The self-doubt and fear that holds us back.
“I don’t know what I am doing”, “I’m going to be found out”, “I’m only in this job because I got lucky/I slipped through the net”, “sooner or later someone is going to notice”, “I’m a fraud”
Sound familiar? Over the years I have encountered many people who have experienced these thoughts from CEO’s, doctors, lawyers, teachers, academics, the list goes on. I have been there too. From the outside looking in we tend to think Whaaaaat? Surely not? How can they not see how great they are? How accomplished? How successful? But it doesn’t matter what others see, the picture looks different from the inside.
This pattern of self-doubt, known as the imposter phenomenon* (or imposter syndrome as it is often referred to) describes individuals (often high-achieving ones) who struggle to recognise their accomplishments, have persistent self-doubt and a fear of being exposed as a fraud. People with imposter phenomenon tend to chalk up their successes to external factors such as luck or receiving help from others BUT see setbacks or ‘failures’ as proof of their inadequacy. It is different from an occasional bout of self-doubt, uncertainty or lack of confidence.
Why do I feel this way?
Imposter syndrome often has its roots in our early experiences but that doesn’t mean that everyone who experiences imposter syndrome had a ‘bad childhood’ far from it. It can come through subtly in messages we receive as children or growing up and the relationships we have. It often goes hand in hand with a general feeling of not being good enough. However, it can also be impacted by the places we work, the culture, expectations and discrimination. Whatever the cause (or causes) it isn’t your fault. Nobody asks or chooses to feel and think this way and it isn’t a reflection of a person’s actual abilities or competence.
Signs of Imposter Syndrome
If you have ever experienced these kinds of thoughts, you are not alone – we all experience doubt from time to time. However, if you are a frequent flyer on the self-doubt airline then it could be a causing a problem for you. Imposter syndrome is not a mental health problem in itself, it is a pattern of thoughts and feelings that often sit beneath other issues. Many people come into therapy with symptoms of anxiety, chronic stress, burnout, depression, or a deep sense of dissatisfaction with life and when we scratch the surface, we see that imposter syndrome has been lurking and driving unhelpful behaviours.
Because this level of self-doubt is so unpleasant, we naturally try and keep it at bay. People either try to outrun it or hide from it. We try to outrun it by:
· Coping alone and refusing help,
· Developing perfectionistic tendencies,
· Working extra-long hours,
· Becoming an expert/trying to know or do it all,
· Taking on excessive amounts (“I don’t know how she does it!”)
· Double (or triple) checking your work
Hiding from it can look like:
· Turning down or avoiding new opportunities,
· Staying quiet in meetings/not speaking up
· Playing down or dismissing your job or achievements,
· Shying away from promotions or new roles.
Whichever path people take it nearly always keeps them stuck.
What to do with your self-doubt
Your achievements already shout to everyone else that you are successful…but you can’t see it. So, trying to prove that voice wrong by achieving more isn’t going to work. Instead consider:
· Instead of trying to outrun or hide from it, try focusing your energy on what you want to do with the self-doubt in your life. Be open to the idea that your brain is going to spout this stuff at you.
· Just because your brain says something, it doesn’t make it true. If we start to embrace the idea that thoughts are simply a collection of words and sounds that may or may not be true, we can get enough space from them to choose how we react to them.
· Swap your BUT for AND. Do you ever find yourself thinking things like…I would love to do X BUT I’m not good enough or I would like to get into doing X BUT people wouldn’t want me for that.. These types of thoughts are sneaky…if we listen to them, they very effectively close us off to opportunities and possibilities. Try swapping your BUT for an AND.
“I would love to do X AND I am worried I am not good enough….so in order to do it I need to….”
· Offer some compassion to yourself. Take a moment to recognise that it is hard to have these feelings and instead of criticising yourself for it offer up some kindness and try to acknowledge the strength you have shown to carry it so far.
· Recognise you aren't alone – lots of people experience these thoughts and feelings. We don’t get them because they are true/real/valid we get them because we are humans with tricky brains. This is a weird way in which your brain is trying to protect you, but it has gone overboard.
· Step away from comparison. Whilst it is natural, it isn’t always helpful. Focus on what you are doing not what everyone else is up to.
· If you need to invest in a coach or a therapist to work on it further.
* Psychother. Theory Res. Pract. 15:241. doi: 10.1037/h0086006