The irony! As I sat down to write this blog a crippling sense of panic and fear began to rapidly wash over me. Staring at a blank white page with pen earnestly in hand, questions like “Do I know enough to write about such an important subject?”, “How will I cover all aspects of a condition that affects millions of people across the world?” and “What authority do I have on this matter when there are so many more qualified people out there writing about it already?” started to flood through my mind. A paralysing sense of anxiety of not being good enough suddenly stopped me dead in my tracks. Who did I think I was to be writing about such a critical topic?
This wasn’t the first time in my life I have been plagued by such overwhelming feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt though. Throughout my formative years in education and then as I started to climb the career ladder, these same feelings seemed to be a constant companion for me, especially at key moments or times of opportunity and reward. Like an ever-present shadow, this sense of unworthiness besmirched many an experience that should have been positive, empowering and a reason to celebrate. Instead, the higher I climbed and the more success I appeared to attain to the outside world, the worse the feelings became inside. The more of a fraud I felt. I believed it was only a matter of time before someone would find out and expose me, proving I didn’t deserve such recognition. I believed that any modest achievements were down to luck and good timing alone. That was until I discovered that what I was experiencing wasn’t unique to me. This psychological construct was a global condition, commonly known as ‘Imposter Syndrome’.
Coined by the psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne A Imes in their 1978 research paper ‘The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women’, Imposter Syndrome is defined as “A persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud and an acute inability to internalise accomplishments”. Despite objective evidence and tangible proof to the contrary, individuals remain convinced they don’t deserve the success they have achieved, and they are not as competent as others perceive. It is a phenomenon that affects many successful people, with notable names such as Albert Einstein, Maya Angelou and Michelle Obama all publicly stating that they have suffered from this condition at some point in their lives. The International Journal of Behaviour Science even goes so far as to posit that at any one time it can affect up to 70% of the world’s working population.
Widely recognised as a self-imposed belief, it is indiscriminate across race, gender, age, title and profession. It does, however, appear to be particularly present amongst highly skilful or accomplished individuals, especially when unconstructive comparisons can be drawn to others, casting doubt and a feeling of undeserved recognition. Its negative effects are well documented and if left unchecked, Imposter Syndrome can be debilitating, causing stress, severe anxiety, low self-confidence, shame and even depression. This condition doesn’t just hurt individuals either; it hampers the teams and negatively impacts the businesses that sufferers belong to. It is therefore imperative that it is addressed in a deliberate and compassionate manner. With plenty of evidence to support that this frame of mind can be overcome, what follows are a number of proven ways that I have used to beat Imposter Syndrome:
- Address the feelings – whilst difficult, I began to speak openly about where, when and how these feelings surfaced, particularly in a work context, to a select group of trusted confidants within a safe environment. I also started to detail the conscientious efforts I made to surmount these feelings.
- Listen to others – by opening myself up and inviting others to share their similar experiences, I quickly realised I wasn’t alone, and these feelings weren’t unique to me. The fact that this was so common, especially among successful and accomplished individuals was most reassuring.
- Set a realistic vision – by identifying a clear outcome and having a specific end goal to work towards, I was able to map out a plan to ensure forward movement and use incremental progress to reaffirm my actions, propelling me further forward towards the desired end point.
- Isolate strengths and weaknesses – by recognising what I am good at and where my opportunities for growth were, I was able to stop worrying that I wasn’t qualified for a particular task, role or project and instead better focus on where I could add value, whilst also seeking support for the areas that weren’t my forte.
- Recognise contribution – I started to take greater ownership of my successes and learnt to celebrate a job well done, as well as accepting measured responsibility for the things that didn’t go so well.
All of which was performed within the safe and supportive context of the 8-week Dale Carnegie course, where each week participants take away a set of fundamental human-relations principles to apply in their day to day lives, before returning to report back on the experience and the results achieved. Through the deliberate application of these principles and the points listed above, my Imposter Syndrome has now successfully been replaced with a deep understanding of my own capabilities, a profound sense of my own self-worth and a resolute belief in what I’m able to achieve when I trust myself. In short, I have come to value me for me.
Pete Burbidge is the Marketing Manager for Dale Carnegie London.