A gay person in an all straight family.

… An autistic child attending a learning-typical school.

Given certain situations, any of these people might worry that their accomplishments are not good enough relative to their peers. And this is even more likely to happen if the person falls into more than one group, as so many of us do.

People suffering from impostor syndrome lean toward perfectionism, the fear of failure, and the habit of undervaluing their success. And the price for not dealing with it is high.

When you have feelings like stigma, stereotype threat, or any sense of "intellectual phoniness" it can result in a number of outcomes, including:
  • Low self confidence and shame
  • Constant worry about meeting expectations
  • Avoiding volunteering for reputation-defining projects
  • Not applying for new roles or promotions
  • Avoiding asking for appropriate pay and/or raises
  • People pleasing
  • Excessive to-do’s and goal-setting
  • Stress, anxiety, and even depression

Speaking of imposters…

In my work, I am regularly astounded by two things: First, the incredible achievements of the women I meet; and second, the ability they have to downplay and dismiss these achievements. They also use the word ‘lucky’ a lot, as if some miracle happened to put them into positions of power. Even though the word adds to the humility, it’s also an irritating reminder that getting anywhere these days is seemingly not within our control. Now I don’t think for a minute this is because I’ve just happened to meet a string of incredibly humble human beings. No. These women, in some of the most powerful positions in business, charities and government, really do think that they don’t deserve the success they have earned and believe the cards just happened to be dealt in their favour.

But why?

One revealing statistic recalls how men will apply for a job when they meet 60 percent of the qualifications, but women will apply only if they meet 100 percent of them.

Originally offered by an internal Hewlett-Packard report, it has been cited in numerous business books and articles, mostly as evidence that women need more confidence, more faith in themselves, and the rewards will follow.

Which is complete bullshit.

One analysis published in Harvard Business Review reveals the real problem: collective bias in the socialisation of men and women for work.

When added together, 78 percent of women’s reasons for not applying for the job had to do with believing that the job qualifications were real requirements. Unlike men, the women believed the hiring process was more “by-the-book” than it really is, for a few reasons:

Historically, women must meet more qualifications to be hired than their male counterparts, as men are often hired or promoted based on their potential but women for their experience. Growing up, girls have been strongly socialised to follow the rules, and this is rewarded by greater success in school, relative to boys. On graduation, this aptitude is carried into work where it is not rewarded the same way. Certifications and degrees have played a different role for women, causing them to overestimate the importance of training and qualifications, and underestimate advocacy, relationships, and creatively framing one’s expertise to show how they could meet job qualifications.

In addition, women are busy people and we don’t want to waste our time or that of the interviewers if we don’t believe we are fully qualified. It seems dishonest somehow.

Self-esteem is important, don’t get me wrong. But this game will not be won by working on women’s self esteem alone. It has to do with the differences between how boys and girls are raised, and how men and women win or lose jobs.

Most of all, it has to do with how we have internalised collective beliefs and blamed ourselves for our resulting feelings, instead of realising the fault is in our society and refusing to take it personally.

The issue is systemic, not personal.

Time for a major rebrand

Whenever I ask a room of women if they have heard of imposter syndrome, all hands raise rapidly. But when I ask again who suffers (yes, we use that word) with it, hands again rise, albeit much more slowly, all over the room.

Imposter syndrome can’t be seen outwardly. In fact, most who have it have long perfected their confident exterior. Yet inside they are crumbling. Along with anxiety and depression, imposter syndrome is a silent killer in our workplaces, schools and families.

But whoever created this term needs to be fired and the whole thing needs a major rebrand.

Just look at the definitions for each word:

Imposter: A person who pretends to be someone else in order to deceive others, especially for fraudulent gain.

Syndrome: A set of symptoms appearing together, which have no cure or preventative measure.

Is that really what you have?

We can be forgiven for believing we have caught, or worse, been born with an incurable disease. But the truth is that it isn’t ours. It is entirely curable. But it’s going to take societal change in order to accomplish it.

We aren’t imposters, we all have a right to be here, whoever we are and whatever we do.

It’s not your fault. It’s not their fault. It’s our fault.

Most of the solutions about imposter syndrome have a similar feel to those citing the Hewlett-Packard statistic: believe more in yourself, keep a file of your successes, use positive affirmations, recognise your true value, blar, blar, blar …

All of the above have value and indeed I teach a number of them but not as a full solution for imposter syndrome. The responsibility is not on women simply to do a better job at self-esteem. Our responsibility is to develop our awareness:

Self-awareness. As soon as the thought comes that we are a weird freak that the world can’t handle, or we think we have just lucked out, or that we will soon be discovered as a fraud, being pumped full of positive affirmations won’t help. We must be in the habit of recognising the standard of measurement isn’t ours, and letting go of it before it engulfs us.

Collective-awareness. Impostor syndrome is indicative of a society that doesn’t yet value anything other than ‘normal’ (where normal is defined as white, male, straight, able, and learning typical.) But recognise this: if you have come to terms with the fact that the entire population is not any of those things but so much more, your society is coming to it too.

We are the ones leading the change. Let’s keep doing it.

Other-awareness. Impostor syndrome is a real thing for a lot of other people. So we must always recognise we aren’t alone. Being vulnerable to others with our feelings and staying connected, can go a long way to realising the truth about ourselves.

It is too easy to put ourselves and others into boxes. White, black, fat, thin, gay, straight, depressed, happy, successful or a failure. The pressure is too much and eventually the lines have to blur, the box has to collapse. The truth is that we are all a little bit of everything. We have to look beyond what we see.

When we show our vulnerability, our weakness, our strength, our true nature, we show our humanity. We are a tapestry of many things. Doing this empowers us to see others realistically, to see ourselves realistically, and change our view.

We must all proudly step out of our closets! Now that’s a radical move.

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