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Impostor syndrome is a concept describing high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalise their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’. It’s a limiting belief based on fear, a nasty little trick of the out-dated lizard brain that is actually trying to help but instead is a complete hindrance. It kicks in as a form of protection - being good is scary because it's hard work and with that comes an element of risk. Impostor syndrome flies in to rescue you in the face of danger!
Research suggests that over 70% of the population have experienced this inability to internalise our success at some point in our lives and that list includes a list of the great and the good or, as they think of themselves, ‘a bunch of frauds’ – international best-selling author Neil Gaiman, activist and author Maya Angelou, actresses Meryl Streep, Emma Watson & Jodie Foster, genius Albert Einstein, businesswoman Sheryl Sandberg … the list goes on, and yes I’m in there too (well not the great and the good!) – in fact I thought I invented it!
“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.”
The typical scenario sees a successful person gaining a promotion, getting their work published or receiving praise and adulation. Being in this position can be a little nerve-wracking as most of us are hard-wired to want to keep it up, we can’t quite believe we made it, we compare ourselves to others and worry about how they perceive us. We expect at any moment to be ‘found out’. Sufferers might then either work harder, earn more praise and set the cycle going again or undervalue themselves.
The daemon did it
Sometimes the syndrome takes a new angle. Frequently I’ve read back over a piece of work I laboured over months ago and can’t quite believe that it came out of my own fingertips. I believe it’s because of our inner genius, our muse, or whatever you want to call it. I first became aware of this phenomenon while listening to Liz Gilbert’s incredible TED lecture. She explains that the Greeks and Romans believed that creativity wasn’t something that came FROM us, but rather it came TO us in the form of what they called our genius or daemon – an entity that, like a guardian angel, was assigned to us and could be equally blamed for our works of art and our creative madness – a bit like an invisible friend I guess. (Read more on the Genius/Daemon here)
Liz encourages our belief in this genius for our own sanity so we can then steer clear of the route of the tortured artist. After all, it’s far easier to blame your Muse for taking a holiday than to believe you just can’t birth a new idea or feel the desire to pick up a paintbrush again.
Likewise if this other entity had a part in your success, then maybe that’s the reason we suffer from Imposter Syndrome or have no recollection of creating a piece of work. We didn’t. Our genius did it!
Impostor Syndrome is yet another form of interruption and distraction. The brain can be a peculiar organ, it seems to delight in feeding our conscious with a million and one other thoughts than the one we need at that precise moment. Right now I am thinking three steps ahead in this article while also wondering if I’ve got any new emails, checking the time for my next coaching call and itching to check my most recent post on Facebook to see if there’s any new conversation. Err, where was I?
By inviting in all those distracting thoughts we also welcomed their best mate – anxiety. We step outside of flow, lose concentration and fret about items outside of our current remit.
We may be tempted to tone ourselves down, play it safe, miss out on opportunity. I am guilty for playing it safe for years - wrapped up in a cosy comfort blanket of familiarity, ease and repetition. I stopped believing in myself. Eventually the cashmere turned to horsehair though and I came out in a nasty rash. I knew I was capable of more.
Impostor Syndrome is just another distraction sent to try us, but fear not, there are ways to control the beast!
How to get over it
- Share it! I had no idea Impostor Syndrome was even a thing until I read about it in a magazine and saw myself in those eye-opening paragraphs! Talk about your experiences with your friends and peers and laugh at how silly we are all being! Convince others of their worth and they will surely help you see through your own unfounded feelings of inadequacy.
- Make a list of your achievements. We give our failures far more memory than we should so sometimes our wins (even the small ones) need a helping hand to make it to the hall of fame.
- Keep a folder of emails where colleagues and friends have given you praise for a job well done – I call mine ‘Nice Things’. Read them over and over until you actually believe what they are saying! I think the most powerful are those from work colleagues or strangers on social media who are unlikely to bolster the truth and your ego in the way you mother might! Read through them when struck by fear and doubt. Give yourself a well-deserved warm and fuzzy feeling!
- Accept that you played a part! A big part! Whether or not you believe in the idea of a divine force sneaking into your subconscious and crafting your magnum opus, it was still YOU! I give you permission to give yourself a little pat on the back for a job well done. Remind yourself that if you did it once, you can again.
- Be present. Lock the door to distraction and imposter syndrome – you might find that a simple visioning meditation will do the trick, or just count backwards from five to zero to switch your focus.
- Watch for the pause. Self-doubt can kick in at any time so get in the habit of noticing the types of situations when it is most likely to occur and be bold and leap in ahead. Make your decisions count.
- Embrace and trust in your inner genius – there’s a perfectly formed space right inside of you where she sits and once there you work as a team. There’s magic inside of you – go make it and believe in it and yourself. In all likelihood it won't be easy, but face the pain bravely and work through it.
- Look for the positive. Impostor syndrome prevents hubris, keeps us questioning our own ability and takes us on an upward curve of continuous improvement. After all, if we believed in ourselves too completely we might feel too safe, only to discover we were swimming in a sea of sharks without an armoured wetsuit!
Now, onwards and upwards! Grabbling with the beast of Impostor Syndrome is one of the topics we could discuss together as part of a coaching session. Let me know if I could help.
“The Fraud Police are the imaginary, terrifying force of 'real' grown-ups who you believe - at some subconscious level - are going to come knocking on your door in the middle of the night, saying: We've been watching you, and we have evidence that you have NO IDEA WHAT YOU'RE DOING. You stand accused of the crime of completely winging it, you are guilty of making shit up as you go along, you do not actually deserve your job, we are taking everything away and we are TELLING EVERYBODY.”
Musician, Amanda Palmer