Yesterday, I had the pleasure of talking to one of the world’s leading travel tech companies, Skyscanner, about the fascinating topic of Imposter Syndrome as part of their International Women’s Day celebrations.

Perhaps ironically, public speaking remains one of my own ‘Imposter Syndrome triggers’. Standing in a room full of exceptionally capable and highly accomplished women and men – I was not alone.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

First defined by psychologists Dr Pauline Clance and Dr Suzanne Imes in the 1970’s, Imposter Syndrome continues to have a strong presence across organisations today. It is categorised by three key features:

  1. Believing that other people think you are better than you know you really are
  2. Fearing that your true capabilities will soon be found out
  3. Attributing personal success to external factors such as luck, chance and being in the right place at the right time

Imposter Syndrome is particularly likely to strike when we start a new job, take on new responsibilities or have a change in situation, such as relocating, returning from a career break or following maternity leave. When we’re hit with these feelings of self-doubt, we might try to compensate by working late, procrastinating in pursuit of perfection or seeking further qualification to help justify our position.

Imposter Syndrome Today

More recent research suggests that 70% of women and men feel fraudulent in the workplace – across all levels. It’s often seen among high performers, because high achievers are likely to set high personal standards.

The fast-paced and ever-changing world we now operate in also plays a part.

As high achievers, we want to keep up with every change and shifting goal post, which can be hard – and at times unrealistic – to do. The continued blurring of our professional and personal boundaries further heightens this. We set incredibly high expectations to be the best we possibly can be at work, at home, at the gym, as a parent and with friends.

When we are experiencing Imposter Syndrome, we tend to compare what we perceive as our weaknesses with other people’s strengths. We also make a lot of assumptions about how other people feel about a certain task or role – concluding that they must find it much easier than we do – when in reality it’s impossible for us to really know. Within today’s world where social media has such a strong presence in how we gather and compare personal information, it’s very easy to read posts and conclude: “I’m not good enough”.

Equally, when we try to capture our self worth within a tweet, we are at risk of focusing too much on the end result and not the hard work, effort and talent we’ve demonstrated to get there. We define success as the final achievement, rather than the journey we took to get there. Setting this as our benchmark for success can leave us open to the impact of Imposter Syndrome.
While there are lots of brilliant benefits to the vast amounts of information and insight we gain from our digital world, we need to ensure that we’re taking a balanced approach. We must use the information available to us as a source of inspiration, not comparison.

We also need a healthy interpretation of what success looks like for us, taking time to consider what we personally value. This will likely require that we re-set the success bar to an ambitious but also more realistic level.

How to Beat Imposter Syndrome

Here’s a quick summary of some practical tips and tactics we can use daily to challenge fraudulent feelings when they arise…

1. Manage Negative Self Talk

One of the first ways of tackling Imposter Syndrome is to learn how best to manage the negative self-talk that comes with it. We need to train our brain to reframe negative thoughts. Over time, this helps us change the way that we consequently feel.

We can take guidance from cognitive therapy to help us achieve this. Rather than over-generalise fraudulent feelings, the first step is to identify the trigger situations that spark Imposter Syndrome: public speaking, interacting with senior colleagues, talking up in team meetings, meeting new clients (to name a few).
According to research conducted by psychologist Dr Albert Ellis, it’s not the trigger event itself that causes us to feel and respond a particular way. Rather, it’s the negative thoughts and beliefs we form that influence our feelings and consequent behaviours.

We can learn to manage these thoughts in order to change how we feel when faced with our Imposter Syndrome triggers. Take for example public speaking. If we believe: “I am not an expert in this subject”, we’re more likely to doubt our capability and feel anxious about presenting as a result. If we challenge this belief and acknowledge: “I am passionate about this subject”, then as a consequence our confidence will grow and our ability to manage the natural nerves that accompany presenting will increase.

To achieve this, take time to listen to your inner dialogue. What are you telling yourself, and what are you consequently feeling and doing (or not doing). Then reframe the negative self-talk in a more positive way, focusing on what you objectively know that you can do. Challenge yourself to think this way the next time you’re faced with a trigger event, and see how you feel as a result. Repeat this process and over time the ability to manage the negative self-talk will become more automatic.

2. Recalibrate Success

Do you feel comfortable failing? We hear a lot about the need to fail fast, fail forward and create the freedom to make mistakes in order to drive continued innovation and evolution. Failure is now recognised as key to business growth.

One of the challenges of Imposter Syndrome is that it keeps us firmly rooted in our comfort zone. This makes failure a difficult notion to embrace.
In addition, when we set ourselves incredibly high, and often performance based, personal standards for success, we’re at risk of constantly feeling like we’re not measuring up. This can prevent us reaching our true potential.

One way we can overcome this challenge is to adopt a growth mindset.

The term growth mindset has become popular in business over recent years. According to the original research conducted by Carol Dweck, individuals who believe their talents can be developed have a growth mindset. They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset who believe their capability is innate.
Dweck highlights in her research that we all have fixed mindset triggers – which are often associated with feelings of insecurity. In these situations we avoid the challenges in front of us altogether, which inhibits our ability to grow.

When we adopt a growth mindset, we thrive on challenge and redefine failure “not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities.”

To break this thinking pattern, we need to redefine failure as an opportunity to grow. Challenge the fear of making mistakes, and see yourself as a constant work in progress, rather than attempting to present a perfect end product.

We need to give learning outcomes equally as much weight in our measurement of success as performance outcomes (not just as individuals, but across organisations too). Focus on what you are learning and not just how you are performing.

Unearthing our innate curiosity supports this. To be curious, we need to feel comfortable not knowing all the answers. We need to ask questions and explore unchartered territories. In essence, we need to embrace the idea of being a novice in areas that are new or less familiar to us. Take small steps – or giant leaps – outside of your comfort zone to identify opportunities for continued development and growth.

To create a growth mindset culture, we also need to encourage continued commitment to collective behaviours such as sharing information, collaborating, seeking feedback and accepting mistakes. Teams that learn together, grow together. Over time, this will help to tackle feelings of Imposter Syndrome at an organisational level.

3. Celebrate Your Small Wins

Can you remember exactly what you did on this day last week? Probably not.

When we’re operating in a fast-paced and high-achieving work environment, we often take our day-to-day achievements for granted. It’s just a part of the job. On the flip side, we spend a lot more time ruminating about the things that don’t go our way, which has a negative impact on our ability to kick the negative feelings associated with Imposter Syndrome.
We need to take time to reflect the little successes – and not just the big wins.

Doing this regularly is key. Spending just two minutes a day reflecting on and writing down one thing that has been a success for you will make a big difference to your self-perception.
We also need to take time to fully digest the praise and positive feedback we receive from others, and avoid falling into the thinking trap of: “If I can do it, how hard can it be?” It’s important to consciously consider the impact you’ve personally had on success, in order to continually learn from and maximise these strengths going forward.
Saving all of these reflections and revisiting them at moments when rumination could take hold helps to refocus on the bigger picture and greater purpose. Rewarding yourself at every milestone reached with something as simple as your favourite coffee will keep you motivated and moving forward.

Don’t forget to also give positive feedback to others – even if someone appears confident on the outside it doesn’t always mean they believe it internally.

Imposters Everywhere

The final piece of advice for managing Imposter Syndrome is to normalise the behaviour – remember that you are not alone.

Be brave and talk to someone you trust about how you’re feeling, and the chances are the person you speak to has felt the same way too.

When we realise that someone who we really admire (or fear) also worries about their achievements, this can give us really helpful perspective on our own anxieties. It also opens up opportunities to seek support and ask for help from someone who has effectively conquered these same beliefs (or may still be working to manage them today).
Becoming a mentor to someone else is also a great way to discover your inner expert – and incredibly rewarding experience for both parties.

Give Imposter Syndrome a Good Talking to in Uncertain Times

Since the article above was written in 2018 and given the unprecedented amount of change we are all experiencing at an individual and organisational level, it feels like a really important time to review the different strategies we can use to address these feelings if they (quite understandably) arise.

How To Tackle Imposter Syndrome 2.0

I’d now add the following strategy:

Take a step back & be in the moment

Psychological flexibility helps us fully connect with the present moment, notice the difficult thoughts and feelings that we’re experiencing, and then decide whether we want to move towards or turn away from them.

Why is this significant? Think about something that’s really important to you. For me, it’s having a good work-life balance so that I get to do the work that I love and spend time with my loved ones in (relatively) equal measures.

Now think about the different thoughts and emotions you’ve experienced in relation to this special thing over time. It’s not always easy! Over the last 12 weeks I’ve felt guilt for not spending enough time on work or with family (“I’m an imposter in both worlds…”), anxiety as I try to figure out a way to address the guilt and total exhaustion (admittedly this last one is partly down to my 18-month old offering 4.30am lockdown wake-up calls).

Left to their own devices, these emotions can become overwhelming and knock us off track. Psychological flexibility is about recognising that no behaviour or belief is good or bad; the key is to consider how it is serving you. ACT helps us embrace the good and the bad as part of the journey that we’re on and then make a choice to pursue or change our behaviour accordingly.

For me, this is an incredibly empowering way to tackle challenging thoughts and refocus on what gives me meaning and purpose. It’s about creating a psychologically safe space to think and show some self-compassion.

One of the tactics I’ve found most useful this week, taken from Clinical Psychologist Steven Hayes work, is to take a step back when these emotions begin to rise and just be in the moment with them, as if they are sitting across the table from me. Then ask myself: are these emotions helping me to achieve what’s important to me?’. Of course, the answer is no. So, I’ll give these emotions a good talking to. Disassociating in this way helps me to acknowledge these emotions within my current context, and then make a confident choice about my behaviour.

Another tactic that I plan to action this weekend is to do a values-based activity, mindfully. I’ve always loved the idea of taking quality time out to practice meditation and mindfulness, as I know how valuable these practices are. But the aforementioned toddler makes this challenging. Instead, I’m going to go on a family walk this weekend with my phone on airplane mode and just be fully present (with no What’s app or e-mails distractions). Why not leave the phone at home, you ask? I get a lot of joy from photographing my little boy as he runs around in the park, so it’s coming with me for the camera.

If you’d like to work with someone to overcome imposter syndrome amongst other workplace challenges, consider ChangingPoint‘s industry-leading 1:1 and group programmes to enhance your personal impact and leadership skills.

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Written by Jayne Ruff

Jayne Ruff, Occupational Psychologist & Managing Director at ChangingPoint. To find out more about how ChangingPoint can help you align minds to transform your business, get in touch.

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