When I was an undergraduate at the University of Texas I attended a seminar on owning your greatness and fraudulent feelings. I was 18 and didn’t know what direction I wanted to go in life. I don’t remember much from that talk, except that there was a successful-looking female speaker in the front of a large room of (mostly) females, telling us that a common struggle with success is feeling like a fraud. I thought, “That lady? She feels like that? It doesn’t make sense.” And a follow up, “I could never be as successful as her.”
It wasn’t until I went to graduate school that I noticed more about my natural talents. But doesn’t everybody do that? In my practicum training, as I met with clients from the community and then subsequently assessed by a licensed therapist on my clinical skills, I was affirmed in my intuitiveness to see through and beyond what people were presenting. But can’t everybody see that? I looked around and compared: that person is more empathic, this person has better therapeutic presence… and I began discounting myself, and minimizing my own strengths. It was difficult to take risks because of these fears.
As I’ve walked with family, friends, and clients, similar sentiments emerged: What if they find out I’m not what I seem? I did well on this assignment, but I’ll probably fail the next one, then they’ll know. I don’t deserve to be here. I’m a fraud.
The good news: Many people feel this way.
And there’s a name for it: Imposter Syndrome. This name was coined by two American psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. It is a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable, or creative, despite evidence of high achievement.” Those that experience this often “live in fear of being ‘found out’,” and are unable to internalize their accomplishments.
On the one hand, Imposter Syndrome can lurk near to those that have natural abilities in a given area. There can be a belief that had you just worked really hard at something, you would know you deserved credit for it. It’s like a parent telling you you’re smart and wonderful. “They’re just saying that because they have to.” For some, naturally excelling at something leads to a discount of its value.
The other extreme though, is that you did work hard to grow or learn in a specific area, and because it may not be natural, you fear being ‘found out.’ You’re just one mistake away from complete failure. Both extremes lead to paralyzing fear and living in a space of anxiety, potential self-sabotage, and restricted risk-taking that diminishes the greatness you could offer the world around you.
How does one overcome these feelings?
- Let go of catastrophic thinking and self-importance. You aren’t that big of a deal (sorry!), and if you make a mistake (like we all do), the world keeps spinning. You probably won’t be fired. It won’t make the front page of the New York Times. You can learn, grow, and do it differently in the future.
- Accept and believe in yourself. Luck didn’t get you where you are. Of course, you didn’t do it all alone, but it is you- your character, your talents, that opened up doors and brought about your achievements.
- Take time to remember encouragement and affirmation from others. Keep a file with emails, notes, comments that people have made over the years. Make a list of your achievements (especially those that brought the greatest sense of potential failure). It’s easy to discount the positives and focus on the negatives.
- Stop the Comparison!! This only feeds the shame, fear, and self-loathing monsters.
- Practice Vulnerability! It combats shame. (Check out Brene Brown’s work on this!)
- Remember: No one else has your particular set of experience or skills. You have something to offer. When you hold back, you’re depriving the people around you.
- Making mistakes and being wrong DOES NOT make you a fraud.
- Understand the difference between feelings and reality. The perception of your success is not necessarily the same perception others have.
Some famous people who have struggled with Imposter Syndrome:
Maya Angelou, writer, activist: “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.'”
Kate Winslet, actress: “Sometimes I wake up in the morning before going off to a shoot, and I think, I can’t do this. I’m a fraud.”
Dr. Margaret Chan, Chief of World Health Organization: “There are an awful lot of people out there who think I’m an expert. How do these people believe all this about me? I’m so much aware of all the things I don’t know.”
Michelle Pfeiffer, actress: When asked how she had developed her gifts in 2002, “I still think people will find out that I’m really not very talented. I’m really not very good. It’s all been a big sham.”
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook: Wrote the book Lean In with Imposter Syndrome as a foundational premise.
Carpe Diem, friends. The world is waiting.