Have you ever felt like “I’m in over my head and they’re going to find out?”
Let me share a little coaching secret: Deep down many successful people feel like imposters – they feel like they’re “not enough,” that their success is a result of luck and timing. Most of us, at one point or another, have questioned our capabilities and competence.
This is so common that it has a name – it’s called “impostor syndrome.” Do you suffer from self-doubt at times? It affects up to 70% of us at various times in our lives. I’ve coached many leaders who secretly struggled with self-doubt day in and day out. They often think that they’re the only one feeling like a fraud. The truth is, we all feel self-doubt at times.
It’s easy to assume that the more successful we are, the less we’d struggle with feelings of self-doubt. Not true. We all have a natural human tendency toward self-doubt. It’s not a disease or an abnormality. Self-doubt is part of the human condition and can plague any of us in any field at any time.
Aren’t We All Impostors?
I’ve personally experienced impostor syndrome, as have most of my colleagues. It helps to recall that we’re not alone and that we share the same human self-doubts as our clients. After ten books and a PBS Special, I still find it hard at times to escape the feeling that “I could have done more.” There’s no threshold of success that puts these feelings to rest. For example, I feel uneasy when calling myself a writer. By the definition held by some, I am not one. However, I love to write. I’m a work in progress.
Before he was elected a Minnesota Senator, Al Franken was a Saturday Night Live comedian. His most memorable character was “self-help guru” Stuart Smalley whose advice was: “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” The bit was popular and funny because it captured the universal feeling that “I’m not enough.” Many of us are trying to do purposeful work and feeling that “doggone it people like me” – even if we sense that we’re not “smart enough.”
The term “impostor syndrome” was named in 1978 by the clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. They observed that the so-called “impostors” were convinced internally that they weren’t enough – despite external evidence to the contrary. They felt that they didn’t deserve their success; that it was a matter of good luck or good timing or good connections with others.
Wikipedia defines it like this:
“Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud.”
So, why is it then so hard for so many of us to shake the feeling that we’re an impostor?
“Am I an Impostor?”
Feel like a fraud? Take this 3 question quiz:
1. The Workaholic
Ask yourself this question: When people praise me for something I’ve accomplished, I’m afraid I won’t be able to live up to their expectations of me in the future.
Workaholic impostors hide behind the mask of hard work. They are addicted to the validation that comes from working – not from the work itself. They have trouble owning their achievements and, thus, keep working more to validate their worth. They think that they gained their success because they just happened to be in the right place, at the right time, or knew the right people.
Because they tend to set high goals for themselves, when they fail to reach them, they feel like a fraud. The unspoken feeling is that “I don’t really measure up as much as others think that I do. So, I need to work harder and harder to measure up.”
2. The Perfectionist
Ask yourself this question: I tend to recall the incidents in which I have not done my best more than those times when I have done my best.
Perfectionist impostors idealize others’ achievements. They select the best-in-class and then compare themselves. And, accordingly, they often fail to measure up. They are crushed by even the slightest constructive criticism, seeing it as proof that they’ll never be good enough.
They obsess about making mistakes because they see them as indicators of their level of competence. Success is rarely satisfying because they believe they should’ve done even better. They focus on the negative parts and assess the results as falling short. For the perfectionist, luck, timing, and connections are the default reasons for their success.
3. The Go-it-Aloner
Ask yourself this question: I generally give the impression that I’m more competent than I really am.
The Go-it-Alone impostor is scared to seek support. They fear that asking questions or seeking help will reveal their inadequacies. It’s great to be independent, but not to the extent that they refuse support so that they can prove their worth.
Of course, the kind of work we do matters. Entrepreneurs, consultants, actors, writers, artists, musicians, and creative-types are especially prone to impostor feelings. It comes naturally when you know that others are constantly judging your work.
Playing under the misguided rule, “don’t ask for help” is a toxic practice. We must realize that there’s no shame in asking for help when we need it because isolation is, ultimately, fatal.
“I don’t belong here.”
“I’m not like the rest of the people here.”
“I have to do it myself to get it right.”
* * * * *
If you answered “yes” to any of these three questions on this short quiz, chances are you might be dancing with the impostor syndrome. As Seth Godin writes, “Time spent fretting about our status as impostors is time away from dancing with our fear, from leading, and from doing work that matters.” The best way to stop feeling like an impostor is to stop thinking like an impostor. With these thoughts of self-doubt in mind, the question becomes “How can I overcome my self-doubt?” Here is one essential practice.
Owning and celebrating our gifts is the first essential step to overcoming self-doubt and creating self-confidence. We are each an Experiment of ONE! There is no other human being on earth exactly like each one of us. To overcome our self-doubt, we must embrace that truth. It’s imperative to our careers – and to our well-being – that we learn to embrace our gifts and accept our accomplishments as real and not a result of just good luck, timing, or connections.
Take time to complete the Calling CardsTM exercise to uncover your calling. (Order the Calling Cards at https://richardleider.com/calling-cards/.)
Here’s how one person experienced the Calling CardsTM and the discovery of her most enjoyed gifts:
“Since February, I have taken the cards everywhere I have traveled (Australia, Europe, USA) and have shared them/the exercise with over 50 friends, family members, etc. I have even done it virtually, across continents, where I held the cards up to the camera and the person on the other side of the world tells me what pile to organize them into (no need to even fly long distances). I also did the cards with my hairdresser and she thought it was so amazing that she bought a pack of her own cards and does the exercise with EVERY person who comes into her salon… so at least 5-10 people a day.”
To overcome self-doubt, start by discovering and celebrating your gifts and stop soft-pedaling them. It doesn’t serve you or others.
The reality is that people who “don’t” feel like impostors are no more intelligent or gifted than the rest of us. The major difference between them and us is that they think differently.
On September 28, 1997, Apple debuted its iconic “Think Different” television commercial, aligning the troubled computer company at that time with some of history’s most famous free-thinking rebels. The TV spot starts out with the instantly memorable salute to counter culture ideals: “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits, the rebels, the trouble makers – the round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently.”
The ad ends with this call to action: “While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
Impostor syndrome can cause anxiety, low self-confidence, and even depression. Perhaps the most limiting part of it is that it limits our courage to “think different” – pursue new possibilities and explore new adventures.
When we realize that self-doubt is normal, we can start focusing on thinking differently. We can change the story inside our own heads. Take today as your first step to start accepting and embracing your gifts. It becomes a fulfilling life when we stop comparing ourselves and start accepting that we are, indeed, an “experiment of one!” So, wake up tomorrow morning with the genuine feeling that “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”
Richard Leider, founder of Inventure – The Purpose Company, is one of America’s preeminent executive-life coaches. He is ranked by Forbes as one of the “Top 5” most respected executive coaches, and by the Conference Board as a “legend in coaching.” Richard has written ten books, including three best sellers, which have sold over one million copies and have been translated into 20 languages. Repacking Your Bags and The Power of Purpose are considered classics in the personal development field. Richard’s PBS Special – The Power of Purpose – was viewed by millions of people across the U.S.