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Is there an impostor lurking in you? How to work on those thoughts to finally give yourself the recognition you deserve

Nov 02, 2020
You can listen to the audio version of this blog via Spotify.

Take back the power

One of my best friends works for the Civil Service and is very high up in her department. So much so, that when I’m on a video call with her and our other school friend, when there’s banter about how work is, projects we’re working on etc, she never contributes. Official Secrets Act and all that. Although there is another reason she doesn’t say much about her work. She is very bright, erudite and knows her stuff and yet, feels an impostor. Although highly motivated, I know that she doesn’t believe any of the credit that comes her way.

Sophie believes she’s only where she is in her profession because she’s been there years and so it’s by default. She thinks she’s half as good as those around her and got twice as far undeservedly. When challenged and asked how it can be possible to be so high up the ladder if not by merit, she says it’s by chance, lucky breaks and a fluke. This friend was moved up a year at school due to her genius tendencies, nothing she does is by fluke – she is highly intelligent, is tenacious and works hard.

The meaning of success

A definition of impostor phenomenon or impostor syndrome as it is equally referred to, is the inability to internalise your successes, coupled with the fear of being outed as an unqualified fraud. This fear of being exposed as inadequate and unqualified literally keeps you from achieving your best professional self. You don’t feel worthy of your success, despite evidence to the contrary – namely your skills, competencies and talent.

The term impostor phenomenon was first coined in 1978 in the article "The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention" by Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes. Their research defined impostor phenomenon as ‘an individual experience of self-perceived intellectual phoniness.’ They interviewed 150 high-achieving women who had gained degrees and further qualifications, and who were recognised for their professional excellence – validated by colleagues. Yet the internal validation was lacking – these women all believed that their success was a fluke, by chance and that people over-estimated their intelligence and abilities.

The irony is that the impostor syndrome is usually associated with successful people; you would think they have it all and thus can enjoy the fruits of their labour, but this is not always the case. They exhibit the symptoms of Impostor Phenomenon such as anxiety, perfectionism, self-doubt and they have a fear of failure – convinced they’re going to fall flat on their face at some point.

Studies have shown that impostor phenomenon is widely prevalent - 70% of the general population has experienced the impostor phenomenon at some point. It’s a term that resonates with many and even those in the spotlight, celebrated for their talent and many achievements, have feelings associated with the impostor phenomenon. Author Neil Gaiman has said: “I was convinced there would be a knock on the door, and a man with a clipboard would be there to tell me that it was all over, that they’d caught up with me and that I’d now have to go and get a real job.”

And that’s the thing, you could be top of your game yet still believe you got there by luck alone, being in the right place at the right time, catching some lucky breaks because maybe someone didn’t want the promotion, couldn’t handle the pressure, or maybe luckily, that day, the cream of the crop didn’t turn up for the interview so you were a lucky close run second who got offered the position. Rather than to think it’s all about merit – your skills, competence, ability, personality. You believe that at any moment, you’re going to be discovered, that someone is going to tap you on the shoulder and tell you that the game is up, you’ve been sussed, that you’ve got away with it for too long now.

Author, poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou has said: “I’ve written eleven 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 out.” Many would find it unbelievable that Angelou might think such a thing but think it she did.

The perpetual cycle

An impostor often battles with insecurities, feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy. Regardless of their many skills, wealth of experience and past success stories, the impostor will typically sabotage these truths and put them down to luck, convenience, or credit someone else for their helping hand. It’s as if they get to where they are and suddenly realise they are way out of their depth. I equate it to when my Dad taught me to ride a bike. I had such a cool Chopper and he’d hold on to the curved handle at the back and I’d say: ‘Are you still holding on? Are you still holding on?!” and he’d say a reassuring: ‘Yes, still here, still holding on. You can do this though, keep peddling’” And then one day, there was a bit of a delay to him answering my question, I was cycling fine, thinking he was still holding on and when I turned around, he stood there grinning, about 20 yards away. Of course, I promptly wobbled and fell off. That’s what happens to someone who has feelings that they’re an impostor, they turn round and see how far they’ve come and have a wobble, not realising they have it all within in them to go much much further. Yet their inner critic will say things like “you’re not experienced enough nor qualified enough to follow this through”, “Stop now, you can’t possibly do this, you’re kidding yourself - you’re not like ‘them’”.

The key is for the impostor to challenge these unhelpful thoughts and beliefs, to empower themselves with the tools to silence their inner critic, so they can rewrite their story and be the person they want to be and achieve what they want to achieve – whilst enjoying the journey.

In her TEDx Talk What you can do with Impostor Syndrome, Rita D gives a powerful argument for embracing those feelings of being an impostor so that it can motivate you to move forwards. She says feelings of being an impostor demonstrates you have intellectual humility and that means you are aware of the limits of your own knowledge, therefore you are hungry to learn more from others who you believe know more than you.

Rita D also says if you have impostor syndrome, you look at things from an amateur’s point of view which means again, you ask questions, you want to learn, you want to catch up which means you’ll never stop learning and never stop growing. If you’re arrogant and a know-it-all, you think there’s nothing left for you to learn but as Ray Kroc says:

“As long as you're green, you're growing. As soon as you're ripe, you start to rot.”

And so, it’s about enjoying the process, being in the moment and gaining value from that. You then get to appreciate the part you play in your success as opposed to seeing the end product of your success and thinking the plaudits are unjustified.

Mike Cannon-Brookes has another interesting take on the positive nature of the impostor syndrome. He says although it is common for successful people to feel like impostors, rather than question themselves, they do regularly question their ideas and their knowledge. They know when they’re out of their depth but don’t mind being vulnerable and asking for help and advice. They then use that advice to hone their ideas and to improve on them and to learn more. Cannon-Brookes goes on to say that it’s OK to be out of your depth sometimes, to not know the answer, as long as you don’t freeze but instead, harness the situation rather than to be paralysed, and to turn it into a force for good. As Rita D says, it’s using those feelings of being an impostor to drive you forward.

Sounds like someone you know?

So, do you think of yourself as an impostor? Wait one minute. Do you believe you have the skills, qualifications, experience and competencies to justify where you are today? Think long and hard before you answer to the negative. I want you to think about the evidence to back-up your response.

What so many people don’t realise is that these impostor thoughts are just thoughts; they are not set in stone, nor is it true that because you think it, it’s real - it’s simply an identity and an outlook on life that’s been created, in your mind, due to the types of thoughts and stories you’ve repeatedly told yourself over time.  You can think more helpful thoughts at any time.

It starts with the nature of our thinking - identifying where these self-limiting beliefs stem from.

Self-image plays such a huge part here and what has gone on before to help to define it. Our experiences growing up – whether they were negative or positive and how conditioned we were to hold on to those beliefs about ourselves. Comments and feedback by a partner, colleagues, manager or peers all help to shape our self-belief and to either enhance our esteem or whether we allow it to influence self-limiting beliefs. Our self-image is down to our self-competence and self-worth.

To believe in yourself, to feel worthy of success, it’s important to confront and call out the lies you have been telling yourself and the limiting beliefs you are perpetuating. Banish those gremlins – the negative self-talk which you allow to follow you on your journey.

Six ways to empower yourself to believe in you:

1. Challenge your thoughts: What’s the basis for these doubts? Past ‘mistakes’? Another person’s throwaway comment? Lack of self-esteem? Self-limiting beliefs? Address these feelings and work out the thoughts they stem from.

2. Change your self-talk: Assumptive affirmations will help to turn the negative view you have about yourself, into a positive one. Try these: ‘My thoughts create my reality, therefore I use positive and encouraging words to describe myself’ and ‘Today I pay special attention to my ability to succeed!’

3. Fake it til you make it: Sometimes we need to go for it and reality will catch up. Visualisation is a powerful tool to build our self-belief so mentally produce a movie imagining yourself succeeding in your goal. Use all five senses. The subconscious brain cannot tell the difference between a real and a vividly imagined event so keep imagining it and when it happens, it feels completely normal to you.

4. I’m not good enough yet: That three-letter word is so important to enable you to reprogramme your brain that improvement comes with learning and growing. It’s about adopting a growth mindset that we’re not all born with a fixed level of intelligence and ability – we can upskill and improve.

5. Remember the hard work: Think back to all you have achieved, and it may well give you a clue as to why you are where you are now. Think about your skills, qualifications, competencies, the hours you’ve put in. You did not get to where you are now by luck alone. Sure, maybe luck did play a part but remember the Winning Edge’s definition of luck: It’s where opportunity and preparedness meet.

6. You cannot outperform your self-image:  You are who you think you are, so you need to have a self-image that is congruent with that of a high-performing individual. Then great things can be achieved and celebrated!

Here's to you and all you achieve!


Take this quiz to discover which personality trait you’re currently leaning more towards, and learn a simple 3-step strategy you can begin implementing today to start bridging the gap between where you are now, to where you want to be! Share it with your friends and family too!


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