Imposter syndrome – that feeling of being not enough and the more you notice it the bigger it becomes. It lands in the pit of your stomach, it’s that voice that says "you, really?". And rather than going away, it shouts a little louder and risks being a real interference to you being at your absolute best. It's common in high achievers, perfectionists.
A friend recently asked me if we are born with it. I don’t think so but I do think it has its roots in early labelling – he’s the bright one, she’s the kind one.
And we learn to hide it. I did a quick straw poll last week. Everyone I spoke to shared their experiences of imposter syndrome with a range of triggers: moving from being ‘in training’ to someone who is expected to know all the answers, being invited to give a big presentation, leading a new team, starting a new job, chairing an expert committee (expert – now there’s a scary word).
In my experience it crops up all the time in coaching sessions. Often at work, people are concerned they may appear weak or not quite up to the job. It may be easier to simply keep quiet. Coaching is a safer space, you won’t be judged, you will be encouraged to find a solution for your imposter syndrome.
You can choose to ignore it, but please don’t. At worst case it could mean that your most important lifesaving contribution, that key piece of information that changes the approach the team is taking for the better may not surface. "Its ok, they know better than me" is not the answer.
So here’s my three tips drawn from my experience of working this through with others.
1. Get to know your imposter syndrome better
It’s really hard to work on something you don’t really understand. Some of us like to talk things through with a trusted friend or colleague, others favour quiet reflection. Whatever your preference, take time to get to know your version of imposter syndrome a little better:
when it lands
what triggers it
how it makes you feel.
Start to build that picture. This information is essential. It is worth investing the time.
2. Name it
This may strike you as weird, but the simple act of naming something helps us to have a shorthand to use when it joins us (and it will be back) and gives a pass through to dealing with it. I have worked with people who use a christian name, a cartoon character, the weather. For me it is a jackdaw (heavy landing – solid - stays a little while). Use whatever works for you.
3. Work on it
Armed with this new level of understanding:
Remind yourself why you were appointed/asked/whatever your situation. Talking it through may be enough. Sometimes it is worth writing down the skills: knowledge and ingenuity that you bring to the table so you can bring it to mind at a moment’s notice.
Re-connect to the great feedback you have received, solicited and unsolicited. Appraisals, 360s, that lovely email or phone call thanking you, the one that turned a rotten day into one with a better ending.
Once these are centre stage, they will help to quieten that doubting thomas of a voice.
And if you know there are particular triggers for you – that meeting, that person – work out your own private handling strategy. A little re-framing works wonders, especially when served with a bit of humour.
Then the next time your imposter syndrome pays you a visit:
remember the expertise you bring to the table, that great feedback
prepare as you always would and show your best self
stay calm, stand tall, make your voice count.
Oh and if you really are out of your depth, an honest answer, "that’s a new one on me", and a commitment to come back with an answer as soon as possible will always help you out. No one can be expected to know everything, not even an expert!