Stress on hyper-drive, modern life is like speeding down the fast lane with no brakes. Early starts, no lunch breaks, working late, always online, in touch, on call. We don’t seem to have a switch off button or a do not disturb sign. No achievement is great enough, no award or target met satisfies the urge to push on. We are driving towards the cliff of perfection in a helpless attempt to satiate the lurking demon within.
This phenomenon is called the ‘Impostor syndrome’. It’s a term first coined in an article written by Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes in the 1970’s. They noticed that many people, and in particular women who were high achievers, could not believe positive feedback given about their skills and talents and thought that they weren’t really very intelligent. This didn’t seem to be linked to certain types of personalities, but anyone could be prone to these feelings. They found that:
Diligence: Gifted women often work hard in order to prevent people from discovering that she is an “impostor”. This hard work often leads to more praise and success, which perpetuates the impostor feelings and fears of being “found out”. The “impostor” women may feel they need to work two or three times as hard, so over-prepare, tinker and obsess over details. This can lead to burn-out and sleep deprivation.
Feeling of being phony: A woman with impostor feelings often attempts to give supervisors and professors the answers that she believes they want, which often leads to an increase in feeling like she is “being a fake”.
Use of charm: Connected to this, gifted women often use their intuitive perceptiveness and charm to gain approval and praise from supervisors and seek out relationships with supervisors in order to help her increase her abilities intellectually and creatively. However, when the supervisor gives her praise or recognition, she feels that this praise is based on her charm and not on ability.
Avoiding display of confidence: Another way that a woman can perpetuate her impostor feelings is to avoid showing any confidence in her abilities. A woman dealing with impostor feelings may believe that if she actually believes in her intelligence and abilities she may be rejected by others. Therefore, she may convince herself that she is not intelligent or does not deserve success to avoid this.
According to studies nearly 70% of us suffer from feeling a fraud, no matter how well we are doing in reality. More women than men admit to it and it is particularly prevalent in high-achievers and minority groups. Extraverts let it slip that they feel this way and so get more support, while introverts dwell on the demon in their head. There are the bright young things who don’t apply themselves because it’s better to be thought of as lazy rather than stupid and there are those who procrastinate and don’t complete things because they that they might fail if they reach the end. Then there are those people hell bent on achieving success but reject compliments or make excuses and explain away their success; they just got lucky this time. They are unable to celebrate their achievements. They are more likely to feel a sense of relief that once again they have pulled off the masquerade. There is always a residing feeling that it will be the next test that catches them out; that will yank away the mask to reveal the despicable fraud they really are. They ride on the wave of anxiety as they beat their way to the door of each challenge, putting in blood, sweat and tears to ensure they nail it. The overriding fear is that they won’t, and they’ll get thrown to the wolves for all the charade. The pattern repeats over and over with the sound of the snapping and howling of wild dogs always just within earshot.
“Intelligence is not a fixed, hard, immutable thing. Intelligence is not an either you-are or you’re-not situation. Sure, you have a rainforest mind. You’re smart, sensitive, empathetic, analytical, creative, intense, perfectionistic and complicated. But that doesn’t mean that your traits and abilities can’t shift, change and grow. That doesn’t mean that you can’t be confused, dumb, embarrassing and a complete failure some of the time.” Paula Prober Blogger and Counsellor.
Imposterites recoil in horror at the idea of getting found out for being a failure and so they find ways to self-sabotage in creative and resourceful ways. They show up late for important meetings, they don’t ask for the pay level they know they are worth, they down size their jobs to roles that are well below their capabilities, they bail out of a relationship before they’ve given it a chance. Critically, they don’t ask questions, they don’t volunteer ideas, they push their creative insights into the background. They are constantly on the look out for external validation and when they don’t get it they beat themselves up and see it as proof that they are the world’s biggest loser. According to Dr Valerie Young, author of Secret Thoughts of Successful Women on the subject of the Imposture Syndrome “there is shame around these feelings; we think we are the only one who feels this way. So to know that you’re not different, you’re not even special. They key is to de-mystify that whole thing.” Most people experience it at some point, and to know that it’s normal can be liberating.
The problem is the world shows us the shiny happy, super rich, super bright, super successful, as the way life should permanently be. Facebook friends share their holiday snaps in exotic places, selfies on a good day, the latest triumphs and woohoo moments. It makes everyone else feel inadequate and miserable. But the reality is that life’s not a year round holiday, party, bright skin, swingy hair, wrinkle free experience. There is no point at staring at your facebook friends’ profiles and crumpling under the pretence of your own projected perfection. Yes capture and share the good moments but don’t harbour the belief that it’s meant to be like that all the time. It’s not for you and it’s not for anybody else.
This lack of ability to recognize or internalise ones own abilities and achievements is shared by some of the most brilliant and successful people. Albert Einstein said of himself towards the end of his life “the exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.” and Nobel Laureate Maya Angelou once said: “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.” Business tycoon Sheryl Sandberg, American technology executive and chief operating officer of popular social media site Facebook, has reportedly experienced these feelings. “Many people, but especially women, feel fraudulent when they are praised for their accomplishments. Instead of feeling worthy of recognition, they feel undeserving and guilty, as if a mistake has been made. Despite being high achievers, even experts in their fields, women can’t seem to shake the sense that it is only a matter of time until they are found out for who they really are- impostors with limited skills or abilities.” Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. The actress Emma Watson, who played Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter saga over a course of 10 years, admits to losing belief in her abilities as an actress. “It’s called the imposter syndrome,’ she says. I’m just going: “Any moment, someone’s going to find out I’m a total fraud. I can’t possibly live up to what everyone thinks I am.” Now magazine in 2011.
The key to pulling the rug out from the Imposter, according to Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, is to be open to failing, growth and learning. Confidence increases when we embrace failure as part of our development, acknowledging that there will always be ups and downs on the learning curve. When we use our creative mind, we can always find ways to pick ourselves up and carry on. We can imagine success and take the leap. We can be resourceful and find solutions to the problems that arise without taking them personally or beating ourselves up about them. We can creatively reframe failure and concentrate our effort on growth. We can give ourselves realistic and achievable expectations and we can normalize our imposter feelings and self-doubt. We need to know that we can be vulnerable no matter how scary that feels. Life’s not going to be a non-stop Halcyon experience but it can be a creative, surprising and interesting one.
Be fearless, be intrepid, be tenacious, be a Brave New Girl and work with IIC&M Accredited Senior Coach Lou Hamilton. For a free 30 minute trial consultation or to find out more email Lou@createlab.co.uk
Follow my daily Inspirational Illustrations on twitter @createlab and instagram create_lab and Brave new Girl Adventures