Imposter syndrome can hold us back from reaching our full potential.
With the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are seeing even more people suffering from crippling self-doubt. Over the past few years, I have been working with others to understand more about and free ourselves from imposter syndrome.
In recent years we have heard more people talk about imposter syndrome, but what is it? The term ‘imposter syndrome’ was originally coined in 1978 by Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes in their article The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.
Though initially believed to be a female-only phenomenon, recent studies have shown it can affect anyone. Studies show that 70% of us will experience imposter syndrome at some point in our lives. During the pandemic, a LinkedIn study into C-suite leaders showed a staggering 52% doubted their ability to lead effectively following the impacts of COVID-19.
According to Wikipedia: ‘Impostor syndrome – also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience – is a psychological pattern in which one doubts one’s accomplishments and has a persistent internalised fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.’
In her 2008 article Overcoming Imposter Syndrome for the Harvard Business Review, Gill Corkindale wrote, ‘Imposter syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. Imposters suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that overrides any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.’
Imposter syndrome at work
Anyone who has ever suffered from imposter syndrome knows how debilitating it can be. People suffering from imposter syndrome doubt their own accomplishments and feel like imposters in their field. This can lead to avoidance of networking events and not speaking up in meetings. Not only does this impact your ability to advance in your career, but it can also damage relationships with your colleagues. In extreme cases it can lead to isolation and anxiety.
It can be especially prevalent in the boardroom, where high-stakes decisions are made on a regular basis. Individuals with imposter syndrome may doubt their ability to contribute meaningfully to discussions and may second-guess their decisions or feel like they’re ‘faking it’ when it comes to their knowledge or expertise. The result may be a negative impact on individual decision-making and the overall effectiveness of the team.
There’s a lot of pressure on board members to be confident and decisive, but impostor syndrome can make it hard to speak up and share ideas. This can lead to good ideas being overlooked and decisions being made without all the information being considered. Additionally, imposter syndrome can impact people’s ability to take risks and innovate which can be a real problem in the business world, where companies need to keep evolving to stay ahead of the competition.
There are a few ways to combat imposter syndrome in the boardroom. First, it’s important to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable participating and sharing ideas. This can be achieved by setting ground rules at the start of meetings, encouraging everyone to chip in and making sure that everyone’s voice is heard. Additionally, it’s important to give people the space to make mistakes and learn from them. This helps to create a supportive environment in which individuals and the team can succeed.
With mental wellbeing such a critical issue, understanding which emotions are at play in the workplace and using your emotional intelligence to power up your communication is a crucial skill. Emotional intelligence is the ability to read and understand you own emotions as well as the emotions of those around you. This can include picking up not only on what is being said, but also how it is being said, as well as non-verbal cues such as body language. As organisations and leaders fight to attract and retain top talent, being able to create meaningful connections is key. We often talk about leading with emotional intelligence, but how can we truly be emotionally intelligent if we don’t recognise and understand the emotions that are in play?
Reflections on my journey
Imposter syndrome is just one way that our emotions can take over, but as it impacts so many people it’s a great place to start. So how do you understand it?
Having lived with it for nearly 20 years, I know from personal experience how debilitating it can be, and yet, to the outside world I would have appeared to be a confident happy and successful board-level leader. Despite the external awards and recognition I was receiving, internally there was a constant nagging voice telling me I couldn’t do it, I wasn’t bright enough, intelligent enough, I just wasn’t enough.
My hope is that sharing my story and the key triggers will help others to identify the doubts that are holding them back, address them and move forward into their futures.
I was reflecting on my routine before lockdown, where I would often go to a busy cafe to write. I remember the last time I was there, surrounded by people talking, laughing and getting on with their lives. I wondered briefly what others thought when they saw me sitting alone, hiding behind the props of the modern world; laptop open, phone on the side, trying to gather my thoughts. I wondered if they could sense my feeling of being an imposter and recognise my fear of being found out.
That my imposter syndrome is alive and well and fighting for control is not unusual; it’s something with which many people struggle.
One of the most common lines that one’s inner voice may repeat is, ‘you are not enough’; you aren’t smart enough, rich enough, pretty enough, charismatic enough. Modern culture finds us constantly comparing our own lives to the picture-perfect versions that others share on social media. That world isn’t real; it is airbrushed.
Something that has helped me to address my imposter syndrome and to conquer some of my negative self-talk is – to quote a friend of mine – that I found my ‘unfair advantage’. I found it about two years ago, at one of the worst moments of my life. My marriage had ended and I was facing surgery, terrified that I might not see my daughter grow up. I thought it was all my fault because I wasn’t enough, I wasn’t lovable, I didn’t deserve to be happy. Many a night I berated myself for my failings and – at my lowest ebb – I wrote a letter to my daughter in case I didn’t make it through the surgery. To say it was a sobering moment is perhaps one of the biggest understatements of my life. I sat and thought about where to start, what I wanted to say, what advice I wanted to share with her.
I realised at that moment that the voice we use to talk to ourselves is the one our children learn. Our children absorb not just what we say, but what we do, and I realised that – given a chance – I would do everything I could to ensure that my inner voice never became the one in my daughter’s head.
I was fortunate; I got through the surgery, I rebuilt our lives and I did so because of my unfair advantage. Whenever my negative inner voice tries to take charge, I ask myself what I would want my daughter to say to herself and I make that the voice in my head.
Tools for your arsenal
The next time your inner voice says you are not enough ask yourself these questions.
- Whose voice is that anyway?
- Why are they talking/what is their purpose?
- What would I say to my child, best friend, sibling or parent if I heard them talk about themselves like this?
By reframing your thinking, you can move past the negative inner voice. As the quote says: ‘You are too smart to be the only thing standing in your way.’
Find out more about Kim’s journey online at https://iisad.org/
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