Updated: Mar 8
A client recently thanked me for helping her get motivated. She wanted me to know I changed how she approached things.
My response was to brush her off by saying "That's just what I do, no thanks necessary."
She became adamant. "No, Janice, you're not getting how important this is to me. What you said changed me and I'm better for it."
She forced me to stop and really listen. To really hear her and give myself permission to accept the compliment.
Get out of your own way.
I’m willing to bet my example sounds familiar. Imposter syndrome is incredibly common in achieving individuals--predominantly successful women.
Atlanta psychologist Pauline Clance and her colleague Suzanne Imes coined the term "imposter syndrome" in 1978. While teaching at Ohio's Oberlin College, Dr. Clance noticed that while her female students were more worried about failing exams, they would also be more likely to achieve straight As. Her male students were not as stressed.
"They have been taught to go ahead and act as if you do," said Clance. "Women haven't been taught as much to do that." Her imposter phenomenon test asks individuals to react to such comments as "I can give the impression that I'm more competent than I really am" and "I'm afraid people important to me may find out that I'm not as capable as they think I am".
Actor Tina Fey describes the experience as an oscillation between extreme egomania and feeling like a fraud. The result is trying to ride the waves of egomania and sliding under the radar as a “fraud”.
“I have written 11 books, but each time, I think: 'Uh-oh, they're going to find out now. I've run a game on everybody, and they're going to find me out.”
~ Maya Angelou
There’s speculation these feelings among women are at the root of the low number of women holding executive-level positions. Imposter syndrome thrives in competitive career paths and few mentors are available to allay our fears.
"It’s not that women don’t want to succeed, it’s that, despite their education and experience, they’ve internalized messages about their lack of qualification," writes journalist Ann Friedman on the Pacific Standard website. "This is also true in the earliest stages of a professional career, when the difference between a polite rejection and a modest salary is mostly luck and connections, it can be hard to tell yourself that you earned this entry-level job and that you were qualified above and beyond all of those other applicants."
The fraud within
Those of us who suffer from imposter syndrome find it difficult, if not impossible, to internalize our accomplishments or recognize we are the captains of our ship. We can’t seem to see we are responsible for our success so we end up terrified somebody will find out we're frauds, just like Fey said.
This fear forces us into perfectionism mode where we obsess over every little detail and feel we must be able to answer every question. We force ourselves to recite "I got this," and "I'm in total control," and we overachieve, lest the truth — our truth — comes out. Our fear starts to snowball and we go into chaos, thinking "who the hell do I think I am?", and "I got lucky." We end up trying to live with and balance two personas: the overachiever who can do anything she sets her mind to and the fearful fraud. We build a façade of confidence and work our asses off to maintain it.
The logical result of this is burn out. We're exhausted all the time and, when we finish a project or achieve a goal, we feel depleted because we had to push ourselves so hard. The worst part is, we’ll still feel like we didn’t earn the success and haven't proven ourselves.
Power up your confidence
I have to work hard to internalize compliments. My client practically had to shake me into hearing her because I was too busy attributing the success to something other than my capabilities. To let it all go, to truly be confident, to allow myself to hear a compliment, I have to tear down my walls and let everyone know that I'm not always confident--which requires the willingness to be vulnerable.
Our greatest strength comes from our willingness to be vulnerable, to be real. It’s the only way to stop trying to navigate between personas and be our authentic selves.