Years ago I wasn’t given a promotion I really wanted that I felt I had been working hard towards. I was disappointed and wanted to know why. When I sat down with my manager she told me I needed to improve my facilitation and presentation skills. That I needed to get comfortable with talking to groups of people and to get out there and practice by putting myself forward for speaking events. I remember the cold feeling of dread and sweat that began to form on the palms of my hand as she said this to me. I also remember thinking that I was going to be stuck in the same position forever as there was no way I was going to out myself out there and speak in public. Ever.
My manager did what all good manager’s do and got me some help in the form of a presentation training course. It was there that I found myself in a room full of 6 people and a trainer in North London for two days. The first thing the trainer asked us all was: ‘What is it you fear most about speaking in public?’
The person next to me went first. He said: ‘That people will know that I’m a fraud. And that I don’t really deserve to be here because I don’t know what I’m doing or what I’m talking about.’ I was shocked because it was exactly what I was thinking, although I would never have said it out loud. I thought I was the only person that felt that way.
So it was even more of a surprise when the trainer, the public speaking ‘expert’ said: ‘Everyone feels like that. It’s called imposter syndrome.’
Imposter syndrome. That feeling that you’re not intelligent, capable, creative or good enough, despite your achievements. That feeling that you’re just winging it, that you’re a fraud and one day you’re going to get found out. That feeling that you don’t know enough, you’ve not learned enough – that you’re not good enough. That you don’t deserve to be in the room with all these other people who know more and are more experienced and capable than you are. Or, as I told myself, when I was promoted, you’ve just been lucky. Imposter syndrome is that nasty voice in your head that sends you feedback that is often cruel and distorted.
For anyone who has ever experienced feelings like this, you’re in the company of at least 70% of people according to the journal of behavioural science. More than half of employees at Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and Google said they don’t feel they deserve their job, despite their accomplishments.
These feelings are surprisingly common. And what I’ve learnt over the years through the work I do with people going into a new position for the first time, a new sector, a leadership position and even at the most senior levels in organisations’ is that imposter syndrome exists everywhere.
When you suffer from imposter syndrome you might wonder, like me for a long time ‘how can I fit it and get on here and belong?’ When you look around you feel quieter, more considered and reflective whilst those in the higher positions seem more energetic, faster paced and seemingly comfortable speaking up and in front of anyone.
It can make you overly self-critical and unable to recognise the bits that make you good. Because we all are all unique and have our own amazing set of strengths to contribute, it’s just sometimes we’re just not that clear about what they are or how to apply them.
Part of the challenge is we are all predisposed from quite a young age to fixate on what we don’t do well. Maybe, like me, you brought home a report card from school with some good grades and one or two not so good ones. My not so good one was Maths. I just never got it and always had a D in my report card. My parents fixated on my Maths grade, insisting I wouldn’t get anywhere in life without a decent grade in it.
Hours and hours of effort and extra tuition after school and at weekends went into Maths, to the point I was convinced I might even end up with an A. Yet I just scraped a C.
My Maths experience plagued me with self-doubt about my intelligence. It also drained me because I was focussing on a weakness, which meant I only marginally improved and the subjects that I was good at suffered as I neglected them. This is what can happen to two thirds of children whose parents focus on the poor grades when they bring home their report cards.
So the feelings we develop about being an imposter start at a young age. And when we suffer with imposter syndrome we can exaggerate and fixate on our weaknesses, making us doubt ourselves and our decisions. It gets in the way of things like having challenging conversations – one of the things we really don’t do well in organisations – because you worry these conversations might expose you for not being capable or knowledgeable enough at your job. It can encourage us to withdrawal or avoid the moments we really need to being stepping into.
What’s rather ironic is that imposter syndrome actually filters out the people we need in leadership positions – people who are reflective, conscientious and concerned about delivering for their organisations and its people.
So what can you do about imposter syndrome? Here are 4 things that can help.
- Know your strengths
If you don’t have a really good understanding of yourself and who you are, you will not know what to make of your imposter syndrome. You will not have a perspective based on knowing you that can help you to separate truth from fiction.
If you don’t know yourself and appreciate your strengths and know that it’s ok to have weaknesses – because we all have them – then you’re experience of feedback isn’t going to be a good one. It’s going to leave you in fear instead of being something you take in your stride.
My imposter syndrome was often triggered by fear of feedback. An email after a meeting – what are they going to say? Have they found me out? What went wrong? A meeting request – it’s going to be bad feedback, they’re going to fire me. Needing to return a call. What do they need to speak to me about? Who have I upset?
When you can identify your strengths and access the stories of your successes, it is easier to remove that voice of doubt. Which makes it harder for your imposter to show up.
Not only that people who know their strengths and purposefully use them every day are 6 x more engaged in their work, over 30% more productive, 3 times more likely to report having high quality of life and 80% more likely to be part of a high performing team.
Discovering my strengths through a tool called Clifton Strengths was life changing for me. It helped me to own and build my confidence around who I am and the things I do well and let go of the things that I don’t so I could get help where I needed it.
Not only that, I learnt that the chances of me having the same top 5 strengths in the same order as someone else is 1 in 33 million. Which just goes to show how unique we all are and how powerful it can be when we all work together and contribute what we do best.
You can also ask yourself some simple questions:
- What am I doing when time flies by?
- When do I feel energised and fulfilled?
- What drains me?
We can be really good at something, but if it’s not energising us it’s unlikely to be a strength because our strengths energise us, our weaknesses weaken us.
When you know your strengths it also helps you understand what you need to be at your best and what might trigger you. For example, one of my Clifton Strengths is Input – I love to research and gather information. I like to know stuff about the subjects that really interest me. Not knowing can trigger me into feeling like an imposter and spiral me into thinking that I look like I don’t know what I’m talking about, or that I should know more about this. And should words are dangerous because they are an active form of self-criticism that create anxiety and stress.
Which brings me onto the 2nd thing you can do about imposter syndrome:
- Admit what you don’t know
We can’t know everything and the pressure we put on ourselves to know it all is huge. We worry that if we don’t know we’ll look like we don’t have the knowledge or ability.
My first job was buying car parts for Lotus Cars. I remember sitting in a meeting about a new project with someone senior who talked in technical terms and acronyms. I’d only been in the job a couple of months and I felt sick, writing notes as fast as I could. I was convinced I was going to lose my job as I didn’t understand a word he was saying, which felt like a much better option than admitting I didn’t know what he was talking about. I was so relieved when someone else in the meeting said they weren’t familiar with these terms and could they explain them.
I’ve sat there wondering about something in a meeting many times over the years, only to find someone else asks the very questions I want to, or it turns out afterwards they didn’t understand it either. The likelihood is, someone else will be thinking and feeling the same as you.
What I know is that the best leaders I’ve worked with are the ones that don’t know anything about the area they’re working in. Why? Because they’ve had no choice but to be vulnerable. Because they don’t know what they don’t know they ask rather than tell and rely on the expertise and contributions of the people around them.
One of the best ways to combat Impostor Syndrome is to accept that we are not experts in anything. We are just part of a team of people who have something to contribute and if you can get out of the mindset of “I need to know the answers and the knowledge and the right way to do this’ and instead step into curiosity both with yourself and others, it makes a massive difference.
- Ask for help
We’ve asked leaders ‘what do your direct reports do that makes you trust them.’ And they said – ask for help.
Most of us are much better at giving than asking for help. Help can feel uncomfortable and we can judge ourselves for asking for it. When we have imposter syndrome, we worry what people will think.
Just as we have strengths, we all have weaknesses. All of us. Our strengths are an opportunity for us to help others and our weaknesses are an opportunity for others to help us.
We can get help when we recognise those imposter feelings and talk about them. Remember you’re not the only person that feels this way and there is nothing like talking to someone about your feelings who has earned the right to hear them.
Asking for help is sharing your vulnerability. When you are vulnerable it makes you brave and it also really annoys your imposter syndrome because it loses it’s power.
You can also talk to your peers or find a mentor to support you. As organisations we need to be finding way to have more honest conversations so we can help each other to adjust those assessments we make of ourselves that aren’t true. When it comes to imposter syndrome, we are not alone and we need to find ways to normalise rather than label it.
- Let go of perfectionism
People that struggle with imposter syndrome often have really high expectations of themselves to a level of perfection that are cemented in childhood. Many of us were raised for achievement and performance, be it our grades, following rules, our appearance or pleasing other people.
I used to really suffer with perfectionism and it can creep up and paralyse me if I’m not careful. It can manifest itself as procrastination because I worry the work, the decision, the conversation won’t be good enough, so I put it off. Or negative self-talk after a decision, an event or conversation has taken place leading to feelings of fear and anxiety.
Perfectionism is often others focussed. What will they think, say or do? We look for approval and acceptance from others. It’s a heavy weight that we carry around with us. What I’ve learnt is that perfectionism isn’t obtainable and it only ever leads to disappointment.
For some of us perfectionism creeps in during times when we’re feeling particularly vulnerable. For others it can be all consuming.
We need to explore our fears and change our self-talk to overcome it. If we instead change the frame within which we think about it to ‘how can I improve’ it’s becomes healthy and self-focussed.
Perfectionism self-talk looks like: You could have done that better. It wasn’t good enough.
Healthy self-talk: It didn’t go the way I hoped and I learnt a lot about what I might do differently next time I’m faced with a similar situation.
Perfectionism isn’t going to lead to learning and growth. In my experience it just leads to anxiety, fear, sleepless nights and ice-cream.
Ask yourself if the expectations you have of yourself are realistic and if that voice in your head is giving you cruel feedback. If the voice or nature of the feedback you are giving to yourself is cruel, then it is unlikely to be good feedback. You can grow from feedback that is painful to hear. But nobody improves from feedback that is cruel.
We would often never dream of saying to someone else what we say to ourselves.
A simple technique that I have found really useful is one that Lucy Hone describes in her Ted Talk ‘the 3 secrets of resilient people.’ When you are lying awake at night going over a situation that didn’t go well, telling yourself you can’t do it or as you’ are about to dish up that second bowl of ice-cream – ask yourself ‘is this helping or harming me?
It can be applied to so many different contexts. Is the way I’m thinking or acting helping or harming me in working towards my next career move? Is it helping or harming me to dooms scroll through Twitter this evening? Will it help or harm me to bring up that conversation again with my partner tonight?
This simple technique gives you greater control over your decision making and your perfectionism.
Brene Brown is someone whose work has been hugely impactful to me in working on my perfectionism and imposter syndrome. She said it best in her brilliant book The Gifts of Imperfection:
“The most difficult part of our stories is often what we bring to them — what we make up about who we are and how we are perceived by others. Yes, maybe we failed or screwed up a project, but what makes that story so painful is what we tell ourselves about our own self-worth and value.
Because the truth is that no one belongs here more than you.”