I WAS at an event a while ago, where one of the speakers was witty, engaging and clearly knew her stuff. She had won several awards, was on top of her game, and the audience loved her. Afterwards, when I complimented her on how well it all had gone, her reaction surprised me. “Really”, she said.
“I was so nervous beforehand and felt like a total fraud. I’ve total impostor syndrome!”
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been that surprised: research indicates that at least 70% of us will have experienced impostor syndrome at some point in our lives. It is where we start doubting our own accomplishments, feel that we are not as accomplished or clever as others in the same position, and have a fear of being exposed as a fraud. We believe that any success we experience is due to luck, or sheer hard work, and not that we, in ourselves, are good enough.
We often associate impostor syndrome with women. Some of the reasons for this might date back to when the phenomenon was first identified in the 1970s. Interviewing high achieving female university students and realising how many of them felt like frauds not deserving of their place, psychologists Pauline Clancy and Suzanne Imes initially made the assumption that impostor syndrome only impacted professionally successful women.
But subsequent research has shown that men can be equally impacted by it. The behavioural pattern men and women display when dealing with impostor syndrome is different, however. Men with impostor feelings tend to show high levels of impulsivity, a need for change and risk-taking behaviour. Women deal with it through cautiousness, withdrawal, and avoidance of, rather than exposure to, risk. And because we tend to reward risk-taking behaviour more than withdrawing behaviour, especially in business, we are perhaps more inclined to view the female version of it as a problem that needs fixing. Let’s face it, we don’t tend to write a lot of books on how men need to change in order to become more successful.
But both risk-taking and withdrawal are, in this context, coping mechanisms that will do little to deal with the underlying issue. Feeling like a fraud is not a pleasant emotion, and for those who suffer from deep-seated and all-encompassing impostor feelings, the impact can be far-reaching and linked to self-esteem issues, anxiety and depression. And even for those who suffer from milder versions of impostor syndrome, limited perhaps to a sinking feeling before you are due to make a speech or convincing yourself that everyone else is capable of producing better content than you, it can have a debilitating effect.
But what if we looked at it differently? What if that sinking feeling is a just sign that you are brave enough to step out of your comfort zone? What if the concern you have about the quality of your content is part and parcel of the creative process? According to Carol Dweck, the author of Mindset, there is a link between how we feel about effort and failure and our experience of impostor syndrome. People with a growth mindset, who believe that intelligence and talent can be developed through effort and dedication, and who see failure as a temporary setback and an opportunity to learn, experience less of it. People with a fixed mindset, who view their abilities as fixed and both effort and failure as a sign of inadequacy, are much more susceptible to it.
I don’t know if my speaker friend had a growth mindset or not. But results from a recent workforce survey by Taxback.com seems to indicate that a substantial number of Irish workers do. 40% of the respondents identified experience and the acquisition of skills as their most valuable work attribute.
This was closely followed by communications skills, and – crucial to a growth mindset: “That I am always improving – or at least trying to.”
Significantly, 62% of those surveyed had never experienced impostor syndrome in work. A further 25% reported that they had experienced it the past but no longer did. And while there were some gender differences in the answers, with women reporting higher level of past, although not ongoing, impostor feelings, and valuing communication skills over experience, the overall distribution was relatively consistent. A testament, perhaps, to what can happen when we embrace challenges as learning opportunities.
At the moment we are going through unprecedented times. But along with the challenges we’re facing we also seem to be experiencing an increased openness and acceptance of our vulnerabilities, a feeling that none of us really know what we’re doing, that things are hard, but sure look it, you might as well give it a go. And perhaps this collective figuring it out as we go along will be a help to all of us when it comes to dealing with feelings of inadequacy in the future. Wouldn’t that be a great silver lining.
Ingrid Seim is a psychological coach and the founder of Avenues Consultancy & Coaching. She is also the Secretary for Network Ireland Cork, a not for profit national organisation for women in business, the professions and the arts. See www.avenues.ie