The summer of 2018 was a pivotal one. In the midst of a minimalist journey, I had opened myself up to the realisation that letting go of things was actually benefiting me. By removing the physical stuff, I had learned the habit of only bringing in things that would add value. You could say I was still collecting but I was collecting new things in a different manner. Another way of thinking had been unlocked and a bunch of new events had allowed diverse experiences to make their way into my environment. Through the curation and the search for fulfilling work that aligned with my new minimalist values, a fresh type of mental clutter had also manifested itself. Alongside all the positivity and opening myself up to various things, Imposter Syndrome had somehow slipped in through the back door unnoticed and there it would stay, tormenting me for months.
Fast forward to summer 2020 and I find myself hosting talks about Imposter Syndrome, spending weeks researching the topic, reading views from mainstream experts, designing ways to get through it and even writing about it here. The topic has followed me around recently, in a good way, which indicates that more people are becoming aware of its debilitating effects and organisations are starting to see the impact it has on their employees. Having the time to reflect back now, allows me to dig into those few months and the strategies I stumbled upon to help me get back on track.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
This strange but limiting psychological interference is a collection of thoughts that create a significant amount of self doubt which then can lead to self sabotaging. New barriers are created which can impact a person’s ability to reach their potential through the replaying of negative scenarios and the feeling of being a ‘fraud’. It’s the feeling that you do not belong, that you’re fooling people around you and at any moment you are about to be found out for the impostor that you are. These types of dysfunctional thoughts can impact your ability to perform tasks, especially in new settings, such as a new job, promotion or a new life context. It’s the feeling that everything you have achieved in the past was purely down to luck or amazing timing and that your skill and knowledge played only a small part or no part at all. It's the belief that your cover will be blown in 5...4...3...
What are some of the signs?
I distinctly recall a week or so where the realisation had dawned on me that I had made the choice to go from knowing everything and everyone to knowing nothing and nobody. No one else did this to me, I controlled it all, however in my mind whatever I had achieved in the past was completely wiped away and my identity had been deleted. Having that reset made me feel like I needed to prove myself all over again.
Perfectionism - The previous goals were not hard enough so new unreasonably high goals are created, because of course you need to be perfect, right? When those goals don't get hit there is a feeling of shame or an over emphasis on the mistakes made rather than the progress towards it.
Overworking - The fear of being found out haunts you and follows you around which in turn makes you think that you have to work harder than everyone else. Everyone is just about to realise that you’re a fraud so you keep doing way too much to keep it covered up. This then leads to increased stress and burn out.That unreasonable thought process causes a desire to push ourselves to the limits and yet still, the efforts made or even successes in that period don’t feel like they have been good enough.
Not owning your success - What was once a tricky task overcome through effort, skill, knowledge and teamwork is now seen as an easy job that's not worth acknowledging or celebrating. Instead, successes are downplayed and attributed to luck, good timing or considerable help from peers. Of course, anyone could have done this, but you were just in the right place at the right time.
No longer stepping up - An increase in unwillingness to take risks, step forward or volunteer for opportunities starts to materialise. Because of the self doubt, negative self talk and fear of exposure there is a new reluctance to make a difference. These things could play out such as not applying for that job or promotion, not offering to speak up in a meeting, avoiding new challenges or projects and disassociating with individuals who are deemed as superior.
So how do we overcome it?
Even though I displayed all of these behaviours over a period of time, I had no idea they were connected so I forced myself into doing these things below and eventually found my way out of it. Some of them may help you too.
Write a journal - In my previous essay about journaling I explain how I began to analyse the positive and negative reactions to things that were happening throughout the day. Some days I would feel so anxious just on the walk to work. Nothing had even happened yet but I already filled myself up with self doubt. Through having regular intervals to stop, I captured how things made me feel. If someone asked me a question, I felt included and valued. On the flip side, if a series of acronyms were referenced that I had no idea about, I felt out of place and lost. All this information ended up being a collection of data that I could look back on and pick out themes and trends. By knowing what the negative triggers were, I ended up spending less time in those places or making a conscious effort to understand more so I didn't have to feel that way the next time it happened.
Talking - Finding someone to talk to about it sounds like a simple win, however finding the right people to talk to about Imposter Syndrome is a little more tricky. What I found in the midst of the brain fog and self doubt was that empty compliments just washed over me. I needed a challenger or a coach maybe to question my thinking. Not someone who couldn't empathise and repeated that everything will be fine. I couldn't see that far ahead to look for ‘fine’. I also thought that I was alone but later found out that up to 70% of people in a work environment suffer with this at some point in their careers.
Recognise small victories - In a way, you’re looking to build momentum to swing the pendulum the other way and convince your subconscious that you are on a hot streak. Getting a thanks from a question you answered, receiving positive feedback and giving positive feedback will help. I was a feedback junkie. Making others feel good, completing something ahead of time or actually just completing something at all will build new form. Start to add some small wins to that column and that will start to build like compound interest.
Understand your skills and development areas - Take a look back on previous feedback, things you’ve achieved, maybe even your own CV to get clearer on where you excel. Also be honest with yourself and get clear on things you’d like to improve on. Be open about those so when you are given a new job or a new high profile project, you can bring people around you to support in that journey.
Keep a positivity bank - Any kind of positivity sent your way, keep it. Create a folder or a safe place where you can store up emails of thanks, recognition or a blank space to capture any verbal mentions of your good stuff. During those periods when self doubt creeps back in, this can be a simple tool to look back on and revisit the actual truth and not your made up truth.
Ditch perfectionism - Accept that mistakes will happen and embrace them as a First Attempt In Learning (F.A.I.L). It’s not about lowering the bar but more about self acceptance and setting a realistic level so you don't over stretch and feel inadequate. Even getting the basics right is a step in the right direction. I can’t tell you how many people are drawn to the new bright shiny thing only to then forget about the basics.
Leave comparison at the door - Comparison-itis is still a pretty new term but it’s the compulsion to compare your accomplishments and status to another to determine importance. Everyone else is better than me so why try. When you see others in your field who are highly regarded or deemed as successful, we put them on a pedestal which subsequently makes us feel inadequate. If your brain does auto tune into comparing and matching up, relay it back to yourself vs yourself. Compare the you of now versus the you of, say, 2 years ago. How does that compare to other comparisons you’ve tried recently?
Although sometimes it may not feel like it but everything you have achieved has already been justified and you are at the high level you are because you deserve to be. If you’re feeling like an impostor, it's likely because success is associated with it.Take the time to pause and recognise those successes rather than move quickly onto the next thing. Consider how you recognise these and then how you acknowledge the skills and actions that contributed to that success. We will all have doubts throughout life, but there is an art in seeing them as moments only and not a long term disadvantage.
I still get flashes of imposter syndrome but they are quickly tackled and I just go ahead and do things anyway, grateful for all the experiences along the way that make me who I am. Look back on your accomplishments, be proud of them and move forwards with that new energy that once you’re through this, anything is possible.