Do you feel like you don’t belong? Do you put on a front to fit in with colleagues and even friends and family? Does it feel like you’re about to be called out as a fraud? You might have imposter syndrome. It’s a really horrible feeling. It’s as if any minute now, everyone is going to turn round, point at you, and say what are you doing here? What do you think gives you the right to be here amongst us?
People with Imposter Syndrome are often really skilled at looking and sounding completely comfortable in their skin. They have perfected the art of putting on a front. And probably perfected a few different fronts, depending on the environment they are in. At work, they hide the scared, vulnerable part of themselves that believes it’s about to be ridiculed and humiliated behind a professional, competent façade. Out with friends they might hide it behind a sociable, funny part or with others, the visible self might be confident and assertive. The idea that on the inside they feel wobbly and a bit of wreck seems unbelievable. No one who didn’t know the inner reality would have a clue.
Repeated again and again, this conflict between the inner and outer experience can lead to chronic anxiety, depression and / or burn-out. As with everything psychological, people will make all sorts of adaptations to cope with the split in the psyche and regulate themselves. This could be anything from playing with fidget spinners, developing a nervous tick like a cough, drinking too much or obsessively checking their watch. Without any clear intention of doing so they may withdraw a little and present themselves as an enigma, chat a lot or talk quickly. The variety of adaptations is limitless.
Anyone can suffer from it. Being successful, rich and famous is no protection. Reaching the top of your chosen career, whether as a CEO, Professor, Head Teacher, Cabinet Minister or Hospital Consultant, doesn’t protect your either.
Imposter Syndrome doesn’t come from the external reality of the situation. After all, you wouldn’t be a professor unless you really knew your subject. You can’t possibly have fooled everyone along the way. You wouldn’t be a CEO unless you got results. The shareholders wouldn’t have it. It comes from the inner reality and probably has its roots in childhood.
It’s in our early years that we really develop a sense of who we are. If the important people in our early lives engage with us and really appreciate us exactly as we are, at whatever age we are, we learn to be comfortable with ourselves. This is what’s often called Secure Attachment. According to John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory, if we don’t achieve this, we develop a form of Insecure Attachment. It’s worth noting that despite what we might immediately think, most of us are insecurely attached.
Those of us who are insecurely attached, who don’t feel acceptable exactly as we are, develop different fronts. Then, to cope with the dis-regulation caused by the conflict between our inner and outer selves, we develop our own particular adaptations.
There are plenty of strategies to cope with Imposter Syndrome. And as is so often the case, they are not rocket science. We can all Google them. Some of the day-to-day ones you can use include:
- Gather a piece of evidence each day that you belong. Look at them all each week. Your competence and achievements are much harder to deny when they are there in front of you.
- Talk to someone you trust and get their input … and make the effort to listen to and accept what they say!
- Notice the inner voice. Challenge it, but make sure you do it with warmth and kindness, as you would to a young person who, despite trying hard, has gone a little off track.
- When someone gives you a metaphorical pat on the back, try hard to welcome and accept it. It probably won’t be easy, but it’s definitely worth the effort.
Implementing these strategies and changing your way of being is often really difficult. All sorts of people have tried these and other strategies plenty of times and not achieved any kind of lasting shift. After a month or two they slide back into their old way of thinking. The habits never bed in. For some, it’s just too soon to even begin to see themselves in any kind of positive way. I remember a client agreeing that she would try and write something positive about herself every day. She came back the next week and said she hadn’t written anything. She just couldn’t. At that time, for her, the ask was far too big. It was far too painful. We carried on working together, addressing some of the underlying challenges and after a few more months things began to shift. She started to see herself through my eyes and began to accept the possibility that she might not be an imposter. It was then she started to be able to notice what was wonderful about her.
If you find it difficult to adopt the strategies and create a lasting change, get in touch. I can help.