The Truth About Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome. It’s used so frequently in business articles, social media memes, confession-style blog posts and more that it clearly resonates with many of us.

But what is it, really? And if we can define it, can we also decide how to overcome it, and what the underlying issues and concerns actually may be?

First, let’s look at the etymology itself.

im·pos·tor syn·drome

“the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills.”

The term imposter phenomenon was first introduced in a 1978 article by Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes, who surveyed more than 100 women, primarily in higher education and professional industries, to ask about their success (and feelings around their success).

All of these women had been formally recognized for professional excellence AND who had shown significant academic achievement by receiving educational degrees or scoring well on standardized tests.

Even with this external and mostly objective validation, many of the women surveyed said they attributed their success to luck, or felt that people around them had overestimated their actual capabilities.

More than 40 years after the article’s publication, the concept of imposter syndrome has been assessed, reviewed and debated — all the while becoming an even hotter topic in all circles of leadership.

(It’s also fair to say that institutional bias, exclusion, sexism, racism and other marginalization in corporate and non-profit organizations are also worth a very close look when considering imposter syndrome and its effects.)

To go even further, the latest research shows that “imposter syndrome” or its related terms disproportionately affects high-achieving people who don’t seem to feel worthy of their success or of taking ownership over their accomplishments.

You can also hear Les talk with Carey Nieuwhof about “The Difference Between Feeling Like You’re Failing and Real Failure, Imposter Syndrome, and the Problem with People-Pleasing Leaders” below:

A few of the points that I think are worth pulling out from that conversation:

  • We pretty much all suffer from imposter syndrome, but we can find ways to manage it.
  • Therapy is really good (even if it’s unpaid therapy that comes from honest relationships and conversations with fellow leaders).
  • Imposter syndrome thrives on a lack of transparency.
  • If you don’t tackle your imposter syndrome and deal with it, you are very likely to burn out and to not achieve what you are capable of.

The truth about leadership — and the pursuit of it — is that it can be isolating even without what Les calls “the constant psychic drain” of impostor syndrome. Having people around you, especially competent peers who know what you do and how you’re expected to perform, allows you to get some additional perspective on your skills and your potential.

This person can listen, challenge you, help you gently check your ego, encourage you, push you outside of your comfort zones and much more.

Let’s take this concept even further. What if you do not have a trusted colleague or colleagues, and instead, get all of your feedback from an inner circle? A group of people who only get feedback and validation from each other, which also means it is by nature exclusionary (or even a clique, even if it’s a clique of leaders and power players).

You can read more on Les’ thoughts here (spoiler: the title is “Do Yourself a Favor and Dump Your Inner Circle” so get ready for a GREAT and provocative essay).

So, if you are experiencing imposter syndrome and want to prevent it from derailing your growth and success…what can you do?

  1. Find a community that can help give you objective feedback and support. Notice that this is not an inner circle, nor an echo chamber. The Predictable Success Leadership Community is a great place to start, and it’s free to take part in.
  2. Reframe your thinking and even your inner negative self-talk. If you haven’t yet accomplished all that you want to, that’s OK! Embrace the progress you have made and the plans you still have ahead and speak those affirmations out loud. Even if you’re the only one to hear them, there’s power in the words.
  3. Separate your feelings from the facts. Again, talking to a friend or writing things down can really help. If you completed a task or met a goal and don’t feel 100% excited about it, keep them as individual things! “I turned in my quarterly report early, including a list of the KPIs that I pursued during these 90 days. My boss reviewed the report and provided me with written feedback, including a list of items I can work on over the next 90 days. While I’m disappointed that we did not meet our intended benchmarks for 8 out of 10 of the KPIs last quarter, I’m proud that my boss recognized the success of Projects A and D, and sees the potential in me for more growth in the coming quarter.”
  4. Celebrate successes as they happen! We are often so quick to chase the next goal, or only see the small stumbles rather than the overall wins. Take time each day, week, month, quarter and year to document and honor the work that you’ve done and the positive results it led to.
  5. If none of the above ideas work — just accept it and move on!

One of the things I’ve learned as a high-performing Predictable Success Processor is that it’s hard for me to just talk or will myself out of feeling a certain way. Sometimes, I have to just say — “I’m feeling what I’m feeling and it is what it is, but instead of letting it take over my mood and stop me from accomplishing the next big thing, I’m going to use this imposter syndrome as fuel!”

(Not sure what your Predictable Success Style is? Take the FREE quiz below!)

Have you experienced imposter syndrome? When, and how do you pull yourself out of it when it starts to derail your dreams and success?

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