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How to Find the Source of Your Imposter Syndrome

There was an incredible response to the photo I posted on LinkedIn last week that alluded to my own struggles with imposter syndrome. Let me tell you, it's way more common than you might imagine. Even the people you meet who seem outwardly confident probably worry privately about being outed as some sort of fraud.

So I thought I'd do a short series of articles on this widespread phenomenon to try and help anyone who's holding themselves back. In this first piece, we'll look at the problems it can cause, and the likeliest sources of imposter syndrome.

But first, a definition. This comes from Megan Dalla-Camina, a leadership expert from Australia. She says:

"Imposter syndrome is a psychological term referring to a pattern of behavior where people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud. Not an actual disorder, the term was coined by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978, when they found that despite having adequate external evidence of accomplishments, people with imposter syndrome remained convinced that they don't deserve the success they have. They call their success luck or good timing, and dismiss it as others' believing they were better, more intelligent, and more competent than they actually are."

Is this starting to sound familiar?

What Problems Does it Cause

While it might not be an actual disorder, the problems that imposter syndrome causes are incredibly real. Do you recognise any of the following?

  • Not speaking up
  • Being bland/safe with your advice
  • Being inauthentic and not revealing thoughts/ideas
  • Seeking approval and external validation
  • Not going for opportunities or promotion
  • Feeling under confident or extremely uncomfortable in situations that raise imposter syndrome in you
  • Avoiding those situations that you think might trigger imposter syndrome.

That last point is really key: imposter syndrome is situational.

a hit of anxiety that somehow you'll be found out being incompetentBy definition, most people with imposter syndrome have achieved a great deal of outward success, so imposter syndrome isn't an overall lack of confidence. It's more that there are specific situations that deliver a "here comes the hammer" moment and a hit of anxiety that somehow you'll be found out being incompetent. For some people that situation may be a meeting or a public voicing of opinion. For others, it's justifying a decision or course of action.

To get a grip on the slippery beast that is imposter syndrome, it can really help to understand what the particular source of these feelings are for you.

What's Your Source?

There are a couple of culprits that are worth looking at in the first instance. The first is when you feel you are not as good as others, and the second is when you hold yourself to impossible standards.

This is how they typically manifest themselves:

"I'm not as good as others. They are more accomplished, experienced, wiser, have won more awards, perform better and smell nicer than I do!"

"I'm not good enough. I should have made it as an international human rights lawyer with fancy apartments in London and New York and a villa in France, have raised £50m for charity and be a concert pianist in my spare time. Oh I should never have made a mistake in my entire life."

So What Can You Do?

you're either feeling inferior to others or you're holding yourself to a standard that simply can't be reachedRight now, the most helpful thing you can do for yourself is to start tracking what's setting off those imposter moments for you. Every time an imposter thought starts sapping your confidence, you can catch it in the act and ask yourself "What's setting THIS off?". Sometimes that very act of self-enquiry is enough to stop the downward spiral of self-defeating thoughts.

But, if you're like me and imposter syndrome is pretty ingrained, you're probably going to have to get more systematic.

It might take a while to get to the heart of the reason your heart is pounding or your inner critic has turned into the nastiest saboteur, but if you drill down far enough, you are likely to find that you're either feeling inferior to others or you're holding yourself to a standard that simply can't be reached at that moment.

Or it could be both as, like a pair of headphones you've jammed into your coat pocket, they like to get intricately tangled up.

Untangle Your Thinking

For example, if you've been asked to speak in front of your organisation, you might feel imposter syndrome popping up. If you ask yourself what's setting it off, it might be that you say something like - "Well, I don't really know enough about this project to really provide value." That sounds totally plausible, right? Except that it masks something. If you go a level deeper, one reason for saying this might be that you think the people you're presenting to will know more about the subject and you will be exposed as a fraud. One tricky question and ... takedown! Total humiliation. That reason is probably, "I am not as good as others".

"I need to be perfect and never make a mistake"However - and this is pretty subtle, like so many things to do with human behaviour - if you go a level deeper you might find that underneath all this is a desire to know absolutely everything about the project and to never get "caught out" by a question that you don't yet know the answer to. In which case, the underlying reason is "I need to be perfect and never make a mistake," mixed with "I am not as good as others."

Wow. Look at our brains. They love to make us feel unhappy sometimes!

Make a Start

For people on both sides of the coin, there are plenty of things you can do to help yourself. None are easy fixes, though. Like all things worth doing, it can take time and needs to be systematic.

So in the next article, I'll give you suggestions for preventing imposter syndrome. Right now, though, have fun playing your own inner detective and discovering which source your imposter syndrome is coming from. I promise it will help, even though it probably sounds a bit vague right now!