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Myths about imposter syndrome

"But why am I the only one?"

A recent client said this to me as she was exploring feelings of being found out in her new job. She had left a previous job due to conflicting values with the organisation and successfully secured in a promising new role with a company that she felt aligned well with what was important to her. At about three weeks in, she described how she started feeling out of place, questioning how she got this job in the first place, and that her manager must have made a mistake offering her the job. These phrases indicated possible imposter syndrome thoughts and feelings.

Imposter syndrome (or phenomenon as it was first coined), is an internalised set of thoughts and feelings in people who feel fraudulent in an environment. It was originally identified by psychologists Clance and Imes (1978) who described the phenomenon as a pattern of thinking found, particularly, in high performing women who put their success or achievements down to ‘luck’, and continued to believe that they would soon be ‘found out’. The number of achievements or levels of success the women experienced did not manage to change their thought patterns. If anything, increased levels of success compounded their thoughts, thinking that they were even more likely to be found out, and as a result worked relentlessly to maintain the ‘pretence’.

My client's question of 'why am I the only one?', got me thinking about myths associated with imposter syndrome. If we experience those types of thoughts and feelings, it can be very isolating as you continue to keep it to yourself, believing that no one else could possibly feel as you do. But they do!

Here are a few myths about the phenomenon:

I'm the only one - It is reported that over 70% of the population (all genders) will experience imposter syndrome at some point. Personally, I believe it to be much higher. If we feel fraudulent, we're not very open about it, especially at work. So we keep it to ourselves for fear of looking even less competent. The majority of people who you come into contact with will have felt similar thoughts and feelings at some point. By opening up about how we feel, we can begin to dispel this myth. The more we talk about these feelings, the more we realise it is simply part and parcel of being a human being and not a 'syndrome' at all. By sharing, we free ourselves and others to understand themselves that much more and connect over shared experiences.

I can't be successful if I experience imposter syndrome - Total myth. Many, many successful people feel that they don't belong, or that they will be found out at any moment. Famous entrepreneurs, performers and athletes have talked of their own imposter syndrome. These thoughts and feelings are not related to how successful you are. Remember, that success is yours to define so try not to get side-tracked by what others deem as a success. Adam Grant talks about imposter syndrome being the 'pre-cursor to growth' - and I particularly love this description. So perhaps imposter syndrome is helping us to ask better questions, or do further research. It doesn't assume we know everything and therefore enables us to explore things on a deeper level.

It never goes away - Clance and Imes themselves said that with a combination of tools, and a commitment to change, people can be free of the 'burden' of imposter syndrome. It may take time and practice, but it is absolutely possible to free yourself of not feeling good enough and being held back by imposter syndrome. Find the tools that work for you and if you haven't found one yet that works, keep searching.

Only women experience imposter syndrome - Yes, the original study back in the 70s was focused on high achieving women, but all gender experience these thoughts and feelings. I have successfully coached both men and women on this subject and a variety of internal and external factors can contribute to these feelings. It's true that anyone can experience it at any point within their life or career.

What myths would you add to the list?

Imposter syndrome is widely talked about and still often mis-understood. By dispelling these myths and promoting awareness, we can foster a more inclusive and supportive environment that encourages open conversations and helps individuals overcome the challenges associated with these thoughts and feelings.

It's essential to recognise that sharing experiences, exploring tools and building a supportive network are crucial steps toward overcoming imposter syndrome and therefore allowing you to go on and achieve your goals.

For more on overcoming imposter syndrome and building confidence, why not come and discover new tools on my upcoming 'empower' workshop.

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