Do you often sit at your desk and think, “Any moment now, someone is going to figure out that I don’t know what I’m doing.” After that big presentation, you walk out thinking, “Phew, fooled them again!” Or after being congratulated on the success of a project, you respond with, “Thanks, but I can’t hog the limelight; it was a team effort.”
Congratulations, you’re among good company. Surprisingly, this self-depreciating thought process is shared by some famous and meteorically successful women around the world, including the late Maya Angelou, comedienne Tina Fey, and Facebook COO and author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg. Who would think that a world-famous poet and author, a Hollywood heavy-hitter, and a mover and shaker at Google and Facebook would ever have feelings of self-doubt, let alone question their abilities or achievements? But it’s true.
This way of thinking is known as Imposter Phenomenon (IP) – although you’ve more likely heard it referred to as Imposter Syndrome – and was first identified by psychologists and all-round overachievers themselves, Dr Pauline Rose Clance and Dr Suzanne Imes. Explains Clance: “I experienced IP feelings in graduate school. I would take an important examination and be very afraid that I had failed. I remembered all I did not know rather than what I did.”
When she began teaching, Clance soon discovered that she wasn’t alone in these feelings of inadequacy and fear of failure. Many students who came for counselling felt the same way. “One of them said, ‘I feel like an impostor here with all these really bright people’.” The two christened the term Imposter Phenomenon and published a paper in 1978 called The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention. In it they asked: “Why do so many bright women, despite consistent and impressive evidence to the contrary, continue to see themselves as impostors who pretend to be bright but who really are not?”
The answer, observed the two, lies in a lack of belief in your ability, and the foundations of that are laid in early childhood. One of the biggest factors they identified is being raised in a home where one sibling was branded the smart one and you were known as the funny, pretty, sensitive, charming, “insert-label-here” one.
It’s something life, career and business coach Nothemba Mxenge, from Epiphany Coaching, has seen in numerous clients who have come to her for help with feelings of inadequacy in their careers. Commented one client: “Growing up, I was always compared to my siblings. I felt we were in competition. My father had his favourites and it always seemed like he never approved of me.” Says another: “I never felt like I mattered. No one ever told me I was worthy or good enough. I never really felt what I had to say had any value. No one paid attention to me.”
This foundation sets up a lifelong way of thinking that makes women with IP continuously crave validation of their intellectual competence and ability. However, when they get it, they don’t believe it. Rather, Mxenge says they attribute it to external factors such as hard work, luck, feminine charms, tokenism or BBBEE.
The other part of the problem is that, coupled with never being convinced of the legitimacy or scale of their successes, women with IP tend to internalise failure, attributing it to a lack of their ability rather than external factors such as task difficulty or bad luck, Clance and Imes found.
What this sets up is a complex series of self-depreciating, self-sabotaging thoughts, the continuous pursuit of perfection, but, at the same time, a deep and often unfounded fear of failure. Explains Mxenge: “[Women with IP] constantly undermine their achievements, accomplishments and successes. They have an inability to celebrate and acknowledge a job well done because nothing is ever good enough. They never feel deserving or worthy of any form of praise, acknowledgement, appreciation, celebration or accolades, and it’s often embarrassing for them to receive this kind of attention.”
She goes on to add that women with IP are hard on themselves, and tend to berate themselves for the smallest mistakes. They are frightened of the spotlight, being set up on a pedestal – or a platform – and the applause that comes with it, because they constantly strive to meet some elusive standard that has been set, of which they feel they continually fall short.
In getting to grips with IP, it’s easy to retreat into the headspace of being hard on yourself for being hard on yourself. If you pause for a moment and think about it, the qualities you find in someone with IP are commendable: humility, modesty, a good work ethic and willingness to acknowledge the efforts of others, to name a few. On her blog, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, Dr Valerie Young, says people with IP care deeply about the quality of their work, particularly if it impacts on others. To ensure they always do a stellar job, people with IP tend to study harder, work longer and pay attention to detail, and they don’t promise something unless they’re certain they can deliver.
However, she says this caring and aiming for nothing less than the best can come at a heavy price. This drive for perfection, says Mxenge, leads to women who are constantly stressed, overwhelmed, overworked, overloaded and fatigued, because they are always trying to be one step ahead of being “found out”, and this can even lead to panic and anxiety attacks.
Sadly, it can also hold you back in your career. This lack of confidence and belief in your competence, along with your fear of failure and focusing on what you haven’t done rather than what you have, means you might pass up on applying for that big project because you feel you don’t have the skills, avoid asking for a raise because you don’t feel you’re worth it, or convince yourself you don’t have the right to exert your authority in your role as a manager or decision-maker, because you’ve convinced yourself you bluffed your way to the top.
In speaking of her own internal battle with feelings of self-doubt, Maya Angelou is often famously quoted as saying: “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.’ “ Imagine if she’d allowed those thoughts to stop her from writing.
Now imagine if you stopped listening to your inner dialogue. What could you achieve? Own your successes. You didn’t get lucky. It wasn’t chance.
Break the cycle of self-doubt
In their research, Clance and Imes found that repeated successes alone aren’t enough to break the self-perpetuating cycle of doubt in which women with IP become caught up. The problem, says life and business coach Jacqui O’Bree, from Fullife Coach, is that we fight this battle in our minds. However, the silver lining to all of this is that the path to self-belief and convincing yourself of your achievements also lies in your mind.
This process requires an active effort to rewire your thought processes, starting with being a lot kinder to yourself. “No one is perfect and we will always have work to do on ourselves, but we also need to be gentle on ourselves along the way. Turn your inner imposter into your inner cheerleader instead,” says O’Bree.
Stuck on how to turn off the negative dialogue and start enjoying your successes? O’Bree offers these practical steps:
- Display your success symbols, such as your qualifications and certificates, special photos or any other memorabilia you are proud of. Some people feel they are being boastful, but more than anything you are reminding yourself that you have worked very hard to get where you are.
- Write a victory log – record your success in the past year, past five years and past 10 years. We tend to focus on our failures, but it’s important to remember what we have achieved.
- Surround yourself with positive people who lift you up and encourage you.
- Get support – speak to a coach about adopting a more positive mindset and building your self-confidence.
Take a step back. You don’t need to relinquish a quest for excellence or do things half-heartedly, says Young. However, not everything you do deserves 100%.
Identify what deserves perfection and what doesn’t, she says. “It’s a matter of being selective about where you put your efforts, and not wasting time agonising over routine tasks when an adequate effort is all that is required.”