Have you ever had a sense that you don’t deserve the success you have experienced? Perhaps one day you will be found out and then you’ll get kicked out, or laughed at. This feeling only gets worse as we rise or succeed. Suzanne Mercier in an article about the Imposter Syndrome writes, “The syndrome is latent until triggered… when we get blindsided by a situation that immediately creates a feeling of personal uncertainty.”
The Imposter Syndrome can be dislodged by looking at three issues:
1) Whether we believe we have choice or things are hopeless,
2) Whether we’re a victim or are responsible for life, and
3) Whether our measures of success are internal or external.
Three case studies
Allow me to introduce our three contestants in the “Dispel the Imposter” game:
Joanna is a successful, highly promoted oncology nurse who has done training to become a life coach. She has plenty of good life skills, professional qualifications and rapport building technique. I was surprised when she exclaimed, “My CV is such a mess isn’t it. It’s such a random walk of disconnected jobs, lucky breaks and experiences that doesn’t really lead to coaching. I don’t think anyone’s going to buy it.” She’s telling herself that it’s all a sham.
John is a career public servant facing large scale government downsizing. Already suffering stress from increased responsibilities and a larger team, he has not worked in private enterprise for 20 years. I was taken aback by the anger in John’s outburst, “Is this what I get for 20 years of loyal service? If I am made redundant I’m back to square one!” When John looks at his skills they don’t look transferable and feels his success can’t be repeated. He’s interpreting the facts like a victim.
Kerry is a successful public speaker, travels the world doing what he loves and has started a writing project for a publishing company. I was not prepared for Kerry’s confession, “I feel like a kid you know? I don’t really know what I’m doing. Someone’s gonna find me out, discover that I’m not really who they think and that’ll be the end.” He feels like a pretender. This issue is slowly eroding his confidence, he’s getting bad press and as a result his invitations and billings are falling.
“Life damages us, every one. We can’t escape that damage.
But now, I am learning this: We can be mended. We mend each other.
Tobias. Epilogue, Allegiant by Veronica Roth
The imposter is me!
Joanna, John and Kerry all struggle with the “Imposter Syndrome”. Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D is credited for first identifying it. She says that many people feel their success has been due to some mysterious fluke of luck and not the result of their own ability and competence. They are convinced that their success cannot be repeated. They live in fear of getting caught. Celebrity Coach Patrick Wanis places Imposter Syndrome at the top of the list of psychological issues he deals with among his clientele. 70% of people interviewed in research studies have experienced the Imposter Syndrome and 33% experience it frequently and intensely.
Joanna, John and Kerry need to find ways to remove uncertainty from their environment and more importantly from their inner lives. Each will take a slightly different approach: Joanna will need to deal with her hopelessness (and self talk), John will face his helplessness (and filtering) and Kerry must face his sense of hurtfulness (and others views of him).
1. Get choice back and find hope
Joanna feels hopeless, like a leaf being dragged along a stream in a random journey. Her CV is “a mess” and the shift to coaching has brought uncertainty. Joanna is hardly exceptional though. We’re all faced with the challenge of telling a coherent story, and we all have a messy CV. In 2012 forbes.com contributor Jeanne Meister noted in “Job Hopping is the New Normal”, that the average worker today stays at in their current job for 4.4 years. Millenials (Gen-Y) will have 15-20 careers in their working life. Gen-X will have 7-12. Boomer have had 3-4. Change and uncertainty is the new normal.
Joanna examined her internal dialogue. Is she really a sham? Is she really just drifting? She has always had 100% choice about the jobs she was offered in oncology. Her leap into coaching is also her choice. Nobody has a gun to her head. With that sense of choice she has the hope of a new day – of choosing her own path, telling her own story and getting that next job. The challenge will be working on her inner dialogue, listening to it, then changing the conversation. We all need to remember, we always have options.
2. Take responsibility and become empowered
John feels helpless, a pawn on a giant government chess-board. He feels like his success in public service can’t be repeated in a corporate environment. The downsizing has generated personal uncertainty for John about his abilities. However, closer examination reveals that at every step along his journey he has had to take skills and apply them in a new environment. He has also had to learn new skills for his new positions.
So John began to examine his perceptions. Was he really the helpless victim? Were the challenges ahead of him really so different to the ones he had already faced? When he took responsibility for the decision to stay or go and held himself accountable for his decisions he felt empowered. This was his life and he could cross apply his skills and learn new ones. John is going to need to continue examining his core beliefs and perceptions as the departmental changes go through, and take care not to feel victimised. That is true for all of us.
3. Self referencing and learning to laugh
Before we get to Kerry’s story, I need to bring in one more figure, this time from fiction. Svengali is a fictional character in George du Maurier’s 1895 novel Trilby. A Svengali is a person who manipulates or exerts excessive control over others. Svengalis are really just like the Wizard of Oz: hiding behind his wall of pretence, shouting at people through his megaphone. These people stand outside our lives passing judgment and comment.
Kerry feels hurt by negative comments made by others. His emotions rise and fall on their acceptance and feedback, especially his competition and social media write ups. His source of reference for well being and self esteem are quite external and he has yielded his state to the opinions of others.
Kerry thought about other areas of success that Svengalis couldn’t see: cooking at home, writing and travel photography. All of these areas were internally referenced: he didn’t care a whit what others thought. Those areas that were 100% self-referenced (internal) gave him significance no matter what came. When Kerry learned to wean himself off the opinion of others and their shallow approval, he suddenly learned to laugh at how trivial and spiteful some of them were. This is called learning to laugh at your Svengali’s. This is a skill I think we can all cultivate!
If you’d like to learn more about improving your personal performance, especially in how to confront your Svengali’s I’d encourage you to take a look at our Peak Performance Online coaching product which will walk you through our best coaching thoughts, tools and tips over a 12 session program. http://www.frazerholmes.com/peak-performance-coaching/
Robert is an expert in the science of human behaviour and performance enhancement with a passion for neurology, leadership and the psychology of potential. He believes it is important to bring hard science to coaching, and that coaching practices be evidence based and research backed. Robert is a founding partner at Frazer, Holmes Coaching and current Director of Brand and Marketing for the International Coach Federation Australasia (ICFA). Robert is a professionally certified coach (PCC) with over 20 years of business experience and an ICF Accredited Mentor Coach. He is an Associate at the National Speaker's Association, a member of the Coaching Psychology interest group at the APS, a certified Action Learning Coach, a Member of the Australian Institute of Management Consultants.