Well, who am I to be telling you about this? It seems a lot of us suffer from the feeling that we don’t deserve what we’ve got, or that we’ve got to the place we are by luck, or that we’ve somehow tricked everyone into giving us the responsibility we have. It seems many of us are scared that we are eventually going to be ‘found out’, and exposed as a fraud.
If you can relate to those feelings, you may be suffering from imposter syndrome.
So what is it?
Well, it’s all those feelings. It’s a psychological pattern that means the sufferer believes they’ve somehow got the achievements and accolades they have by luck, chance, or tricking others into giving them those things. It ignores the effort, work and external evidence of competence and ability and dismisses the experience and intelligence that others recognise.
Interestingly, when research first started, it focused on the prevalence among high achieving women, although it has now been recognised that men suffer it just as much. Equality rules!
Imposter syndrome is one of those things that nags at us like a little gremlin on our shoulder. The pervasive feeling that taints and stains every promotion, qualification, achievement or win of any kind is hard to ignore. Whilst everyone around you congratulates you, offers admiration, praise and acknowledgment, the gremlin sits, and whispers that you don’t deserve all that is bestowed on you.
And that whisper can be louder than any other noise in the room.
So why does it happen? Why do we dismiss our own achievements? Why do we minimise all our effort, blood, sweat and tears? Why do we sit waiting for someone to catch us out? Waiting for someone to see through this elaborate plan we’ve created to get us to the position we are in. Waiting for someone to say ‘wait a minute, you don’t belong here!’ at the top of their voice in a room full of other people waiting to agree.
Well, as ever there are a number of reasons, but largely as always in my school of thinking, it’s based in childhood. Our perception of what we are able or capable of doing is based in the messages we have received as a child. So for example, if you did well in a test, were you praised, or were you asked why you didn’t do better? Was your achievement revered as a stand-alone result of your hard work, or were you asked how everyone else in the class did? Were you told to study harder and harder or were you told you have worked hard enough, and it’s time for a break?
Essentially, what we are talking about is the knowledge that however good you are, however hard you’ve worked, it is GOOD ENOUGH.
People who struggle with imposter syndrome generally have low self-esteem and self-confidence. They may have grown up around messages such as that they aren’t trying hard enough, they aren’t doing well enough, just generally that they aren’t ‘enough’. It’s a horrible horrible feeling, and often this sense of fraudulence is something that holds people back from achieving their hopes and dreams, or even just trying for a promotion or pay rise at work, which is why it’s so important to challenge it. Imposter syndrome stops us from achieving our potential and leads to a lifetime of regret.
So how do we stop it happening? Obviously, my first thought is going to be therapy therapy therapy! If you can’t get to therapy, then you can start by challenging the thoughts associated with the feelings.
I’m going to break a boundary and share something personal with you. I wouldn’t normally do this, but I think it’s pertinent and relevant, and likely helpful.
When I got the email confirming the award of Master of Arts, my immediate response was ‘I’ve tricked them’.
My second response was ‘you’re not that clever’.
I don’t mean not clever enough to do a Masters (that battle had been beaten for me by a wonderful and supportive tutor), but clever enough to trick the two markers, and the full university exam board.
I started to reflect on everything I had done to get to that moment. I challenged thoughts that were saying ‘you couldn’t possibly have done this, you don’t deserve this’.
I looked for evidence. And that’s what I’m going to ask you to do when you’re feeling like you don’t deserve what you’ve achieved. Reflect on everything you’ve done to get there. Look at all the late nights and early mornings, the studying, the sacrifices. Look at why someone else might look at you and think ‘yeah, they deserve this’. Ask yourself how you would react if a friend spoke to you that way. Ask yourself if you would speak to anyone else that way.
And then tell that nasty little gremlin something that might surprise you to hear….
‘I know you’re there, and it’s okay. I’m sorry you feel like we don’t deserve this, but I promise we do. We worked hard to be here. We know what we’re doing. We didn’t hurt or sacrifice anyone else to get here, we belong here.’
Because you’re gremlin is scared. Scared of not being enough, of being caught out, and he’s trying to protect you. And in that way, he’s actually a little bit helpful.
Here’s the thing. That niggling feeling, that horrid squirmy, disconnected, ‘it’s not meant to be me’ feeling, is actually pretty helpful.
And here’s why:
It keeps you in check. It keeps you grounded. It keeps you working. It keeps you striving. It stops you from becoming complacent, arrogant, thoughtless, careless.
It helps you.
It’s a funny thing when you start to realise that once we’ve started building a relationship with our gremlin, once we get him into a proportional place, we can start using him to our advantage. Once we decide to talk back to him, he becomes our friend, and pushes us further than we ever thought we could go.
Thanks for waiting for this,
Helen Villiers LLB PG Cert., PG Dip., MA 😉
(no awards for drawing though 😉 )