#14: Working with Impostor Phenomenon?

This is a topic that affects many people, and it is called imposter syndrome. It’s really not a syndrome so much as it is a condition–like a phenomenon–that someone experiences.

It can get intense. It can take over your brain. It isn’t a mental illness so far as we can understand. So, in about 1985, there were some researchers who did a fabulous job of exploring this phenomenon. And they created this idea of imposter syndrome as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that are pretty persistent, even though an individual might be successful.

We can observe their success. They can observe their own success. And yet, there’s a sense of being a fraud and this worry that someone’s going to “find me out.”

Many People Experience Impostor Phenomenon

If you’ve ever had that experience, I want to reassure you, you’re not alone. From what we know, up to 70% of people who are successful, or people in general, experience what we call imposter syndrome or imposter phenomenon.

I’d like to talk about it a today, especially because I’m very active in the fields of education and academics. And in these fields in particular, as well as entrepreneurship, we have a lot of folks who are out there doing new things, really succeeding in great ways, and not able to compare their success or compare what they are doing to other people.

This would kind of be like this “one-man island” out there and thinking because they don’t see anyone else doing what they are doing, that maybe they’re fake. Or, maybe they’re wrong. And it’s very normal [to think].

I assure you, you’re not alone if you have that experience.

I like to share my background on this topic with you just a little bit, and also my experience with it. And then, I’ll talk about some ideas on types of imposter feelings, and then [I’ll offer] some suggestions for working through this and kind of “getting beyond it,” if you’re experiencing that.

And, of course, if you know anyone who is experiencing this and maybe it’s not you, I would encourage you to have some compassion, sympathy, and above all, maybe not try to prove to them that they are successful–but be a good listener. Because, the more someone outside of the person experiencing this tries to give them feedback, the more the feedback is external and actually might perpetuate the problem instead of helping to reduce it.

I actually have a lot of personal experience in this area. I’ve been to a couple of professional conferences—three, actually–in which this was a major topic. And in the sessions where this was being presented and discussed, there were a lot of people there. And among those people were a lot of academics, Deans, high achievers, really a variety of people at all different stages of their professional careers.

So, if there are so many people that are experiencing this, the question is, “why is it so unknown?” Or, “why don’t we hear more about how to deal with it?”

It’s relatively new. Even though 1985 was quite some time ago, it’s an idea that is not in the clinical scale of illnesses or that kind of problem. So, perhaps we don’t think it’s very serious, so we don’t give it very much attention. But when you’re the person who’s feeling like a fake or a fraud, you’re going to be discovered or “found out” as a fraud, when you’re down this path of success, it can be very threatening and very frightening to feel this way.

What is the Experience of Impostor Phenomenon Like?

If you’ve ever suffered from chronic self-doubt, or thinking that you’re intellectually a fraud, or somehow incompetent, you know exactly what I’m talking about. There’s this stress. Anxiety. Pressure. And some degree of despair, that someone outside of you knows what you’re doing, and knows more than you, and is going to be “on to you” at some moment.

So, being that as it is, at the conferences I’ve attended, the first one where I heard this topic presented and discussed was at a professional music researcher conference in the field of music education. And these women had studied—really, they were looking at women in higher education in the field of music education—so, they had a pretty narrow band. But they did study both men and women to see whether this was something that really affected women more, or men equally, or what–you know, what was the deal. And, they did discover that in their study about two thirds of the men they studied that were academics in music education felt some degree of imposter syndrome. And the women, it was more like three quarters of them had that experience. So, while women did have the experience more in the group that they studied, it’s still a majority in both men and women in that study they experienced [it.]

So, at another conference that I attended, where two different years this was covered, was at the Online Learning Consortium conference called OLC Accelerate. And I believe it was 2018 and 2019. So, at that conference, it was really eye-opening to see a crowded room filled with people all very anxious to learn about imposter syndrome or imposter phenomenon, and to work through these ideas.

I was at a table of six or eight people, and we each went around this table discussing when we have felt this way. What kinds of experiences led to our feelings.

And it was quite surprising to see that everyone at the table had varying experiences of feeling very deeply as if they were an imposter at some point in their career.

So, what seems a pretty common thing is that it affects a person who is an achiever, moving in a direction of trying to be an achiever, or gaining some kind of success. And as the success or achievement is obtained, then there’s the sense that it wasn’t really deserved or wasn’t really earned.

It’s kind of interesting, because when we look at other people in our profession, or in education, or academics, or any field where achievement is emphasized, we see other people who are achieving. And we think that they really have it all “together.” They just really know what they’re doing.

So, from the outside, another person appears very confident. And they’re moving on a path of producing or achieving certain things. And even though we might be doing the same things, we may be feeling ourselves as if we are not as good as that other person. Or that we are somehow fake in our efforts or achievements.

There are Several “Types” of Impostor Phenomenon Thinking

So, let’s talk a little bit about different kinds of imposter situations. There are five that have been identified here.

The Perfectionist

One is the perfectionist. And I’ve talked about perfectionism in the past, in a previous podcast, and the idea of perfectionism as far as imposter feelings are concerned is sort of the “I should have done better” or “mistakes are unacceptable.” So, if you are a perfectionist-type and you’ve achieved or found some success, it’s very easy to discount that success by looking back and seeing any kind of flaw along the way. Granted, other people might not be seeing these flaws, or if they do, they might just be accepting them as part of the process. But we ourselves, we are kind of looking at that as totally unacceptable. And that’s what discounts our own success if were in the perfectionist category.

The Expert

The second one is the expert idea. And that is sort of the “if I were actually smart, I would know everything there is to know in this area.” The expert problem might come up for you if you see other people out there in your same area that have some additional knowledge that you don’t see yourself having now.

What we know about the human brain is that we have our talents, our values, our strengths, and that every single human being is unique. We are not all the same. We don’t learn the same. We don’t think the same. And we certainly don’t emphasize the same things in our work. So, it would make sense that yes, there is someone else out there who knows something you don’t know about the topic you’re studying. So, you see that it’s very easy to latch onto and think they actually know more than you, when really, they know something more than you. But you also might know something they don’t know, quite likely.

The Natural Genius

The third one is called natural genius. And this is the idea that “if I were really smart, this would be effortless.” For some reason, when we get imposter-like feelings, we think the path to that success we earned or the achievement should have been easier, when the truth is, almost everything that we do that is worth achieving is really hard.

The whole path is challenging. The whole journey is difficult. And most people who achieve anything fight all kinds of inner thoughts and inner self-talk that is trying to keep them from the success. Because the brain kind of wants to just wrap things up and let it be easy. And if everything were easy, we wouldn’t really achieve anything, because we would take the easy way instead.

image of business woman with superhero shadow Shutterstock

The Superhero

The fourth one is called superhero. And that’s the idea that “if I were really confident, I’d be able to do it all.” That goes back to the expert idea that someone else knows everything, and if I were really smart, I would know everything. Well, this idea is more like “if I am really confident, I’d be able to do everything.” So, if you can’t know everything, I guess you should be able to do everything. But again, there are very few people out there who have really achieved in an area and who actually can do everything across the board.

The reason people become successful is that they narrow their focus and become more excellent along a certain path. So, the truth of being able to do it all is not really something that is consistent with achievement. You have to say no to some things just to excel at other things.

The Rugged Individualist

The last one, the fifth one, is called the rugged individualist. This is the idea that “the only achievements that really matter are the ones I got myself.” Like as if it’s really possible to totally do 100% of things all by ourselves.

Anyone who’s really achieved anything–even a small thing in life–knows that other people often taught us, coached us, mentored us, paved the way, maybe wrote a book we read, that kind of sparked our curiosity, or we learned from them and continued their path along our own journey. We really owe a lot of what we are to other people.

And because we live in such a communal learning sort of situation, I don’t think anyone could possibly achieve all of their achievements or learning or growth all by themselves. We just are a communal type of people that learn from others as well.

So, these five areas definitely have the logic where we can argue against them. But there is sort of the tendency to where if you do have feelings of imposter phenomenon, it’s likely that you’re going down one of these five paths.

Ideas to Handle Imposter Thoughts and Feelings

But understand, there are some things we can think about in terms of imposter phenomenon to kind of deal with these things. One of the ideas is that imposter phenomenon really creates a sense of low overall self-esteem, like where we are very aware of what we don’t know and what we cannot do.

1.     Look Inside Yourself to Strengthen Self-Esteem, Instead of to External Feedback

Since that’s a pervasive theme when you have an imposter feelings or imposter thoughts, like you’re not worthy, you’re not good enough, you don’t deserve your success, or somehow you’ve sort of faked your way here and others are going to figure that out, low self-esteem is caused by imposter phenomenon. But it also causes imposter phenomenon. If you’re ever the kind of person, like I have been at times in my life, where you look at evidence outside yourself to support your thinking, it’s very easy to look for evidence outside yourself that you are achieving or that you’re unworthy of achieving.

And if you always look outside yourself for that kind of feedback, it’s also very easy to become low in your self-esteem. The way to fight against that is to figure out what makes you a unique individual and of worth all by yourself. And if you can do that, you can then gauge your efforts against your own estimation of what your effort should be.

You can look at your values and look at your achievement in a direction and compare it to what you care most about. And if you can begin to conceptualize your worth, your value, and kind of your strength as a person and also contributor in your field, you can start to separate your sense of self from other people’s feedback about what you’re doing.

That will really help you to fight low self-esteem that really accompanies this imposter phenomenon.

2.     Work for Excellence, Not Perfection

A second thing that I know I already kind of approached is this idea of protectionism. Perfectionism is when we set high, unrealistic goals that become self-defeating when we don’t achieve them. And since there is no human being that is perfect, it’s really easy to miss the mark and not achieve perfectionistic goals.

So, one way to really combat perfectionism is to set a goal of consistency and excellence. Excellence is like perfectionism in that we’re striving to do really well, but it doesn’t require us to be flawless. Instead, it’s sort of this idea that we can go down the “runway” like in a fashion show, even though the clothing is duct taped together and nobody knows that. You know, “it looks great; let’s go.”

So, I would stress excellence over perfectionism, and acknowledging that mistakes are definitely part of the process. The more we try to accept that idea, the more we are able to accept that idea. But noticing if you are a perfectionist is really the key to opening that up to changing it.

3.     Focus on an Internal Locus of Control

A third thing that we can kind of work to think about here is that if we are attributing our success to things outside of ourselves, that idea is sort of like we’ve got an external locus of control. So we think that opportunities come from outside of ourselves and we didn’t create our own opportunities, or success comes from like context that is happening around us but we didn’t really create the success, it’s easier to have imposter feelings because we also then attribute our actual achievement to the same external things. When the truth is: nothing that you do can be accomplished outside of you.

If you create something and you achieve something, you had to do something to get there. So, reflecting regularly on what your efforts are, evaluating them against your own scale of what you want your efforts to be, and then kind of assessing your progress along that line of effort versus your expectation of your effort, would really be a helpful way to begin bringing that to an internal locus of control where you can see that you are in charge of your own direction.

4.     Set Realistic Goals to Keep Improving or Growing

And then of course, there’s the idea that you always can do better. There is improvement, right? You can have something go incredibly well. You can publish a book. You can make a promotion. And yet, you still want to do better. Fortunately, no one else is expecting you to be perfect. So, setting careful, realistic goals, and then reflecting on your progress towards the goals, your effort, and then when you achieve them. So, celebrating those goals, those things, can really help.

My Own Experience with Impostor Phenomenon

When we had this experience at one conference, and we were talking about times when we had felt imposter-like feelings, I myself was reflecting on this opportunity I had that comes up a lot. It has concluded and it has passed on, and it really was a special opportunity. I had to create something all by myself, publish it, and have it get out there into the world.

I was struggling to get this project done. I felt these deep, really worrisome feelings, that someone else out there would read it and think “oh, she’s missing this…” or “oh, she’s missing that…” or somehow there was like a “right answer” out there that I didn’t know about, and I was going to write this thing, and it was going to get out there. And then somehow in the future, I was going to discover that I didn’t really have the answers that should’ve been in that thing.

And as I was fighting those thoughts and feelings along the way, I really considered well. If I never do it at all, first of all, it will never happen, right? Like, if I don’t do this project and do this writing thing, no one will ever read it. It will never be created. And it, just nothing will ever happen. So, at the very least, I’ll fail if I do nothing. So, if I put the thing out there, even if it’s not correct or perfect, at least I made this effort, right?

Another thing that someone asked me along the way when I was working with these feelings of imposter phenomenon was, “if only one person ever reads it, and that one person is just you, is that enough? Is it enough for you to take your time and do this project? Would it be good enough, even if no one else ever looks at it?”

I really thought about that a lot, and I wondered would it be worth a year or two of my time and effort and researching and writing and going through all these hundreds of hours for this thing? And in the end, I decided “yes.” Because, if I do nothing, I’ve gotten nowhere. And I’ve really done nothing. But if I do something and create this thing, I have been changed through that process of doing it. And that alone makes it worthwhile.

So, I would suggest to anyone struggling with this, that while I don’t have all the answers about overcoming imposter phenomenon, for my own experience, I did learn that it is a very common feeling a lot of people have. It’s normal when you’re doing something outside your comfort zone–especially when you’re becoming a leader out there in the world, in your business, or in educational fields. Because there really are not people just like you. No one is just like you. So, you have no one to compare yourself to.

And naturally, we are leaving the world of comparing ourselves to others to see if we are okay. So, once we start striking out on our own, it’s very natural to have imposter-like feelings, because we do want to compare with others to kind of check ourselves and feel okay. It’s normal. A lot of people have these feelings.

And then in my own thinking this through, I experienced the idea that I’m either going to go through those feelings in the process, feel that way, and do the thing anyway–even though it feels horribly imposter-like until it’s done—or, I’m going to do nothing. And if I do nothing, I have already failed. But if I work through the feelings and do the project anyway, even though I can’t really dismiss those imposter-like feelings, I’m battling them the whole way, I’m going to then at least be changed by the experience that I had making the project or doing the thing. And then, when I come along a similar thing in the future, I may be more likely to say “I think I can do that. I struggle with it, but I’m going to keep trying.”

If you ask anyone else in your field about these kinds of feelings, I think you’re going to be surprised that almost everyone has them. We all battle them at one time or another. They are very normal. It’s nothing wrong with you. It’s kind of like a thing you have got to work through.

Key Take-Aways

So, there are some key messages here I’d like to share that are super helpful. One thing is that lots of very successful people have imposter phenomenon, and many of them have shared publicly. You can Google that and you can read lots of stories about entrepreneurs, people who are considered experts in their field, academic scholars, all kinds of folks out there in the world have had this experience, and many of them have shared that.

It is experienced equally by men and women. In some fields, we see it more in women than in men, but we have seen that both men and women do experience this. So, if you’re afraid that this is kind of unusual, don’t feel that way. It’s not.

Another message that I want to leave you with today is that imposter phenomenon is all about perception and feelings. Facts are usually a little bit distorted in our perception of what’s going on. So, if we can strip away the feelings and pause them a little bit to look at just the facts, then we can ask ourselves, “is it true? Do I know anything about the subject?” Acknowledge, “I don’t know everything about it, but I do know some things, and those things are worth sharing.”

So as soon as we can get rid of the feelings and just look at the facts, even though we might still feel them, to kind of pause those things, then we can intellectually argue a few points there and perhaps sway our feelings just a bit. Also, I don’t think that this feeling ever fully goes away. It really stays with us over time in varying degrees, because that’s part of staying humble and keeping yourself kind of in check so that you’re always learning, and always reflecting on your practice. So as long as we are open to learning and open to acknowledging we don’t know everything, it’s very likely were going to have imposter-like feelings from time to time. So that’s normal, and it’s likely to come back.

If you can acknowledge that it’s there and work through it, you can really get yourself to the next level of what you’re doing, even if the feelings are still there. It is a lot like the idea that I’ve talked about in the past on one of my earlier podcasts about “feeling the fear and doing it anyway.” Imposter-like feelings, or imposter phenomenon, is a lot like fear.

It’s more specific than that–like the fear of being exposed, or fear of being wrong, or feel of looking like an idiot, but it really is in the family of fear. And if you can acknowledge fear, you can push through the fear. Chances are, as long as you’re growing and trying to do something unique, and really make a dent in the world, you’re going to have fear.

So, you’re probably also going to have imposter feelings from time to time. So that’s pretty normal.

Mindset and Impostor Phenomenon

So in the realm of mindset and thinking, and all those things that I like to promote about examining the way we think so that we can show up differently and perform better, and have a much more fulfilling and joyful life, the idea that imposter-like feelings and imposter phenomenon or imposter syndrome come regularly to anyone who is stretching their limits and trying to do new things–that right there is a key piece to think about.

It can help change your mindset already, just to understand that this is normal, and it is a typical fear.

Mindset is something that you can stop and kind of examine, and look at your own mindset, and think, “what are my assumptions about my own performance”? What do I think about the way I’m feeling?”

And, if you can start opening that up and asking the questions, you can shrug off the thoughts that you got here by luck and start to see that no, actually you have worked very hard to accomplish what you have achieved. And you might not be perfect. Someone else might be achieving differently. That might look like they’re doing more, or know more, or something, but chances are they’re just achieving differently. And you have your own direction.

And when you get a compliment from someone else, the best tip I have ever heard is to simply say, “thank you,” and listen. And do not share any comments back. Do not justify or minimize a complement; just accept it and really fight against the tendency to think that someone’s going to suddenly expose you. Because your job is a gift you get to open every day, and you do have something unique to contribute there.

The thinking that you have is unique in many ways, and that is something worth contributing. Someone else just might come up with a very similar idea that you might also be thinking, but they’re not you and they cannot say it in the unique way you can or in your context or your experience. So, it’s worth doing.

Strategies to Avoid Self-Sabotage

Back to the writing project that I talked about… one tendency that we all have is to sabotage her own success when we start to feel imposter feelings. It makes us fear failure, and it also makes us fear success. So, we do a lot of things to sabotage ourselves. If you find yourself going down that path, consider getting a mentor.

Mentoring others can also kind of check your thoughts.

Journal about it.

Write about it.

And if you are really struggling, and can’t get beyond it, consider a life coach.

Or if it feels like it’s firmly entrenched, even a psychotherapist to kind of work through the deep-seated thoughts you might be having.

Those can help you to really get out of those stuck feelings of imposter phenomenon.

I wish you all the best in your path to succeed and move forward with your achievements, and all that you’d like to do. If you have any questions or comments about this podcast, please shoot me a quick email to Bethanie@DrBCoach.Com. I would love to hear from you.

Have a great week. Here’s to being the best you this week!