You’re not supposed to be here.
You’re not good enough.
Everyone is about to find out.
You know that voice right? The one that whispers to you; stops you in your tracks and makes you doubt yourself.
As a young teacher in 2002, recently appointed and quickly promoted, that voice bothered me a lot. I thought was alone in feeling that way, until one day my colleague turned and looked at me and said:
“Some days I feel like a fraud; I’m not good enough to be here and one day someone is going to find out.”
In that moment my heart stopped beating. I couldn’t believe that someone else was experiencing exactly the same thoughts.
What I didn’t know then, but do know now is that this condition is called Imposter Syndrome and is prevalent among high achievers. Although it affects men as well as women, it appears to be particularly affect women and members of ethnic minority groups, due to the cultural conditioning that may have caused us to feel less than enough.
Imposter Syndrome was first coined as a term in 1978 by two psychologists, Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes who studied high achieving young women at Georgia State University. These young women presented with symptoms of anxiety, lack of self confidence, depression and frustration. Clance and Imes found that these young women tended to attribute their success to external factors (I’ve been lucky) rather than intrinsic qualities such as their skills or experience.
The challenge with Imposter Syndrome is that it doesn’t go away. High profile women like Michelle Obama still experience it, but have learned to manage it. Michelle Obama’s conclusion from sitting around tables with some of the most important people in the world, from NATO to the UN, is that “They’re not that smart.”
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook said that, ‘There are still days when I feel like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.’
Even the great Maya Angelou said,“I have written 11 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.’”
The bad news is that Imposter Syndrome doesn’t go away.
The good news is that we can learn to manage it.
Imposter Syndrome stems from fear, a fear that we are not good enough and that we will be found out. This fear stems from our evolution as human beings. As cave men and cave women we survived as being part of a tribe. When we risk exposing ourselves by stepping outside of our comfort zone, or exposing ourselves to ridicule or rejection, we are fearful. For this reason, public speaking is a major fear for a majority of people.
Our brains were not designed to make us happy, but to keep us safe.
We can’t argue with or try to suppress Imposter Syndrome. What we can do is give that negative voice a face and a name. When this voice speaks to us expressing fear or negativity, we need acknowledge it and thank it for trying to keep us safe.
But, in fact, we know that we aren’t placing ourselves in immediate danger by applying for promotion, delivering a speech or taking on a new role.
Instead we can take the negative story- “You’re not good enough” and ask “What do I choose to think instead?” Our beliefs are formed of words and stories, repeated over time. We can choose to change our thoughts and change our language to form a new belief that will better serve us.
When we focus on Imposter Syndrome we are focusing on ourselves: our doubts, insecurities and fears. When we shift our focus from ourselves to others and how we can serve, the story changes. C.S Lewis said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.” When we shift our focus, we can ask ourselves more empowering questions: “What value do I bring?”; “Who needs my skills?”; “What is my unique contribution?”
In her brilliant TED Talk Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are Amy Cuddy explains how power posing can dramatically shift our confidence by increasing our testosterone (the dominance hormone) and decreasing our cortisol (the stress hormone). And no, we don’t have to power pose in public! But, the habit of altering our body language from powerless to powerful and creating a more empowered and less stress reactive state, can help us step into the person we want to become.
Using confidence role models, visualising a positive outcome and even creating an alter ego, as Beyonce created Sasha Fierce, can all help take us to from the person we are now to the person we want to become.
And yes, Imposter Syndrome will rear its ugly head, but when we can shift our thoughts, change our body language and focus on what we have to give, that nasty little voice will no longer have the power to stop us in our tracks.