Defeating the inner impostor
Updated: Sep 9
In 1996 more than half a lifetime ago now, I was reluctantly dragged from the streets, to sign up to a modelling competition. The prize was a year’s contract with a noted modelling agency, a substantial cash sum and a goody bag befitting of an Oscar nominee. I say reluctantly with real honesty, as at that time my reflection was a gawky, somewhat awkward teen battling pubescent acne, getting used to her big white gnashers, (which to this point had spent nearly two years in the prison of a double train track brace).
Could I see myself with the potential to be a model!? In short, the answer was no. However, as perplexing as it was for me at the time, I went on to win the competition and start a relatively successful career as a model. Strutting my stuff on the catwalk, modelling famous brands and meeting some very influential people. My time as a model was short lived, only lasting 5 years, however during that 5 years there were few occasions where I strode the runway and genuinely believed I belonged there. I felt like a fraud, surrounded by beautiful people and only ever seeing; what to me; was the very obviously observable imperfections in myself. I would often sit in awe of the magnificent beings that surrounded me, never once registering that I was actually one of them. This was the start of a lifetime struggle with Impostor Syndrome. I later went on to become an architectural technician for a local house building company where again, the gremlin of Impostor Syndrome raised its ugly head. In fact, for a large portion of my life, despite my achievements and abilities I felt like the biggest outcomes of my life were attained by a concoction of luck and good timing, not ability and talent.
I had never heard the term Impostor Syndrome until I started my counselling journey and boy did it resonate! As my tutor spoke about what it was and how it affects us, I felt an odd mix of relief and sadness. Had I really spent the last 20 years of my life, sabotaging myself and not feeling worthy because of this? Sadly, yes, yes I had!
Now, I want you to know at this point, that I have not written this as a catharsis for my experience, far from it. I write this as like me, there are many, MANY people who can relate to feeling like they are in jobs, relationships or positions of esteem by the grace of God and not because of the personal attributes and/or expertise that they possess. These people may also be wholly unaware of the term or the damage that Impostor Syndrome can have on our minds, actions and interactions.
So, what is Impostor Syndrome?
Well, as the name suggests, it is a pervasive cognitive pattern that makes sufferers question their abilities, accomplishments and talents. People who suffer with Impostor Syndrome will feel like a fraud, often waiting for the moment that they will be “outed” for “who they truly are”. Of course, in most cases, these individuals deserve every accolade that they receive. A sufferer will never see it that way. What they will often see is a person riddled with inadequacy who has praise and success bestowed upon them, for little more than copious amounts of luck.
If you identify with this, then you are in formidable company! Maya Angelou, Albert Einstein, Neil Armstrong and countless others are noted sufferers. In fact, according to clinical research approximately 70% of people struggle with Impostor Syndrome at some point in their lives. Therefore, if you find yourself sitting in your business meeting or at an event thinking “what the hell am I doing here?” you are most definitely not alone.
Research has found 5 common “competency types” that correlate to Impostorism, they are as follows:
Individuals with a Superman/woman competency type, convince themselves that they will be seen as fraudulent among their very proficient and able peers. In order to feel adequate, they will often work harder, faster and later, to fill the gap of inequality that exists within them. This is often to the detriment of their health, relationships and free time. Reality testing their abilities against certificates, degrees and awards is often futile, as Supermen/women are prone to invalidating themselves and feeling undeserving regardless of how accomplished they are.
It does not take much reasoning to understand why a perfectionist would struggle with Impostorism. When the bar is set at an impossible height, falling short is a certainty. Therefore, there is much conflict in this idealism. Satisfaction in one’s own achievements is often pushed aside in favour of self-criticism and comparison to others.
Experts; very similarly to perfectionists; measure competence as being all knowing/all doing. Competence is quantified not as knowing/doing enough but by knowing/doing everything. Without this level of ability there is a fear that they will be exposed as amateurish or ignorant.
The Natural Genius
Those that hold a belief that proficiency correlates to how easily a task is mastered. If a lot of effort or time is required to complete a task or to assimilate information, this kick starts feelings of shame and inadequacy. For the natural genius, the belief is that competency lies in natural ability, therefore if competence is not accomplished quickly, they consider themselves inept.
Soloists believe that asking for help equates to incompetence. Therefore employing and utilising the skills of others will only serve to unmask their ineffectiveness.
How can we overcome Impostor Syndrome?
We are all a work in progress and no matter how accomplished we become, mistakes and failure are part of the natural course. Equally inevitable is the criticism and opinions of others.
We need to understand that the antithesis to Impostor Syndrome is courage. Courage to dig deep and sit with the rumbling shame and discomfort that Impostor Syndrome brings and challenge it, one step at a time. This is partly achieved in allowing yourself to be authentic in how you feel and allowing yourself to be seen flaws and all. It is taking that need for external validation and seeing things from an internal frame of reference, where we say, “is this way of being/thinking conducive to me in any way shape of form?”. It is in our ability to understand that although CONSTRUCTIVE criticism is sometimes necessary, it isn’t personal and if it’s personal it isn’t necessary or constructive.
In overcoming Impostorism, it is important to celebrate where we have achieved successes. Constant analysis of where things could have gone better is neither productive or healthy, in either a personal or professional capacity. See mistakes as an opportunity to grow and learn. In doing this the fear of failing becomes far less distressing and the incentive to take risks becomes more appealing. Remember as Winston Churchill said “Success is not final and failure is not fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts”. Challenge yourself to take a leap of faith, often the ground we fear falling on is a lot softer than it seems and there is every chance that you will reach the other side unscathed.
Ask for help when you need it…no man is an island! There is tremendous reciprocal value in mentoring and being mentored. The honesty in your approach may empower others to become authentic, which can only facilitate better communication, and relations.
Finally, practice positive self-talk and reality testing. Ask yourself, are the people that employed you, believe in you, purchase your goods or want to spend time with you, all a little loco!? Highly unlikely!! They buy into you, your concepts, and ability, because there are qualities in you that are worth the investment. It takes a lot more than luck to succeed in any realm, be it personally or professionally. What skills and personal qualities allows you to maintain your position both in a personal and professional capacity? Acknowledge these attributes and embrace them, then when you have your moments of doubt recall them to help mute those persistent voices in your head that tell you, you are not good enough…those voices are the route to self-sabotage and need placing to the back of the metaphorical choir.