Ask An Adult: What Is Impostor Syndrome And Why Do I Get It?
The Debrief: Unless you're Kanye West, you've probably had impostor syndrome at some point in your life
I’ve been a journalist for a good few years now, and I like to think I know my stuff. I know the right questions to ask in an interview. I can express myself in writing with a basic level of eloquence. I can hit a deadline with seconds to spare. As my oh-so-supportive friend once put it, ‘People keep paying you to do it, so you can’t be that bad.’
And yet… every so often, when I turn up, sweaty from the tube scrum and with a small coffee stain on my arm, I feel a small knot of fear that the person I’m meeting will raise an eyebrow when I walk through the door. ‘You?’ I expect them to say. ‘Seriously? Were all the real journalists busy?’
Yes, my name is Lottie and I have Impostor Syndrome.
What is Impostor Syndrome?
Wikipedia, the fountain of all knowledge, describes Impostor syndrome as ‘a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalise their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved.’
Basically, you spend every day feeling like you’re winging it, and that any moment everyone will realise that you have no idea what you’re doing.
Why do I get it?
Unless you’re Kanye West, aka the ‘Greatest Rockstar of All Time’, chances are you’ve felt the glaring fear of Impostor Syndrome at some point in your life. If you’re lucky, it only hits at moments of high pressure: just before speaking in front of a crowd, or a job interview. For other people, like me, it’s a fairly constant background hum.
So where does it come from? Like many of life’s problems, we can lay some of the blame on social media.
‘The social media age we currently live in influences us to constantly compare ourselves to others. This means our expectations of what we should achieve are higher than ever, but the sheer volume of these expectations means we’re bound to not be able to achieve them all,’ explains life coach Maria Banobre.
Annoyingly, it’s also more common in women. ‘Women are more naturally caring, nurturing and want to please,’ says Nikki Armytage, leadership coach at Electric Woman.
‘[Society] doesn’t allow us to internalise our achievements, so we look externally for approval and to please others. Women who are high achieving and perfectionist feel like they’re never doing a good job (as it’s not perfect) then comes the doubt and the idea of being a fraud.’
Does it mean I’m bad at my job?
Absolutely not. Ironically, it probably means the complete opposite. Think back to all the worst people you’ve ever worked with; the ones who get away with murder, do a sub-standard job at best and take credit for other people’s work. Chances are, these people all thought they were pretty great.
In contrast, people with Impostor Syndrome tend to hold themselves to impossibly high standards, so even if they’re doing a great job, they won’t see it. This means that even the most capable, successful people are vulnerable to performance anxiety.
‘Each and every person has moments in their life when they think they’re not good enough. It’s part of being human,’ Banobre explains.
So how can I deal with Impostor Syndrome?
‘The first step is to acknowledge that you have it – and so does everyone else,’ advises entrepreneur and business coach Emma Sexton.
‘The trick is to hear it and question it. Then challenge yourself to see what actually happens.’
She recommends turning the fear into ‘a game in your head’, asking yourself: ‘I wonder what does happen when I give this presentation?’
The idea here is that you repeatedly prove your fears wrong.
‘Build on these experiences one step at a time, always looking for evidence to support a more positive state of mind,’ Sexton continues. ‘There’s a great quote “you see things not as they are but how you are”.’
Banobre reminds us that fear and anxiety can actually make us perform worse at work, so it’s important to bring ourselves back when we feel Impostor Syndrome strike.
‘If we’re all consumed by fear of what the outcome will be, we don’t have time to enjoy the process and when we’re fully enjoying the process, fully in the moment, then we feel more inspired and do a fantastic job,’ she explains.
‘Practice being mindful at work. How do you feel when you’re completing a project? What can you see, hear or sense? Be right in that moment.’
Won’t I just grow out of it?
Probably not. I vividly remember a conversation with my mum when I was in my early 20s. I’d just started a PR job and was blindly photocopying press cuttings with no real idea what I was doing or why I was doing it.
‘I thought that when I had a proper job, I’d maybe feel like a grown-up,’ I complained over tea one day. ‘I just feel like I’m making it up as I go along and trying to make it to the end of each day without getting fired.’
My mum laughed. ‘What no one tells you is that no one ever feels like an adult. Every day, I’m just waiting for someone to march into my office, point at me and say, “This woman has NO IDEA what she is doing. She must leave immediately.”’
So there you go. If you’re struggling with Impostor Syndrome, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re in the best possible company.
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