A part of me feels very hypocritical or, dare I say it, imposturous in writing this post.
After all, imposter syndrome is definitely something I struggle with myself. With every blog post I write, or post I make on Instagram, I wonder why on Earth anyone would care what I have to say – even when its related to subjects that I’ve spent the last six years studying or experiencing at a pretty high level.
But, as we all know, it’s far easier to advise others than it is to regularly apply such advice to ourselves.
So, I am going to post this in the hope that it can be of some value to those of you out there (and I’m sure there are many) that can relate.
If you’re someone who often finds themselves riddled with self-doubt, afraid of being exposed for their lack of expertise, or thanking their ‘lucky stars’ for the fluke that got them to where they are today – then this post is for you.
I’ll start with a little explanation of what imposter syndrome is and who it affects, before delving more deeply into the reasons people might experience this phenomenon, the issues it can cause, and some rational thinking and reasoning we can use to approach these issues.
At the end of this post, I’ve included a free download of my ‘Waggle Dancers Imposter Syndrome Toolkit’ to help you personally map out and work through your imposter syndrome, so if you find this post useful then make sure you don’t leave without it!
What is Imposter Syndrome?
So what is imposter syndrome anyway? Well, at its core, imposter syndrome is a collection of feelings experienced by an individual that constuct a negative relationship with their own success.
This might look different for each individual.
For example, some may struggle to accept that they have experienced success – they might believe themselves to be a ‘fake’ who has gotten to where they are through a stroke of luck, it being easy enough for anyone to do, or by fraudulently convincing others that they deserve to be there when really they have none of the experience or expertise that the real guys have.
For others, imposter syndrome may kick in even earlier, holding them back from ever making it to where they want to be as they struggle with the belief that they are unworthy or incapable of progressing in their chosen field.
Who gets Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter syndrome has been studied by psychologists since as far back as 1978, when it was observed as a common phenomenon experienced by high-achieving women.
There is still a surviving myth in the idea that imposter syndrome only affects women, but this is not the case. More recent studies have found that as many as 70% of adults – male, female or other -have experienced imposter syndrome to some degree at some point in their life.
However, there are certain traits that are thought to increase the likelihood of this phenomenon, such as perfectionism, anxiety or having come from a background of extreme pressure.
High achievers are more likely to experience imposter syndrome, as they struggle to understand and accept their success over that of others.
Similarly, those from minority or disadvantaged backgrounds are extremely likely to suffer imposter syndrome as they view themselves as different from other ‘successful’ individuals (often having been socialised into believing that such success isn’t possible for them – I could have a rant here, but that’s a whole other blog post…).
Although these variations have been noted, the fact still stands that the majority of us experience these difficult thoughts at some time or another. This is why Imposter syndrome is not recognised as a diagnosable mental condition – its really more of a thinking pattern than a syndrome.
While the label of ‘Imposter Syndrome’ is useful in terms of giving us a way to speak about this phenomenon, be wary of getting too hung up on labels.
This is not a part of your identity that cannot be managed or overcome, nor is it a fault to be fixed or illness to be cured. This is a human experience, and you are not alone.
Why do we Experience Imposter Syndrome?
I briefly touched on one reason why we may experience imposter syndrome in the example of high achievers or those from minority/disadvantaged backgrounds.
What was important in these examples was the resistance to being different and standing out from the groups we identify with.
Even when we are different for positive reasons, such as experiencing success, it goes against our biological human nature which urges us to stick with the group.
For example, imagine you’ve been working among the same group of peers for a number of years. You’re comfortable, you’ve made good friends and you might enjoy the odd joke or two about The Boss.
But then you get promoted. Suddenly YOU are The Boss. You walk into the room and your giggling friends abruptly straighten up, or perhaps you need to tell one of them its time to pull their socks up.
That wouldn’t feel so good right?
Never mind the pay rise, the new learning experience… Most of us in that situation would wish more than anything that our friends still viewed us as our same selves.
This example, however trivial, shows just one reason why imposter syndrome might flare up. Our subconscious tries to convince us that we’re not different or special, because being special separates us from the crowd.
Another reason for imposter syndrome is found in our tendency to remain focused on our past.
Throughout our lives, we build our identities through our knowledge and experience of the world. But we also experience drastic, identity-altering changes. When we experience these changes, it can be difficult for us to let go of what we’ve previously understood about ourselves.
You may experience such a dramatic shift that your new lifestyle no longer aligns in anyway with your previous ‘self’. When your mind struggles to forge that alignment you end up tying your past self to your current existence.
As a personal example of this, (and please forgive my self-indulgence here), a few years ago I had taken a leave of absence from University, given up my part-time job and my life revolved around doctors appointments and hospital stays. I was malnourished, exhausted and frankly, a shell of a person with no passion for life or interest in anything other than burying myself.
Fast forward a few years and I’ve achieved a first class Bachelors degree, travelled halfway across the world by myself, moved 450 miles from home, lived independently, completed my Masters, gained a substantial network of contacts, read plenty of books, studied several courses, held down multiple jobs/voluntary roles and started developing my own business.
Quite a difference, right?
But when it comes to sharing my knowledge on environmentalism, social justice, or how to grow an ethical business – I often forget that I do know this stuff and I have done all these things, as my mind tries to match me to that poor mentally ill girl who dropped all her commitments and was told she was never going to stay out of hospital.
When we stay trapped in past identities, we prevent ourselves from growing.
But consider this: If you knew everything and had experienced everything today, then you never learn or experience anything new tomorrow.
If yesterday’s ‘you’ was ‘you’ for life, would you be happy? If not, then don’t restrict yourself.
Trying new things, celebrating new success, being open to beginnings – this is how you will become the person you want to be.
A last crucial trigger of imposter syndrome is when we compare ourselves to others, which is particularly prominent in the current age of social media and online presence.
Its easy to feel inferior as you watch others in your field succeed, but its important to remember is that people and businesses present what they want to present. They show off the best snapshots of what they’re doing, not the failings or obstacles they faced along the way.
This is amplified in business, as those with the most ‘success’ are plastered across the internet as they gain likes, shares and follows, while others who may be more relatable to you are operating in their own smaller sphere.
Whats crucial to note here is that everyone begins as a beginner, everything grows from nothing.
Innovative products, expertly marketed businesses, highly intellectual expertise – nothing starts out that way.
A new-born baby is not an imposter of a human being simply because they can’t walk or talk yet. Comparing yourself to others can be paralysing, but it all needs to be put in context.
You are on your own journey, one that is unique to you. Someone may know more than you in a certain specialism or may have mastered some form of creativity you just can’t work out – but you have your own unique combination of knowledge, skills and experience.
You don’t have to know what they know to have something worth sharing. You don’t have to create what they create to make something valuable.
When imposter syndrome is experienced due to self-comparison, we tend to undervalue ourselves or our efforts which can have major impacts on your life and your business.
You might find you struggle to speak up in conversation, undersell your products or services, have difficulty pushing your sales, or hesitate to take the steps you know you need to take.
Consider this: When you listen to those thoughts that tell you you’re not good enough, experienced enough, knowledgeable enough, creative enoug – and so on, who are you serving?
When you procrastinate, hesitate or downplay your achievements – who are you benefiting?
Whether or not you believe you’re qualified to help others, one surefire way to not help others is to let yourself be beaten down by imposter syndrome.
While it may feel like the selfless option, perhaps you think you’re limiting the damage you might cause with your inferiority – what you’re really limiting is the choice and perspective of those you hope to serve.
Individuals make their own choices about whose help they choose to seek, whose product they choose to buy. You putting yourself out there among the rest and confidently expressing who you are and what you do just gives them another option.
They might find an alignment with you they’ve not found in someone who maybe had a few extra years’ experience, or your artwork might appeal to them in a way that someone trained by Da Vinci himself would not.
It can be so easy to forget that others are as perceptive and thoughtful as we are ourselves.
Imposter syndrome is, much as its not intentional, self-centred. It involves making assumptions about what others want from us and how they think of us.
If those assumptions guide your actions then you remove the opportunity for others to express their own desires and form their own opinions of you.
So if you’re going to compare yourself, at least let everyone else do the same. In doing so, you’ll find real evidence through honest feedback based on a true representation of who you are and what you can offer.
Put your real self out there and you will get real feedback. People are not stupid, they’re unlikely to be convinced by a REAL imposter unless there’s deliberate effort behind it.
It’s a win-win situation really, if you’re received positively then your confidence will start to grow, but if you do get a little bit of criticism here and there then you can adapt and improve.
The key difference is that your decisions will be based on evidence. You’ll have direction and you’ll be able to define what it is that you still need to do/learn/be.
That evidence will give you the ‘end point’ of your imposter syndrome. Once you’ve fulfilled all that criteria, based on the feedback of those you’re presenting yourself to, then, frankly, you’re out of excuses.
I’d be a liar if I claimed to have overcome imposter syndrome. Truth be told, its something I struggle a great deal with, especially recently as I’ve been developing Waggle Dancers.
Writing this post has helped me a lot actually, and I’m finishing up feeling slightly more assured in myself – or at least in my right to be here.
So thank you for reading, I hope this discussion and some of the more strategic ways of working through the thoughts of imposter syndrome have been as useful for you as they have been for me.
And hey, please do feel free to leave any feedback – in putting myself and my efforts into this post I guess I’m following my own advice and gathering some cold hard evidence… Here’s hoping it works out 😉
Don’t forget to grab your free download of the Waggle Dancers Imposter Syndrome Toolkit!