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The elephant taking up space in many rooms filled with successful people

​I want to talk about a problem that I believe is an epidemic. It is so widespread it is harder to find organisations or professions where it is not an issue than to find ones where it is. It is disproportionately, but not exclusively, experienced by females. The problem is: Impostor Syndrome.

A general definition of Impostor Syndrome is a feeling of not deserving your success. However, it can also feel like you are the least capable, qualified, confident or competent person in the room/team/organisation. It can cause you to second guess yourself and live in fear of being found out as a fraud who doesn’t know what they are doing. It can feel like you are wearing a mask, and you are afraid to let it slip, in case your authentic self is not enough.

Interestingly, Impostor Syndrome appears to be as common in the boardrooms of major corporations as it is in the classrooms of our schools and universities. I have spoken to countless highly capable and outwardly successful individuals who are living in crippling fear of being outed as a phony. They truly believe that they are one misstep away from exposing their incompetence/ignorance/”not enoughness” to the world.

Although Impostor Syndrome is not an official diagnosis, it is a common experience, and it can be associated with negative psychological outcomes. Believing you are not worthy of your success, or that you are successful in spite of, rather than because of, your knowledge, skills and abilities, is exhausting. You feel like you are being deceitful, when in fact you are not. This means you feel the burden of a lie that is not a lie.

Impostor Syndrome should be distinguished from false modesty. False modesty is when an individual outwardly emphasises perceived weaknesses as a way of getting compliments and reassurances of their excellent qualities. This is a blatant attempt to have their strengths acknowledged and applauded.

In contrast, Impostor Syndrome is an internal process whereby the individual over-emphasises the “gaps” or perceived deficits in their skills, qualifications, experience or characteristics, thus resulting in feelings of inferiority and unsuitability. Whereas false modesty is an external cry for attention, Impostor Syndrome is an internal and private self-flagellation.

Like all shame-inducing narratives, Impostor Syndrome cannot flourish under the glare of transparency. The best way of shifting your Impostor Syndrome is to place it under the spotlight and see what it is actually made of. Although it takes courage, I encourage you to dare to question the validity of your Impostor Syndrome beliefs and see how they stack up under scrutiny.

Ask yourself:

  • What beliefs do I hold that are contributing to my Impostor Syndrome?
  • Where did they come from?
  • What is the evidence?
  • Who am I comparing myself to? Why?

​If you identify genuine gaps, consider:

  • What can I do to upskill in those areas, so I feel less like an impostor?

In my experience, the beliefs underpinning Impostor Syndrome rarely hold weight when they are evaluated objectively. For those that do, identifying what you can do to enhance your skills in that area can be an extremely empowering process.

It can also be helpful to recognise that many highly capable and successful people also share this fear of being an impostor. Picture your most competent colleague. Think about what you see them doing, hear them saying, and how they conduct themselves. How would you describe them to somebody who had never met them?

Chances are, the way you would describe them is the way others would describe you. Those experiencing Impostor Syndrome are often blind to their own positive qualities and have an inbuilt bias towards amplifying their weaknesses and shortcomings, at the expense of their strengths and skills.

The good news is, this is a habit that can be unlearned and replaced with a more empowering mindset. Challenging those impostor-inducing beliefs is the first step towards overcoming Impostor Syndrome and owning the success you rightfully deserve – guilt-free.

If Impostor Syndrome is holding you back, and you would like to learn more about how I can support you, please feel free to connect with me by sending me an email via the link below.  

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