I'm taking a break from our recent series on reading and research skills, to talk about something that is uppermost in my mind right now. It’s about a state of mind you may have encountered already or will do in the future - Impostor Syndrome.
It's estimated that around 70% of people experience it at some time or another and if you’re not aware of how common it is, then you may think you are the only person who feels this way.
But what is Impostor Syndrome?
An impostor is someone who pretends to be something they’re not – they might pretend to be a celebrity to get past security at a VIP party or pretend to be your long-lost Auntie to swindle you out of your savings.
Impostor Syndrome is not pretending to be accomplished when we’re not; it’s the anxiety that other people think we’re accomplished when deep down we FEAR we’re not. Despite our very real achievements and the external recognition of qualifications, awards, and job promotions, we feel that we are not worthy of our success. We feel a fraud. We feel like an impostor.
Impostor Syndrome tends to occur in high-achieving individuals (such as you at University) and it stems from an inability to acknowledge that your achievements are a result of your intellect, ability, and hard work.
Most of us accept responsibility for our mistakes and errors, yet we tend to attribute our successes to outside circumstances such as our situation, serendipity or support from others.
If you don’t believe deep down that you’re fully deserving of what you’ve accomplished, then it leads to the fear that you are an impostor.
You may be wondering why I’m telling you about it now
Well, the reason Impostor Syndrome has surfaced again in my life is because this week I am fortunate to be working with Soness Stevens, Head Speaker Coach at TEDx. And I’m going to be honest with you…
I didn’t feel worthy of the opportunity. I feel like an Impostor.
I've felt this way before, right at the start of my Ph.D. If you’re surrounded by super-bright, engaging individuals who are conducting cutting-edge research, it's easy to make comparisons and find yourself lacking. I soon found out though that many of my peers felt the same way. And it was liberating to find out that regardless of age, culture, and experience, many of us felt like we were 'winging it' sometimes.
It helped me to know I wasn’t alone. And as I know Impostor Syndrome is particularly prevalent among University students, I thought I’d be open about my experience so you understand you’re not alone and it’s surprisingly common to feel this way.
It starts with an idea worth spreading…
Many of you know that alongside blogging at joinedupwriting.online, I research creativity. I’m incredibly blessed to have a job where I get to interview remarkable engineers, inventors, and thought leaders about how creativity is recognised in their workplace.
Through my research, I’ve been blessed to work with Soness Stevens. Her incredible expertise in coaching speakers, together with the techniques she teaches has allowed me to quickly clarify the message I want to communicate to the wider world about my creativity research after it is published.
It’s while working with Soness that I’ve experienced Impostor Syndrome again. My inner critic has started whispering:
What makes you feel you have an idea worth spreading? Who are you to think you can talk at TEDx?
I’m guessing you have an inner critic as well. You probably talk more critically to yourself than you would to anyone else. I know I do. Maybe you've had the same feeling of being an Impostor? The suspicion other people think you're cleverer than you think you really are. Or feeling you’ve somehow been mistaken for someone who is REALLY accomplished and REALLY knowledgeable.
Perhaps you feel that any minute now somebody is going to shout:
‘She’s faking it!’ or
‘He’s been stringing us along all the time!’
It’s not a good feeling, is it?
I’m a natural extrovert. I feel energised when I’m surrounded by people and I love to bounce ideas around and discuss them. My outgoing personality often leads people to assume I’m brimming with confidence, yet I have many of the same insecurities as anybody else. I’ve just learned to hide them well.
And that’s part of the problem. People don’t tend to own up to lacking confidence or feeling unworthy of their achievements, so we become trapped in a cycle where we assume our peers and mentors have rock-solid confidence and we’re the only one with self-doubt. But it just isn’t true.
The truth is we compare how we feel on the inside with how others look on the outside. We judge ourselves against professors, older students, and friends who are studying courses at other Universities. We contrast our achievements with the attainments of others and feel we fall short - even though they may be older than us and more experienced.
Even famous and accomplished people have feelings of doubt. They even worry that they’re on the verge of being uncovered as a fraud. Margie Worrell writes in Forbes magazine that both writer Maya Angelou and actress Kate Winslet have gone on record as suffering from Impostor Syndrome. Imagine that - at the top of your profession, widely acknowledged as the finest – yet you still feel undeserving of your success!
It’s the feeling that’s the impostor, not you
The irony is that most people who actually are frauds and impostors DON’T worry about it! If you're feeling this way, then it demonstrates you've got integrity, aim high and strive to do the best job possible.
I’m convinced there are three types of people:
- People who aim high, but feel anxious they still don’t know enough,
- People who are unaware of what they don’t know and have false confidence, and
- Kanye West.
Are you laughing now? Seriously, wouldn't it be great to have Kanye’s total self-belief? He’s one person who seems CERTAIN all his success is purely down to his talent! Or could it be I’m falling into the trap of looking at the outside and assuming there is no self-doubt on the inside? I doubt I'll never know.
That's why I think it's important for me to talk about this topic because highlighting the way I feel, even though I’m a successful scholar, may help to reassure other people out there that they’re not deficient in intelligence, ability, or achievement. It’s not you that’s the fraud, it’s your feelings.
Soness has challenged me to think about the consequence of NOT spreading my ideas to a wider group of people. To shift my focus to what I will miss out on by not sharing my research with the world - and what the world will miss out on by not hearing about my research.
It’s made me realise the true cost of Impostor Syndrome is that we hold our best work back. We become so afraid of being exposed as the fake WE think we are that we play safe and don't take up opportunities to grow into our potential and share our message more broadly.
There is a well-known quote by Marianne Williamson which expresses this sentiment beautifully:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Your playing small does not serve the world
What if the next time you felt like an Impostor you asked yourself a different question?
And instead of saying to yourself ‘Who am I to share my work with the world? you asked yourself ‘Who am I to keep my work from the world?’
Doesn’t it feel empowering? Say it out loud again “Who am I to keep my work from the world?”
Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian points out that becoming more accomplished doesn't take away these feelings of self-doubt and worry of being exposed. He explains that the more accolades you win and the more you achieve, the more likely you’ll feel like a fraud.
If gaining more accomplishments or increasing your expertise only makes the problem worse, what can you do? After giving this some thought this week, here are two Pro Tips which I hope will help you:
Pro Tip #1
Most of what you have accomplished has been because of your hard work, ingenuity, and skill. FACT.
Go ahead and write down everything that you have achieved in the last 12 months. Now study the items on your list one by one and note the extent to which your ABILITY and ATTITUDE was a factor in your achievement.
If you have time, go back further and review the last five years. I did this exercise and I believe you too will be truly surprised at how much you have achieved and how much of that was down to your talent and tenacity.
Pro Tip #2
Speak with a friendly and approachable person who you admire. This could be another student or a tutor at your University. Tell them how you feel and ask them if they’ve ever experienced self-doubt concerning their ability.
If they’re honest then they will probably tell you they’ve felt just like you at one time or another. You’ll find it reassuring to know that those you admire are human too!
This blog post has been tougher to write than my usual practical ‘How to’ articles. It’s come from the heart… and sharing my feelings like this makes me feel vulnerable. But I know that sharing THIS message will help some of you (and maybe most of you) who read it.
And the next time you feel like an impostor I hope you’ll remember this blog post, laugh in the face of your fear and move forward into the future awaiting you.
If this resonates with you then I’d love for you to share your experience in the comments below.