One of the many things that’s surprised me over the years is the amount of wildly successful people who suffer from this baffling condition.
Also known as the imposter experience, it is a psychological pattern in which one doubts one’s accomplishments and has a persistent internalised fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’.
This can perhaps be summed up quite nicely in the fact that here I am, writing a post about how to beat Imposter Syndrome, when in fact, I’m not sure whether I feel qualified enough to post it. And that’s not me trying to be ironic either.
There’s one part of my brain that tells me that I’ve done ok over the years, and that I have enough experience to be able to speak on the subject with some authority. But then I have to speak to the other part of my brain that tries to shoot me down and convince myself that I don’t know that I’m talking about.
Perhaps I do know what I’m talking about after all, considering that Imposter Syndrome is something that affects me on a daily basis.
And I’m not alone. I’ll always remember seeing Whoopi Goldberg being interviewed on TV and she was talking about how she has huge self-doubts about her professional ability. I remember looking at her thinking – ‘this is Whoopi Goldberg! How can she be so lacking in confidence?’
But this feeling is all too common. David Bowie, Lady Gaga, Howard Schultz, Maya Angelou and Tom Hanks. These are just some of the huge names that have admitted to the anxiety of being uncovered as a fraud.
Why do we feel such a failure?
There will always be an element of nature v nurture thrown into the debate about Imposter Sydrome. While we may all be subject to different character traits, it’s often found that those who suffer from it feel that they are constantly under pressure to achieve.
I remember interviewing Sam Warburton once. He is the former Welsh rugby captain and I spoke to him shortly after he’d very nearly led Wales to a World Cup Final.
We visited his old school where he was met with raptures from the children there, who viewed him as their hero. They were in awe. They cheered, waved flags and even sang him a song that they’d written themselves.
Afterwards, Sam explained that he couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.
“It’s only little old me,” said the 6’2, 16 stone, record-breaking flanker.
It’s only little old me
Sam warburton, former wales rugby captain
Parents often have a role in creating Imposter Syndrome in people. Swaying between over-praise and stinging criticism can lead to a deep sense of confusion and mistrust in the praise.
And as we head into adult life, this confusion is only compounded by the trials and tribulations of the real world. We get bosses that put us down. We get bullied. We get told that we’re not good enough; we’re rejected.
But more often than not, we reset and come back to our original default position. We make start to make progress again. Then we fall. We get back up and try again. It’s no wonder we’re never fully convinced our true abilities.
How to beat the Imposter Syndrome
Often, we experience Imposter Syndrome when we are faced with new challenges. We could be applying for a job and getting it and turning up for work on your first day questioning whether you’re good enough for the role.
Imposter Syndrome can also strike at any time. I know if I stop and think about what I actually do for a living, it panics me.
One of the first ways to deal with Imposter Syndrome is to be aware that you are suffering from it. Acknowledging that you are struggling allows you to start considering different options to combat it.
There may be a period of acceptance and you may also accept that you may never ‘get over it’, but more that you can beat it by learning to live with it.
Here are some ideas to get you thinking differently.
Talk to people
If you are seriously thinking about dealing with Imposter Syndrome, a good place to start is by talking. I say this with a touch of hypocrisy as I, like a lot of men, aren’t particularly comfortable about talking with others. But it does work.
Speaking to the amazing and successful people that I’ve met over the years, and discovering that they too, struggle with confidence issues, has made me realise that the condition is in fact, more common than we think.
Speaking to others will help rationalise everything and you’ll often find that people will remind you of the amazing things that you have done.
Make a list of your proudest achievements
This is a quick and simple trick that you can do in less than a few minutes.
You can either write your list down on paper but you can always go over them in your head if necessary.
Take a minute to dwell on these achievements. Think about how far you have come. Picture yourself, ten, twenty years ago. What were you doing then? How far have you come since? What have you learned in that time?
Visit your younger self
One powerful way to gain perspective is to visit your young self and speak to them.
Clear your schedule for 15 minutes. Turn your phone off. Take yourself to a quiet room and lie down.
Close your eyes and take a few minutes to let yourself settle. Focus on your breathing.
When you feel fully relaxed, in your mind, take yourself back to a comfortable place in your childhood. When I do this, I take myself back to my childhood bedroom. In my mind, I open the bedroom door with its heavy glass door knob and open the door.
Once inside, I look around my bedroom and see things as they were when I was a child. I remember the paper lamp shade with rainbows on it. I see the cartoon animals on the bed sheets and the glow-in-the-dark star on my ceiling.
And then I look to my bed and see myself there as a child.
Wherever you find yourself, gently sit down alongside them and introduce yourself.
Get talking to them.
Ask them what they’d really love to do when they grow up.
It’s very probable that they’ll tell you that they’ll want to do what you are doing now when they grow up.
You can tell them that that’s what they’ll do in their future life.
You’ll tell them all the amazing things you’ve managed to achieve.
You’ll tell them all the people you’ve kept happy. All the work that’s won plaudits and awards.
You’ll tell them that they have all this to look forward to.
And when you leave, remind them that it won’t come easy. But it’ll be worth every minute because you’ll have proved to everyone who ever doubted you, yourself included, that you did it. That you are doing it.
Remember that you can’t win everything all the time
One of my greatest failings is that I think I should be winning all the time.
It’s an impossible task to believe that you can win everything all of the time and I know that others struggle with the same notion a lot of the time.
It’s good to be reminded that it’s a physical possibility to win everything all the time. It’s equally important to remember that failure is part of life.
I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.
Failure is part of learning. It’s part of developing and seeing failure as part of that process will remind you that you can’t go winning at everything. The fact that you are making mistakes doesn’t show that you are necessarily bad at anything. In fact, it shows that you are at least trying.
Perfect doesn’t exist.
Recognise your areas of expertise
After I left the world of high school teaching, I did some private tuition for a while.
One of my favourite students was a boy called Joe and I helped him through his final years of high school.
Joe was a very nervous pupil, and his parents expected great things of him. But he struggled with his English. Here in the UK, English (where we teach students how to read and write properly) is one of the basic subjects that’s required to go onto further education.
Joe would often beat himself up at his perceived lack of knowledge. But as I kept constantly reminding him, I was there to teach him, and he was there to learn. He was never expected to know it all before I arrived.
Where Joe struggled with English (he did ok in the end, getting an B grade overall), he excelled in other areas like Maths and Physics. He’d blow my mind with some of the things he was being taught in high school and it reminded me of why I had to resit Maths several times before I could go onto higher education.
My point is that we all have strengths and weaknesses. You may get the odd individual, who’s amazing at everything. But by and large, these freaks are few and far between.
Don’t ask yourself if you’re clever. Ask what you’re clever at.
You will have strengths. You will have weaknesses. And that’s absolutely fine. That’s normal.
Remember that no one is perfect
Believe it or not, there is not one perfect person in the world. Because, what is perfect?
The constant pursuit of perfection can leave you feeling exhausted, both emotionally and physically. Cut yourself some slack when you’ve performed to your best ability. Allow yourself to congratulate jobs well done.
There’s an interview here with Jo Lilford, a successful businesswoman from Cardiff, who speaks of her experience of Imposter Syndrome.
Seek help if necessary
If you feel that you really are struggling, there are people who can help you.
Professional assistance can help you reframe the way you view yourself and the way that you think about your abilities.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can help challenge your distortions and help regulate your emotions. It can also provide you with coping mechanisms for when times get challenging.
While the condition has very little ‘medical’ documentation, you’re certainly not alone in the world if you’re experiencing it.
At times it can be annoying; at times it can be totally crippling.
In whatever shape or form you suffer from the syndrome, it’s well worth remembering that as with most things in life, it is sometimes possible to turn things on their head and use what’s served up to you positively.
There’s a great Ted Talk on the subject here from entrepreneur and CEO Mike Cannon-Brookes. Well worth a watch if you need some inspiration.