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Combat imposter syndrome for good Origineurs podcast episode hosted by communication expert, Loretta Milan

Combat imposter syndrome for good

Have you met this rude guest?

No one likes a rude guest at a party, but there’s one guest that not only likes to turn up uninvited into our thoughts, but likes to insult us too. That’s our inner imposter.

Do you ever worry that you’re not really good enough? Maybe you question your capabilities. Or wonder whether you deserve to be in your position or be in business despite the positive traits you possess, your achievements or compliments you receive.

Perhaps you secretly worry that – at any minute – people are going to find out about these doubts and believe they’re true. And, what if – when they do – you lose your position, your clients or your reputation?

These kinds of thoughts are all a result of the doubts planted in our minds by our inner imposter. The part of us that feels we don’t deserve to be where we are in life.

This feeling is better known as ‘imposter syndrome’ and it can present on a wide scale from small doubts to crippling anxiety.

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome involves doubting your abilities to the extent you may feel a fraud.

The concept of ‘Imposter phenomenon’ – as it was first known – was developed by Psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes as part of their founding imposter study in 1978 which was centred around high-achieving women.

To quote the study, “despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”

Imposter syndrome is not isolated to women and is not a sign of weakness.

The struggle with feeling an imposter continues for many today – and it’s important to mention – challenges with feeling an imposter aren’t restricted to a single gender.

Anyone can experience it at any time.

In fact, some high-profile names have been open about their challenges.

Sheryl Sandberg – former COO of Meta and a Vice-President at Google – wrote candidly about frequently feeling inadequate and undeserving of her accomplishments in her book, Lean In, which I read recently.

First Lady Michelle Obama, Emma Watson, Lupita Nyong’o, Ellie Goulding, Bella Hadid and restaurateur, Wolfgang Puck, have all talked openly about their challenges too.

Surprisingly, the greater the achievements, the greater the doubt can be. In an article in which Charlize Theron discussed facing imposter syndrome in Harper’s Bazaar, the interviewer comes to the conclusion that, “even if you’re at the very top of your game, you rarely feel that you deserve to be there”.

So, imposter syndrome is not a sign that you are weak, undeserving or not good enough. Looking at the evidence, some of the most successful, high achievers are affected.

What does imposter syndrome really mean?

Well, firstly it means you are self aware and that’s a good thing. A healthy degree of introspection and doubt can help you make better decisions, learn and grow.

Too much doubt – however – can be crippling and cause mental distress. It can even cause burnout from an endless drive for perfectionism and a desire to meet expectations that may be unobtainable.

Too little doubt can lead people to become arrogant and boastful and fail to realise where they have a critical need to develop.

Getting the right balance is vital to addressing imposter syndrome.

How to combat imposter syndrome for good.

There are four key things you need to do to combat imposter syndrome for good.

1. Appreciate your journey of growth.

Whenever you acquire knowledge or skills, you progress through four phases or learning. The first is unconscious incompetence. This is essentially where you don’t know what you don’t know.

At this stage, the thing either seems impossible or easier than it actually is. People may experience extreme doubt – thinking they’ll never be able to do it – or overconfidence – figuring that “anyone can do that, I’ll be able to do that easily”.

With some learning, you progress through to conscious incompetence, where you become aware of just how much you don’t know. This is when imposter syndrome can be rife.

But, when you keep going, you’ll become more skilled and knowledgeable and will reach a stage of conscious competence, where doubt should subside somewhat.

Eventually, if you continue on, you’ll become an expert in your skill or knowledge area. This is when you can usually do something almost naturally – or know you should be able to.

This fourth stage is called unconscious competence. The problem with reaching this stage is that you can grossly underestimate your abilities because they feel so automatic and every day. It may not feel special.

By the time your reach this level, you’ll know that life is a continual journey of learning. You’ll be very aware that it’s impossible to know everything.

As the wonderfully wise headmistress who delivered many assemblies while I was at junior school often said, “you learn something new every day”. Because the truly wise know there’s always more to know.

So, to overcome imposter syndrome, it can help to both acknowledge this and look back at your journey objectively.

Look at where you started, what you’ve done to develop, the training you’ve done, the projects you’ve completed, the achievements you’ve had, the people you’ve helped, the satisfaction you’ve felt. Look at the real evidence. It’s there if you’ll see it.

Record it in a timeline or a journal or a scrapbook of achievements. Revisit it whenever you have doubts. You’ve really done all of this and you have it in you to succeed at whatever’s coming next.

And, if you’re still on a journey of development, know that we all are. We’re all at our best when we keep growing.

2. Focus on progress over perfection.

The drive to be perfect can be a key factor in feeling like an imposter. But perfection can be near impossible to reach.

If we hold an impossible image of ourselves in our minds, how are we ever going to feel enough?

A better way to think about your goals is, what am I doing this all for, and how can I make the process as fulfilling as possible?

When I was doing my classical music training when I was younger, I would push and push myself to perfect some really tricky pieces because the environment was very competitive. I would practice a couple of bars over and over for hours in frustration, trying to make them closer to perfection.

After years of doing this, I ended up reaching a block and cut back on playing, believing that I just wasn’t good enough to do it professionally and I’d never get any better.

Instead, I redirected my creative energies and desire for expression into writing, storytelling and building a career in communication which seemed to flow more naturally. This was largely because I wasn’t pressurising myself to be perfect, but instead had the aim to be creative and make a difference.

A few years later, though, when I met my partner, I noticed he had a piano in his dining room. I mentioned that I used to play all the time. He asked me to give it a go. I fished out one of my old music books played a bit of Chopin, one of my favourites.

That day, I realised, why I’d started playing the piano in the beginning. I played for the enjoyment of making music and the enjoyment of others. Because the process felt fulfilling once again, I played more and stuck at it. Instead of pushing for perfection, I simply aimed to make progress each time I ran my fingers over the keys.

As time went on, without realising it, I’d surpassed my previous ability without all the frustration and heartache I’d previously experienced. And, I no longer felt an imposter because I was no longer trying to be a perfect pianist. I was simply trying to play enjoyable music.

So, why do you do what you do? And, what do you need to do to make progress feel fulfilling for you?

3. Set fair expectations.

Other people’s expectations – or our perceptions of them – can also lead to feelings of being an imposter. As can the environment we’re in. Maybe it’s competitive, demanding or complex. Or maybe you’re new, different or have different perspectives to others around you.

This can lead to feelings that you’re not good enough especially if others are vocal or there are a lot of ambitious individuals around you.

Maybe you find yourself comparing yourself with others. When you do this, beware that we all have more information about ourselves than we do about others and so it is impossible to do this fairly.

We see all of our flaws and few in others because we only see what’s outside. So, we are inevitably harsher on ourselves, thinking there is more wrong with us. That is false.

If comparison is holding you back, this episode of the Origineurs podcast on why you succeed more when you stop comparing, will liberate you. 

The impact of heavy expectations, environments or comparison, doesn’t have to be current. Past experiences of these things can affect your present beliefs.

The first thing you need to do is separate yourself from the situation for the moment.

Take an objective look at yourself and the evidence. Do you have the skills, knowledge and experience you need? Remember, you don’t need to be perfect. What matters is, can you do what you want to do?

If there’s something you need to learn, identify that as an opportunity but question yourself if you’re letting it hold you back. Could you learn it on the journey? Use healthy doubt as motivation to do what you need to do but keep it in check.

If you’re in the wrong environment, is it time for a change? Or is there something you could do to improve relationships or manage expectations or get support to do so?

Never let an environment crush your spirit.

Know your value and what you can offer.

And, when you set expectations for yourself, be fair. Often we can be tougher on ourselves than others. What really matters to you and what can you realistically achieve in the timeframes you’ve set out for yourself?

As a check, if a friend or family member told you these were their expectations for themself, would you feel they were fair? If so, you’ve got the green light!

4. Avoid the shiny object trap.

A final major trigger for imposter syndrome is what I call the ‘shiny object trap’.

This is when something new or something else someone else is doing seems more exciting or better than what you are doing.

It seems shiner and more interesting.

This can lead to you doubting that you, your career, your business or something else about yourself is inadequate. You can feel this thing you love and have put so much time into is just not good enough.

The problem is exasperated by social media when we can be bombarded with posts about other people’s successes.

Now, it can be great to get ideas and inspiration from sources all around you. This can help to keep your imagination fired up. But, it becomes a problem when it distracts you, causes you to destructively doubt yourself or your path and go off track.

So, what can you do?

The first thing is to separate people, stories and inspiration. You cannot be someone else. They are them, you are you and you will achieve things in your original way. That’s what makes what you do special.

Then there are the stories that come with the shiny things other people are doing. These bring learnings. Is there something you can take away from this that you can apply to your journey in your way?

Finally, there is the inspiration from the shiny things. This could be new ideas for a business, career, a particular method, process, technique, product, service or something else that captures your interest.

If you tend to respond to new ideas with feelings of excitement or envy, the best thing is to write them down in a notebook and to promise to return to them in seven to ten days unless there’s a reason why you must act sooner.

Once this time has passed – and the emotions associated with the idea have had a chance to cool a little – look back at it.

Ask yourself…

  • Whether pursuing this idea is better or worse than your current plans in terms of how it would help you achieve your current goals?
  • Whether it takes you closer or further from where you want to be in life?
  • Would the delay in switching plans be worth it?
  • Would you find the process fulfilling?
  • What will it cost you in terms of time, money and other resources and is this worth it for you in terms of the result?
  • Is it aligned with your values? 

It can help to close your eyes and imagine yourself going down that path and what it would really be like. Try the idea out for size like a new dress or suit. Do you like how it feels? Does it fit in well with your life?

Notice how the focus is not on whether you are good enough to do it but rather on whether the idea is right for your life.

Here's why you can never be an imposter...

Whatever path you take in life, whatever skills and experiences and learnings you have, you are always good enough.

This is so important that we have a whole episode dedicated to showing you why you are good enough. Don’t miss it here.

You can never be an imposter because no one else can be you. You are original.

So, if there’s something inside of you claiming to be an imposter who tells you that you are not good enough or you don’t deserve to be here, don’t deserve what you have or don’t deserve your achievements, it’s lying to you.

It’s time to silence that voice.

Healthy doubt is your friend when kept in check. It helps you make decisions, ask good questions and know when to grow.

But an important truth remains…

You are good enough.

You do deserve to be here.

What’s more, you are here for a reason.

Key takeaways.

  1. Imposter syndrome is rife and can affect anyone at any time. It involves doubting your abilities to the extent you may feel a fraud. It is not a sign of weakness and is common among high achievers.
  2. A degree of self doubt is healthy. It means you are self aware. It can help you make better decisions, learn and grow. It protects you from arrogance and failing to recognise where you need to develop. But too much can be crippling. So, learning a healthy balance is essential.
  3. There are four key things you need to do to combat imposter syndrome for good. Appreciate your journey of growth. Focus on progress over perfection. Set fair expectations. And avoid the shiny object trap. Finally, remember, you are good enough and you are here for a reason.

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