It’s 9:58 am. Your presentation is in two minutes. You have prepared for two weeks, read all articles relevant to the topic, practised with a friend and have 15 slides at the ready. Yet somehow, you feel this thing will blow up. They will finally notice that you don’t know as much as your colleagues think. Your hands get sweaty. How will you make it through this meeting?
If you recognise this situation, you might suffer from imposter syndrome: The nagging feeling that you only succeeded due to luck or chance. Sooner or later, someone is bound to find out. The funny thing is, you are far from alone with this feeling. Imposter syndrome was first identified in 1978 by two female psychologists, Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. They found that “despite numerous achievements, which one might expect to provide ample object evidence of superior intellectual functioning, do not appear to affect the impostor belief.” In other words, the feeling persists no matter how many milestones you pass. Back then, Rose and Imes believed that only women suffered from this belief of inadequacy. Today we know that men are also affected, also thanks to further research of Clance.
How to recognise imposter syndrome
Imposter syndrome can throw a spanner in the works at any time but tends to pop up at transition points in your life:
When you begin university or postgraduate studies, you have just become qualified in your field but lack practical experience or when others look up to you for guidance (e.g. you become a manager to junior members of your team). If you suddenly start to doubt yourself in such a situation despite others telling you that you are qualified, it’s time to check if your perception is distorted.
According to Dr Young, an expert on imposter syndrome, there are five types- let’s see if you recognise yourself in any of them:
That might be you if you find it hard to delegate and feel the need always to give 100%, no matter what. Are you checking a colleagues’ work “just to be sure”? That’s a classic.
The Super (man/woman)
If you tend to stay in the office later than your colleagues and are convinced you must work harder than the others, this might be you.
The Natural Genius
These people often sailed through school without much effort- and if it now takes them a long time to master a skill, they feel ashamed. Were you always labelled the “smart one” of the family and are embarrassed if your work is not outstanding with much effort put into it?
If you always dreaded the thought of asking for help and avoided asking for it even when you needed it- well, we might have a problem. Soloists also suffer in silence and see the need for outside help as a sign of weakness.
These women measure their value on how much they know and can do. And they never feel they know enough. You might have heard that women often don’t apply for jobs if they don’t meet all the criteria- that is a classic sign of imposter syndrome.
There is an element that all these types have in common: The Imposter Cycle. In such a scenario, you have to complete an important task that triggers a fear of failure and anxiety. That leads you to either prepare for the project like your life depends on it – or to procrastinate the work until you are forced to put in late-night shifts to hit the deadline. Once you have reached your goal, you discount it and diminish the value of your achievement. Sounds familiar? I am as guilty of that as the next person. You are not lazy or a type A- this is what imposter syndrome looks like.
So how can you overcome it?
The first step to overcome imposter syndrome is to become aware of it. If you recognise yourself here, don’t fret- all of us feel this way at some point in our lives. Successful women have learned to deal with it healthily and accept it as part of the journey. You can do that too. Take steps to boost your belief in yourself and show your inner critic all your achievements. The most effective way to do that is a success journal.
Each day before you go to bed, write down three things that you have achieved that day. Can’t think of anything? It might be hard to acknowledge your success initially, so start small if you are struggling. Unloading the dishwasher counts too! Did you finish a book? Decluttered? Wrote a few more sentences on your new Cv? All these are reasons to celebrate. Imagine to look in this book in a year and see all these steps that added up-it would motivate you to aim higher each month. When you see the change each day brought you, it will make it easier to plan and set future goals.
Begin to listen to your thoughts actively. How often do you think negatively about yourself? “I can’t do this”, “I messed that up”, “why did I do this?” are the classics that can send you into a spiral of negative thinking about yourself. When you hear your inner critic speaking again, acknowledge the thought and ask yourself, “what could I focus on instead now that would be more helpful?” It doesn’t have to be related to the topic you are working on right now. It simply could be a more neutral statement like “ok, that didn’t work, what can I do instead?”. That helps you to zoom in on possible solutions and preserves your energy.
You can also read about the struggles successful people had to overcome before they reached their goals. Did you know that Elon Musk struggled to get his companies PayPal and Tesla off the ground? That Kara Goldin, founder of the Hint water company (now worth $15 million), lived with possible bankruptcy for ten years? Or that Ariana Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, was rejected by 36 publishers in her early career- and initially doubted herself due to her English language skills? Reading such stories will build your confidence in your abilities and inspire you to overcome them. We often think we are alone with our struggles, but they are far from unique.
Take things step by step: Self-improvement is vital, but not in all areas at the same time. Choose what you want to focus on each month and accept that other things will have to wait. You could create a 12-month schedule and write down skills you want to learn or improve in four weeks. In that time, let the other projects lie dormant so you can give all your energy into your chosen skill. That way, you can measure your progress and learn to let go at the same time. Remember: Mediation or ways to sleep better is also a skill you can learn! And if your hands are still sweaty before a presentation, remember: we are all a work in progress. You can do this- and you will.