"I keep waiting for the day that people find out that I haven't got a clue, that I'm figuring it out as I go along and the thought of being exposed terrifies me..."
If this is something you've thought then you are not alone, According to a study published by the International Journal of Behavioural Science, seventy per cent of people feel like they are 'imposters' at least once in their lives.
Imposter syndrome is a term used to describe the feelings of successful people who find it hard to take credit for their own accomplishments — and have a persistent fear of being "exposed as a fraud."
I've felt like that on many occasions and at times I still find myself falling into the same trap. The thing is with imposter syndrome is that most people don't really know they have it, the story they'd tell themselves if they admitted they had imposter syndrome is that they would probably be faking that too, that's how intense their sense of inadequacy goes.
I've suffered from imposter syndrome the majority of my career. I never felt that I knew enough to be climbing up the corporate ladder and I rarely put myself forward for promotions out of fear of being exposed for not knowing anything. The first senior finance role I applied for was because my boss said I was ready and that he believed I could do it - deep down I still felt like I didn't have a clue, but what I did trust was that he was smart and I told myself that if he thought I could do it then surely I must. I was lucky to have a boss like him who saw more in me than I saw in myself.
Since that point I've navigated my career trusting the views of those I hold in high regard, those in positions of power and I've checked in with them to validate my readiness for the next step. Whilst it's worked for me most of the time, I found out the hard way that I'd handed over responsibility for the assessment of my skills, knowledge and worthiness to other people. It's a risky move giving others that much power over my future and it also meant it took me further away from realising my potential because I stayed in territory that others were equipped to judge me on rather than being able to explore uncharted waters.
Imposter syndrome everywhere...
Imposter syndrome doesn't just play out in a work environment it can present itself in every area of your life.
- As a new parent you might feel like an imposter because you believe that you haven't got a clue on whether you are doing it right or as good as others who you deem to be shining examples of great parents but you try to present the image to other new parents you've got things sussed - whilst crippling yourself with worry that you don't.
- In a creative hobby or interest its easy to dismiss other people's compliments as just people being nice rather than recognising they think your work is good. When you feel perhaps you could have done better it's easy to brush off positive feedback because you don't feel it is true or deserved.
- When friends describe you as the 'expert' in a certain interest say in fashion, sport, technology, politics or whatever it may be and then you fear not having the answer when someone asks you a question because now you've been labelled as the expert and you'd feel like they would expose you as a fraud if you didn't know the answer to every question.
- When you've just spent years studying for a profession passing all your exams only to feel like an imposter on the first day of your new job because you don't feel you have the expertise to tell people what to do even though you are qualified.
- You don't talk to the hot guy/girl at the coffee shop because you believe you don't have anything interesting to say even though you can keep friends entertained with conversation for hours.
- You came from a wealthy family and your parents gave you money to start up your own business, which is now a great success, but you don't feel you deserve it because you were gifted the initial capital and had a headstart that others didn't have.
I could go on and on here because imposter syndrome plays out in so many ways and if it helps you know - famous people experience it too.
Even the famous experience it...
“Sometimes I wake up in the morning before going off to a shoot, and I think, I can’t do this. I’m a fraud.” – Kate Winslett
“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.’ “ – Maya Angelou
"No matter what we've done, there comes a point where you think, 'How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?' " – Tom Hanks
So how do you free yourself from it?
Five steps to freedom...
1. Stop comparing yourself to others - the biggest feeder of imposter syndrome is constantly comparing yourself to others and making yourself feel more and more insignificant by magnifying every possible reason for why you think they are more significant. Instead start by looking at yourself and write a list of all the reasons why you are credible. If you are struggling with writing that list - start by writing 'If I loved myself what would I tell myself?' keep on writing that over and over and over until your brain starts flowing with all the reasons you have credibility - don't stop until you have at least 20 reasons on a page.
2. Accept and love yourself - Now in one of my previous posts I started with saying 'we are all dying...' and we all know that is true. Each of us take different paths to navigating the time we have on this earth. Our experiences and learnings are unique to our personal journeys but the one thing you must remember is that no-one has any greater right to be on this earth than you do. We each have a life to live and if you start with surrendering to notion that you belong on this earth then you are closer than you think to acceptance of yourself. We all know how we would like to be loved but how many of us realise that we have the power to give ourselves the love we desire. Imagine you were talking to someone you loved dearly - say a partner, friend or family member, how would you help them see themselves clearly? How would you help them see their worth? and how would demonstrate they weren't an imposter? Now turn the mirror on you - take the principles you've just applied to your loved one and apply them to yourself - do you see how much power you have?
3. Recognise you are denying others - when you are focussing on all the things you are not you are stopping yourself from focussing on all the things that you are. Look around at all the people in the world that have made a difference to your life. Those people that were brave enough to write books that had never been written before and share their stories and sometimes painful lessons so you could learn from their experiences. If they had sat in silence feeling that they were imposters for not being good enough or smart enough to write a book you'd have been denied all the value you had received from their courage. Recognise you too have value to give the world there are people around you that need to hear your journey and lessons. You are unique, there is only one of you in this world and there will never be another you. You are not an imposter, you are figuring out life in the same way we all are, so give others the gift of you and recognise that you hiding behind your self created sense of insignificance is not serving anyone. Give others permission to live freely too by choosing to do the same, show people how you are moving forward and give them courage to do so too.
4. Acknowledge your growth - how we measure success plays a big factor in understanding this point. If you measure success as being the finished article then you will always feel like an imposter. However, if you use incremental improvements everyday as your metric for success then you actually don't limit yourself to an idea of a finished article and you can continue to succeed exponentially. Not only does this method take your further than you ever imagined but by measuring progress rather than an end state means that your successes are limitless. If it helps at the end of each day write down one thing you learned that day that you didn't know before. Over a year you'll be able to see exactly how you've grown and there will be no arguing with that as the facts will be clear for you to see. It's also a great motivation to show why it's important to keep on growing - I mean what would you do if you were the finished article? How boring would life be if you didn't have something new to learn?
5. Laugh at yourself - Ok this is probably my favourite step because it's a little stupid but it does work. Whenever I've found myself doubting my accomplishments or worried that I don't know enough I've personally found it's hard to take myself out of the downward spiral that imposter syndrome loves to suck me into. So I've taken the advice of someone who's had more experience than me in this area of personal freedom, Tony Robbins - whose belief is that if you want to want to change your life you must change your state. So with that in mind when I know I'm feeling like an imposter I take myself away to somewhere I can be alone and where no-one can hear me - usually the bathroom! I look in the mirror and tell myself all the reasons I believe I'm an imposter - but when I do this I talk in the voice of a very young child. As I see myself in the mirror and hear how ridiculous my voice sounds I often find myself stopping half way through and laughing. So then I try again to get through all the reasons but it feels even more silly the second time round. Doing this exercise disrupts the pattern that is usually attributed to the stories I tell myself when I'm in the imposter zone and it breaks me out of the downward spiral. It works because when I start to repeat the same old stories I end up recalling the time standing in front of the mirror and my silly voice which then makes me see how ridiculous I am being and it stops me from going down that spiral.
So there you are, my five steps to freedom from imposter syndrome.
I'd be keen to hear your stories and experience of it - feel free to use the comments section to share your experiences or message me direct using the contact form. I'd also love to know how you go with these five steps. I'm learning everyday so if something else works for you please don't hesitate sharing.
To your freedom, all my love.
Credit for the thumbnail image - Photographer John Noonan