Imposter syndrome is a hot topic nowadays. If I had a pound for every time I heard someone talk about having it and the impact of it, I wouldn’t be writing a blog; I would be swanning off into the sunset for a life of champagne brunches. Yet it’s also a relatively recent thing for people to be talking about it. 5 years ago most people had never heard of it, let alone grasped the label and applied it to themselves
The thing is, a very significant chunk of the people who talk about imposter syndrome have no such thing. What they are actually experiencing is a bout of fixed mindset, a fear of failure or judgement, or a completely rational experience of self doubt. Or possibly a combination of all three. In my parlance, just a regular dose of the mind monkeys.
So how can you tell which you’ve actually got and does it matter that there’s a difference? Stick with me and I’ll explain my take
Why do so many people think they have imposter syndrome?
I get why so many people are self diagnosing with imposter syndrome – the language feels so relatable. There’s comfort in certainty, so rather than having this vague sense of stuckness and feelings of self doubt the diagnosis of imposter syndrome gives a name to it
And once one person says it, others will chime in. YES! That’s how I feel. I have imposter syndrome too! I have the symptoms those people are describing. The drive for perfection. The sense of not being good enough. The procrastination when it comes to stuff that is important but uncomfortable. The self sabotage when it comes to achieving goals and then judging yourself for it
The problem with this self diagnosis is that similar symptoms can come from a range of root causes. And the way to treat the symptoms will be different depending on the root cause. Look at it this way – if you hear people talking about sneezing and having a tickly throat then you still don’t know whether anti histamines or Lemsip will sort them out
Lots of the symptoms of imposter syndrome are similar to mind monkeys, but the approach that works will differ and it’s vital to get to the bottom of what’s really going on. Doubly so because much of the advice that is touted as being helpful in cases of imposter syndrome is actually relevant for taming mind monkeys but won’t make a dent on dealing with true imposter syndrome
Added to that is that labelling yourself as having imposter syndrome can make a bigger deal of the experience than necessary and keep you stuck for longer
So what actually is imposter syndrome?
In simple terms, imposter syndrome is an experience where you internally believe yourself to be less capable and competent than others perceive you to be. You know other people look up to you and think you’re shit hot, but you feel like their belief is misplaced and that at some point they are going to come to their senses and realise you’ve been conning them
It’s experienced by both men and women, and the impact of it can be huge. Especially when it comes to wellbeing and mental health. Because when you think you’re just on borrowed time until the world realises you’re actually not all that, you tend to respond by working your arse off to live up to the expectation others have. And to spend a lot of time carrying the anxiety and worry about when that day of reckoning will come and how your world will come crashing down around you when it does
So true imposter syndrome is a pretty big deal and understanding and managing it is important. It creates an ‘identity gap’ where how you see yourself differs from how others see you. I see it happen a lot with people who are high achievers – the ones who find their career has taken them further than they expected it to, or the founders who have seen their business take off in a few short years.
Their internal sense of identity hasn’t quite kept pace with the level of external success others see them experiencing. They never saw themselves as the kind of person to be a CEO, or to have a million pound agency. So when it’s happened they can feel like some kind of cosmic mistake has plonked them in someone else’s life. One they can struggle to feel worthy of but equally don’t want to let go of.
How to handle imposter syndrome
Someone once asked me if imposter syndrome would ever go away. My answer was that it’s unlikely to pack its bags and never darken your doors again, but it can be managed and the impact minimised. There are no quick fixes, but here are some simple (though not necessarily easy) ways to make a start with loosening its grip
Separate the experience of imposter syndrome from your identity
One of the reasons I have such a bee in my bonnet about people grasping the label of imposter syndrome is that the self diagnosis can paint you subconsciously as a victim of a syndrome you can do nothing about. That simply isn’t true and the longer you spend believing it is, the harder you make it for yourself to change
Even if you experience feelings of anxiety about not being as good as others think you are, or worry about being found out, these are just that. Feelings and experiences. Having them does not mean you are an imposter. When you stop seeing yourself as an imposter and start seeing yourself as someone who is experiencing feelings of not being good enough, you pave the way to move forward
Start by understanding which specific situations in your life or work are prompting you to feel like a fraud, and which don’t. If you’re a first time marketing director worried about being caught out as not good enough, get specific about who might catch you out and what might they catch you out about?
Is it your boss finding out that there are things you don’t know? Doubts over whether you can match your predecessor when it comes to the impact of the campaigns you will need to oversee? Worries that your team will see through you and gossip about you?
If there are true gaps in your experience you can ask for support or training. The process can also serve to show that there are lots of specifics where you are NOT feeling like an imposter. You might feel out of your depth in a board meeting but totally able to ace a client meeting.
Noticing that there are triggers which prompt the imposter experience and that this is not just a generalised thing reduce the grip it holds
Recognise that everyone doubts themselves
If you truly do feel like an imposter, you may well hold back from speaking to people about it. After all, you’re busting a gut to maintain their confidence in you. Yet one thing that can be incredibly helpful is to either observe or talk to people you respect about their experience of self doubt.
When you feel that way, it is natural to assume that if you really were ‘good enough’ then these feelings would bugger off and leave you alone. You’d be some kind of supremely confident being
The reality is self doubt is a part of everyone’s life. Well maybe not everyone. There might be some egocentric psychopaths out there who are untouched by it. But I doubt myself on a regular basis, as does every single coaching client I have ever worked with. We just behave like swans, keeping calm on the surface and paddling like buggery underneath
When you realise that the people you respect and look up to have flaws and struggle with the weight of self doubt it becomes less of a reflection of you not being good enough and more a normal life experience we all share
How to handle mind monkeys
The crucial difference between imposter syndrome and regular old self doubt is that despite the symptoms often being similar, mind monkeys are not rooted in a fundamental belief you are less capable than others believe you to be. You’re not running a constant low level pattern of believing you’re not good enough generally, you’re running a specific inner critic voice doubting your ability to do *this thing* well enough.
That might be because you know people think well of you and so doing something badly is risking your reputation. It might be because you’re doing something for the first time and you only like doing things you can do well. The point is, you don’t feel like you’re going to be exposed as a fraud, you just genuinely aren’t sure you’re good enough to do the things you want to do.
You recognise that you are capable, you don’t ascribe your previous successes to luck (you worked bloody hard for them thank you very much!) and you are probably taking on something that is uncomfortable because it is something you haven’t done before. Or it is higher stakes than your comfortable with. Or both.
You might be feeling overwhelmed, unsure of whether you can achieve what you want to achieve. Confused about what to do first.
I see this a lot with both founders wanting to grow their business and with newly promoted leaders. They want to do the right things and do them well, but the fear of doing the wrong things or doing them badly keeps them playing small. People who were previously confident behave like a more watered down, timid version of themselves.
Some simple mantras to keep in mind here are
- Focus on the next thing rather than the big thing
- Do something rather than nothing
- Don’t aim to be perfect, aim to be better
When you narrow your focus away from the big hairy scary goal at the end and focus on just getting moving from where you are now, the mind monkeys will naturally quieten. It’s like saying to them ‘maybe you’re right, maybe I won’t make it to the end. But I can take this next step’ Done repeatedly, those steps add up and all of a sudden your mind monkey starts to believe maybe you could do the big thing after all
Likewise, when you take the focus off getting it right immediately and instead aim to improve then you are giving yourself permission to make a start. As a client once said ‘I don’t have to do it perfectly, just enthusiastically’
If you’re an ambitious founder or a newly promoted leader struggling with imposter syndrome or self doubt, I can help. Self doubt sabotages more dreams than lack of ability ever will, but it doesn’t have to be that way. With me in your corner you don’t get to carry on living with it and just wishing it would go away – we work together to find tangible steps to stop it getting in the way of where you want to be. Booking a free initial chat is the first step