What is impostor syndrome?

How to get over imposter syndrome

A lot of people who seek coaching are charlatans. People who fool the world around them. Who got their jobs by pretending to have skills that they don’t possess. Who got there by sheer chance and luck. Who are on the verge of being exposed. But the notion that these people are frauds and imposters is, of course, something that only exists on their own minds. What I see from my vantage point are intelligent, highly capable people who have already achieved considerable success in their careers.

Imposter syndrome, first described by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978, is a psychological phenomenon in which affected individuals are plagued by self-doubt about their own abilities and achievements. They are quick to identify mistakes, setbacks, and failures in themselves. They explain away successes as due to the much more important contribution of others, chance, or luck. On her podcast, psychologist Franca Cerutti described in a wonderfully drastic way how she often felt like a “ditz” at the beginning of her career.

The four apocalyptic horsemen of the imposter syndrome: the 4 Ps

According to an article in the International Journal of Behavioral Science, a staggering 70 percent of all people have gone through phases in which they experienced imposter syndrome. Not quite as large, though still considerable, is the proportion of people who suffer from its effects. Those who doubt their capabilities will be less likely to apply for an attractive position. Those who tend to hide their light under a bushel in an application letter or interview and somehow manage, “against all expectations”, to land a job, will be less likely to negotiate aggressively for a good salary.

And while imposters are often outstanding at their jobs, they run the risk of massively overworking themselves or suffering from burn-out. Imposter syndrome, after all, doesn’t come alone. Its four horsemen of the apocalypse are the four “Ps”: perfectionism, procrastination, paralysis and people-pleasing. These “help” the imposter reduce the risk of being exposed. As a result, however, imposters regularly invest more energy and focus in their work than they have at their disposal.

These four horsemen harm not only the imposters, but also their colleagues. While I was still working as an employed manager, team members would tell me that they needed quicker feedback, particularly when it came to important concepts or lengthier texts. A clear consequence of “paralysis” and “procrastination” on my part. I didn’t want to give feedback until I understood texts and concepts down to the last detail. It had to be “perfect” when a quick and pragmatic response in direct conversation would often have been better. And did “people pleasing” at that time lead to not rejecting tasks and projects for the team, even though the workload was already far too high? Most certainly.

How can we escape the “ditz” mindset?

The good news is that very few of us will ever find ourselves performing surgery on the strength of a fake degree. So we’re not really frauds—we just feel like it sometimes. And we feel that way because we think like an imposter (“I hope no one notices that I’m only here because I got lucky.” “I’m not as good as the others think”, etc.).

In business coaching, the focus is working on the three-pronged approach of recognize – understand – change. Do I recognize when I’m thinking and feeling like an imposter, and do I understand what is going on inside me in those moments? Then I am also able to change those thoughts and feelings. The dysfunctional self-image described by imposter syndrome then comes into play less frequently or even disappears altogether.

First-aid kit against imposter syndrome

In addition, there is also a variety of other ways to work on negative thought patterns on our own. Everything that helps to give space to positive thought patterns space is allowed:

  • Cultivate an awareness of your own strengths:
    What am I really good at? We particularly tend to underestimate the qualities that are most responsible for our success. Make a list and also ask colleagues/supervisors/friends/family for feedback.
  • Write down your successes and collect & celebrate positive feedback: When I, fresh out of university, felt like an imposter for months in my first job, I regularly re-read the remarks of my two master’s thesis reviewers. Sounds silly, but it helped. There it was, in black and white, that I had, at least once in my life, done something well 😉.
  • Don’t compare yourself with others: Granted, that’s easier said than done. But comparisons are the ideal breeding ground for imposter syndrome.  Not least, as Franca Cerutti rightly says, because we tend to “compare our worst with the very best of the others”. If you take over as head of a team for the first time, comparing yourself with the best boss—30 years older than you—is only useful if you recognize that you will probably not achieve this ideal in the first year.
  • Visualize success instead of thinking about failure, shame and negative scenarios.
  • Dr TED: The short TEDx Talks by Mike Cannon-Brooks, the Australian co-founder of software provider Atlassian, and imposter syndrome expert Dr Valerie Young, are an excellent “quick fix” to end acute bouts of imposter syndrome.
    (Three minutes into Cannon-Brooks, you’ll have tears of laughter in your eyes for the first time, and ideally a “And where’s the piano?” moment by the end of the 14-minute TED Talk).

    Last but not least: Is it only the imposter who can work on getting rid of the dysfunctional self-image? Yes and no. The truth is also that when imposters encounter a toxic corporate environment or supervisors who are less empathetic and stingy with positive recognition, imposter tendencies become significantly stronger. And it has been rightly pointed out in recent years that systematic prejudice and exclusion in the workplace can lead to thoughts that resemble the imposter syndrome, but which originate not in the individual but are caused by the discriminatory environment itself.

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