"I've run a game on everybody, and they're going to find me out". So said the inspirational, talented, respected, award winning Maya Angelou. Together with Albert Einstein, Meryl Streep, Michelle Obama, Kate Winslet, Tina Fey and Tom Hanks, Maya Angelou suffered from imposter syndrome.
Imposter syndrome - yes, it's a real thing. An estimated 70% of us experience it at some time.
Picture the scene...
You have to give a talk to your colleagues. You feel like they all know more than you, are more experienced than you, are better speakers than you. You spend hours and hours preparing and practising. As you get up to speak you start to sweat and your heart races. That voice in your head unhelpfully chirps up: "Why on Earth are you giving this talk? You don't know as much as them! Any minute now they will start to giggle because they will realise you don't really have a clue!"
Imposter syndrome (also called imposter phenomenon) makes us feel we are less capable than those around us. We doubt our capabilities and have a nagging fear we will be exposed as a fraud. It's just a matter of time before we get found out. This can also affect us in social situations where we can fear the person we are talking to will soon realise how boring or socially inept we are. We can all have these thoughts. It is not race, IQ or age specific. Women seem to suffer more than men but that might be because men are less likely to talk about it. And there is some evidence that us self-effacing Brits do suffer more than some other cultures - self-confidence can sometimes be labelled as arrogance.
Imposter syndrome can sap our confidence and stop us from giving something a go. We can set ourselves up in a repeating cycle of doubt by over-preparing, over compensating to make sure we don't get 'found out'. But then, when we 'get away with it' we tell ourselves it's because we did all that extra work, setting ourselves up to do the same next time. The result is sitting in a state of constant anxiety.
Imposter syndrome feeds on isolation. By this I mean we each doubt ourselves privately but think we are the only ones because no one shares how they are feeling. I imagine if we were all a bit more honest we could exclaim "I feel like a fraud" and the ripple would quickly spread round the room with each person in turn confirming "I feel like a fraud too!". the dawning realisation that we all assume we are less 'worthy' than everyone else would quickly challenge our beliefs and instantly put us all at ease.
What can you do to manage your imposter syndrome?
It's no surprise then that the best way to combat Imposter syndrome is to talk about it. Sharing your fears will help to dispel them and will help you realise others feel the same way.
Banish that perfectionism. I'm sorry to break it to you but you'll never be perfect. None of us will. So if we're aiming for or expecting perfection from ourselves, we will inevitably fail. Time to be a bit more realistic. If you try to be superwoman/man you are doomed to feeling inadequate. Likewise you cannot be the world's leading expert in every field.
Learn to accept constructive criticism for what it is - constructive not destructive. We can all improve so advice offered can help you to improve and doesn't mean you aren't 'good enough'.
Be realistic about your abilities. What are your strengths, what could improve? Use evidence. Remember the positive feedback (don't dismiss it with negative phrases like "they were just being polite","they have to say that"). Think of all your achievements and successes. 'Big yourself up' as some would say.
Don't compare yourself to the leader in your field. What possible positive message can you get from this? Of course there are others that are better than you in some areas but you are you, and you have your own strengths. Why compare yourself to other people? And remember, even the leading expert doesn't know everything.
Challenge your imposter gremlin. Name it. Tell it to go away. Don't let the imposter thoughts run riot in your head. Are they rational, evidence based thoughts or just an automatic and destructive way of thinking? Notice the thoughts but don't let them set seed in your mind. Tell yourself "this is just my imposter gremlin messing with my mind". Like everything, this takes practice. Practice makes perfect. But of course, we aren't aiming for perfect - good enough will do.
A final word from Albert Einstein: "The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler." I think most of us would agree that Einstein deserved the praise heaped on him. Maybe you deserve it too.
What works for you when imposter syndrome strikes? If you struggle with low self-esteem or negative self image, counselling might help. Why not get in touch?