Do you suffer from imposter syndrome? Identify and manage your inner negative voice
Tim has risen from being a junior trainee to a senior management role in the same company. He’s good at his job. “But whenever I have to get up in front of people, all I can see is a sea of faces who, and I know this for certain, are remembering that inexperienced junior learning the ropes. I don’t belong in front of them. Maybe I don’t even belong among them.” That’s imposter syndrome talking.
Rachel is a newly appointed leader who wants to lead collaboratively by building trust and creating a harmonious workplace. “But why should people who report to me trust me? I haven’t been baked in the fires of experience, I don’t have the hard miles on the clock.” That’s imposter syndrome bringing her down.
Dylan worked his way up in an electrical engineering company. He feels that people in his team will never forget he used to be the “man with a tool in his hand” so they won’t have faith in his strategic decision making, or feel he is an appropriate figurehead for the business. Imposter syndrome.
Despite glowing reviews from peers and direct reports, Rhianna didn’t apply for an internal promotion to strategic director because she felt they would believe she was too young for the role. “Nobody will take me seriously. I’m that quiet person in the planning department.” Another victim of imposter syndrome.
All these stories come from discussions among students reflecting on their personal impact as part of an MBA program in London. All, like me, are victims of imposter syndrome.
What is imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome is that insidious little voice in your head telling you that you shouldn’t be there. Telling you that you’re drowning, not waving. You’ve over-reached yourself. They’re onto you. This is all going to end badly. And it’s no more than you deserve… And if you’re nodding along as you read, and mouthing yes, yes, YES…well, that’s because imposter syndrome is about as common as a sniffle in winter.
It’s no respecter of status, either. Titans of business are as vulnerable as novices. Nor is it something you can grow out of. You have to deal with it.
I’ve always had imposter syndrome. It’s a state of mind that has probably been around for as long as humans have had challenges to face, but which was identified as a condition relatively recently by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. I’ve had it about my teaching and about my writing (yes, even about whether I should be writing articles like this!). Even about sports and hobbies in which I was more than competent. So, what do I do about it? And, if you’re a secret sufferer too, what can you do about it?
How can you beat imposter syndrome?
There is no sure-fire instant solution. You don’t cure yourself of imposter syndrome, because it isn’t an illness. You deal with it. Because it’s a psychological response to situations you face. It tends to rear up when you’re stressed or highly challenged. And you can deal with it best by having well-developed coping strategies rehearsed and in place.
Imposing yourself on imposter syndrome is about developing skills around self-awareness and self-management.
Self-awareness at work, according to academics Mendemu Showry and KVL Manasa, is the practice of reflecting on experiences and precisely assessing our behavior and skills as they are demonstrated in our place of work. As we reflect, so we come to a better understanding of important things. Such as, what we have learned from seminal events and from interactions with others. Or what are our core values, beliefs and motivations, and what we really want to do with ourselves. Self-aware people suffer far less from imposter syndrome because they have at their center a certainty and an inner knowledge: a set of goals in which they believe. And this means that the voice of doubt can be more readily banished.
There are many aspects to self-management. But there are three elements that are particularly important in terms of managing imposter syndrome.
The three key psychological elements to managing imposter syndrome
The first is self-esteem or affirmation. Imposter syndrome can’t bring us down if we remember that we are capable, competent people who have earned the right to be where we are. In the 1970s, Franklin Ernst developed a simple two-by-two matrix, which he dubbed the “OK Corrall“. One axis captures the degree to which “You are/are not OK with me”. The other captures the degree to which “I am/am not OK with me”. If you are steadfastly OK with yourself, then imposter syndrome cannot make you believe otherwise. Nor can it make you believe that the audience is not OK with you. So, whenever I hear that inner voice trying to bring me down, I remind myself of all my successes, my achievements, my skills, and my competencies. I remind myself of everything that means I can be sure that I can do what I am about to do well.
2. Growth mindset
The second area around which I need to self-manage is what the psychologist Carol Dweck labels a growth mindset. Dweck believes that we tend to fall into one of two mindsets: “fixed” or “growth”. The growth mindset embraces challenges, sees effort as the path to mastery, learns through criticism and persists through setbacks. A growth mindset simply will not allow imposter syndrome to flourish. But, a fixed mindset—characterized by avoiding challenges, giving up easily, and seeing effort as pointless—easily falls prey to imposter syndrome. So, by constantly managing myself into and engaging with a growth mindset, I can also banish imposter syndrome from my mind.
The third self-management technique is resilience. Fred Luthans proposes that resilience is one of four essential psychological capacities for any leader. The others he identifies are hope, optimism, and confidence. Daniel Goleman argues that the emotional intelligence component of self-management embraces the concept of resilience. The individual who manages themselves well will be more confident and more optimistic—and for Goleman confidence and optimism are at the core of resilience.
Resilience helps individuals deal both with recurring problems and new challenges. But resilience can be a fragile thing. We have to work hard to develop the resilience we need to fuel ourselves, and we have to acknowledge that like any fuel it can be diminished – even drained – by demands made upon it.
Resilience also means emotional resilience. Imposter syndrome is fundamentally an attack on our emotions, on how we feel about ourselves and the immediate world around us. The more emotionally resilient you are, the more attuned you will be to the early warning signals of an impending attack of imposter syndrome—and the quicker and more efficiently you can see off that attack. Daniel Goleman explains that emotional resilience is strongest when you are in a state of low tension and high energy. It is weakest when you are subject to high tension and possess low energy.
The way to master/live with/manage imposter syndrome is not to deny that you are feeling it—that would be simply deceiving yourself. From your state of low tension and high energy – calm confidence – acknowledge and feel the emotion and then dismiss it as inappropriate and wrong. You need to be in a state of low tension and high energy as much as possible. If you are in a state of high tension, or if your energy is low, then you are more vulnerable to an attack of imposter syndrome because your defences are weakened.
Guarding against imposter syndrome
When you are tense or lacking in energy – and particularly when you are both tense and tired – your resilience is more readily drained. When this happens, you can’t as easily engage with that growth mindset. You can’t confidently affirm what you know to be true about yourself. And you can’t as readily be OK with others or with yourself. You need time to replenish your resilience levels. Otherwise, those attacks on your self-confidence and self-esteem – attacks from invaders like imposter syndrome – will bring you down. If tense tiredness becomes your default condition, eventually your resilience is depleted and you will not be able to function effectively at all.
So, how does any of this help Tim, Rachel, Dylan and Rhianna? Well, students will often tell me that knowing that imposter syndrome is a common problem, and not a cross that they bear alone, is something that is immediately reassuring. Then they tell me that awareness really can be half the solution. Finally, once they have put some of this thinking into practice, they say that the application of theory to practice proves to them that there really is something in this. They discover that imposter syndrome actually can be something they manage, rather than something that controls them.
Knowing that they are not alone, understanding that there are coping strategies, and discovering that the strategies work in practice gives individuals three vital points of triangulation.
So, here’s the blueprint to managing imposter syndrome:
- Build your self-awareness: the more certainty you have about who you are and what you’re for, the less grasp imposter syndrome can have on your confidence.
- Develop real self-esteem: don’t just be certain of who you are—be proud of who you are. Affirmation drives away imposter syndrome.
- Maintain a growth mindset: imposter syndrome cannot flourish within such a mindset.
- Be aware of your resilience levels and keep them high: imposter syndrome will not overcome a resilient personality.
Imposter syndrome is manageable. But we don’t manage it by accident. It’s worth taking seriously – because if you don’t manage imposter syndrome, sooner or later it will manage you.