Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.
I may not belong on this list on a name-recognition scale but I have something in common with these three great women.
At one point in my career — who am I kidding? At many points — I have felt like a fraud.
A big hoax.
We really don’t believe we have the chops to make it in our chosen field, and we fear we’ll be discovered, our inabilities exposed for all the world to see.
Our fear has a name: imposter syndrome.
Putting up a front
A client came to me recently to thank me for helping her get motivated.
She was always showing up late to her volunteer duties and couldn’t figure out why. I told her she wasn’t taking her volunteer duties as seriously as her paid work.
“If you don’t want to take it as seriously as your job, don’t commit to it,” I told her. “These organizations and people need you.”
That’s it. It wasn’t ground-breaking or earth-shattering stuff.
It was all she needed to hear, though.
She wanted to let me know I changed how she did things. I brushed her off in my typical style: “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.
I had to force myself to really hear her and give myself permission to accept the compliment.
We’re holding ourselves back
Imposter syndrome happens mostly with high-achieving individuals, and it’s incredibly common among 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 her female students were more worried about failing an exam but would go on 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.”
Does that sound familiar to you?
How about these?
The beauty of the imposter syndrome is that you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of ‘I’m a fraud! Oh God, they’re onto me! I’m a fraud!’ So you just try to ride egomania when it comes and enjoy it and the slide through the idea of fraud.
~ Tina Fey
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
I really did internalize that ‘OK, I don’t have to feel so confident, but I have to take my seat at the table anyway.’ And if you don’t want to be really honest about it, I’m not claiming that I feel self-confident all the time. To this day, I don’t. But I can see and I can remember and I can take a step back, and when I’m about to not ask a question or not volunteer to do something, I can remember.
~ Sheryl Sandberg
Some speculate that these feelings among women are at the root of our unwillingness to pursue executive-level positions and spots in the C-suite.
Imposter syndrome thrives in very 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 have an inability to internalize our accomplishments or to recognize we are the captains of our ship.
We unable to recognize that we are responsible for our success.
So we end up in a fear-based place that somebody will find out we’re frauds, just like Fey said.
And that forces us into perfectionism mode.
We obsess over every little detail.
We must have the answer to 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.”
Essentially, we’re living with 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.
Then, we 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.
And we still feel like we the success isn’t ours.
We still feel like we haven’t proven ourselves.
We still feel like we don’t measure up.
Power up your confidence
I have to work hard to internalize compliments.
The aforementioned client practically had to shake me into hearing her, because I’m too busy attributing the success to something other than my abilities and knowledge.
I’m too busy maintaining my professional stance to let her break through.
I’m too busy focusing on the next thing, the next project, the next client to hear her compliment and accept it.
To let it all go, to truly be confident, to allow myself to hear her, I have to tear down my walls and let everyone know that I’m not always confident.
And boy oh boy, it ain’t easy to just be yourself like that.
[tweetthis hidden_hashtags=”#selfesteem”]Our greatest strength comes from our willingness to be vulnerable, to be real.[/tweetthis]
Too many times, we crumple when someone asks us a question as simple as “what kind of ice cream do you like” or “how do you like your eggs done,” we don’t know how to answer.
Because we don’t know which persona we have to be in that moment: our true self or the person you think we are.
Here’s what we have to do to get over it:
- Practice being honest with yourself.
- Accept that you make mistakes and it isn’t the end of the world.
- Be honest with others about what you can and can’t do
- Open yourself to hearing a compliment.
- Acknowledge a compliment or a success and internalize it.
“Wait, Janice,” you say. “What the heck do you mean by ‘internalize a compliment or a success’?”
I mean that you have to revel in the moment.
Do a happy dance, high-five yourself or anybody around you, take yourself out for a nice meal, toast yourself with a glass of wine. Write them down, post them on your wall, share it with a friend or your partner. Acknowledge it.
When my clients reach a goal or complete a step on their path, I get them to write down 10 things they did really well — five is good, 10 is great.
They get to recognize how they are responsible for getting themselves to that point.
And how they can give themselves permission to revel in that success.
Because you did that.
I am Janice Otremba. I am a professional speaker, trainer and coach that specializes in stress management, health and wellness, personal growth and life balance. I invite you to share your thoughts and opinions, to determine how I can be of service to you. I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.