This week, we’re revisiting and expanding on one of the most popular blog and podcast topics this year. We are taking another look at Imposter Syndrome – or Imposter Thinking, as I call it.
What is it?
The commonly used term ‘Imposter Syndrome’ or alternatively ‘Imposter Phenomenon’ refers to a pattern of thinking where people have trouble accepting their own success or achievements. If they talk about it, they might describe it as feeling like they are a fraud (or imposter) and the strong concern they hold is that someone, someday will find them out. This might be about entry into a university or postgraduate program, a qualification they’ve received, a job they’ve been given, a project they are managing or a promotion they have achieved.
The thinking patterns associated with this may range from feelings of doubt, that someone has made a mistake, that they don’t deserve it, that they won’t be able to do it well (whether job, project, study), that people will be disappointed, and so on. There is often a very real fear that someone will find out and that will cause humiliation, shame, conflict, or some other embarrassing circumstance.
An article by Joe Langford and Pauline Chance (Langford, J., Clance, P.R. The Imposter Phenomenon: Recent research findings regarding dynamics, personality and family patterns and their implications for treatment. Psychotherapy 1993; 30 (3): 495-501) explains the concept of Imposter Phenomenon as being the result of “seeking self-esteem by trying to live up to an idealized image to compensate for feelings of insecurity and self-doubt.”
Self-esteem can be precarious.
I found the self-esteem side of the commentary very interesting. While the authors reviewed other studies and acknowledged that generalized low self-esteem was not a part of the syndrome, the self-esteem issue was that it was ‘precarious’ – that is, self-esteem was reinforced by a system of what they termed ‘defenses’ that in themselves were tiring and anxiety-inducing. So for example people with a propensity to imposter thinking patterns were constantly trying to be seen as smart – so there was much worry over what their performance indicated to others and they didn’t often trust others to be able to discuss weaknesses and thus show vulnerability and risk criticism. This defense approach in itself could be draining. To me, it sounded like a vicious circle, and one that requires ‘playing a part’ or a ‘role’. I’ve seen in described in the literature as almost like wearing a mask. Behind the mask though is frequent worry and anxiety.
For some, comparing themselves to others is a big factor in their thinking.
Consistently doing so, and trying to be ‘better than’ or ‘smarter than’ someone else is draining. It can reduce your confidence, and it can impact your self-esteem over time, if you feel that you never quite can be ‘better than’ someone else.
Changing this comparison thinking will improve your confidence. You are you – with your own unique strengths and
skills. No need to be like someone else!
Now, not everyone who experiences Imposter thinking will have these traits or defenses. Many of us experience the thinking patterns for other reasons, and for infrequent periods, or only about certain events. It varies.
Fixed vs. growth mindset.
The other aspect that stands out for me in the literature about Imposter syndrome is the role a fixed or growth mindset might play, with its link to learning. This concept of fixed vs growth mindset was first described by Carol Dweck and her team. A fixed mindset is based on the belief that intelligence is fixed, while a growth mindset is founded in the belief that intelligence can be influenced. People with a fixed mindset tend to approach learning with the motivation of proving their intelligence. Those with a growth mindset approach learning with the aim of improving their knowledge and skills.
Those with a growth mindset tend to deal with challenges in a resilient way, without great impact on self-esteem. People with a fixed mindset on the other hand may feel anxiety or blame themselves.
It may be no surprise, then, to know that research has shown a strong link between fixed mindsets and imposter thinking patterns.
In other articles you will find imposter thinking linked to the tendency to perfectionism – where everything is not good enough until it’s perfect. The thing is, perfectionism is, in most circumstances, unattainable. And even when it feels like it’s attained, it’s fleeting – the next task or challenge quickly shows us that. So the worry about making something perfect is also draining, a waste of energy and can induce imposter thinking patterns.
A note here – having high standards is different to perfectionism. High standards are great – they tend to be grounded in reality – that is, they are achievable standards. Perfectionism is not realistic and the anxiety that can be caused by this tendency is very different to the concern for things to be done well.
There is another interesting link between a fixed mindset, imposter thinking and something termed ‘stereotype threat’. This is when someone is reminded of or thinks about a negative stereotype about a group to which they belong. For example, a woman who believes or is anxious about the stereotype that women are not suited to certain professions. Believing negative stereotypes can contribute to thinking patterns associated with imposter syndrome.
What does all of this mean in the workplace?
Well, firstly it shows the complexity behind Imposter Syndrome – it can be driven by thinking patterns and beliefs that are very ingrained. It can be influenced by childhood experiences around learning and praise, and also by particular personality tendencies. So really, it needs to be taken seriously, especially where it is quite debilitating for some people, or where it holds them back from achieving their full potential.
Again, everyone who experiences these thoughts is different, and impacted in different ways and to varying intensity and debilitation. So there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to addressing this. For some, it may take treatment with a psychologist, for others it may be that small changes in their belief system, or thinking patterns may minimise any fear or anxiety from taking control.
Commitment to action.
A commitment to action is the first step for many people. By taking action and committing to it, you will be less bound by the fear or anxiety that might be holding you back, making you exhausted or impacting your life in other ways.
If you have debilitating, and constant worry linked to Imposter Syndrome, then it is recommended that you find someone professionally trained to talk this through. If you have intermittent thought-patterns associated with imposter thinking, then you may find the approach below assists.
5 steps to get you started.
1) Listen to that inner voice – the narrative that tells you that you are a fraud or that someone will find you out. Notice when it occurs – is it with certain tasks or situations only, or is it more constant? What does the voice sound like? What is it saying?
These questions help you become aware of that nagging voice that has so much impact. Often people are not aware too much of the thought pattern. Once you become conscious of the narrative, you can more quickly and easily address it, to lessen the time and thus the impact it has.
2) Disrupt or break the thought pattern – once you notice it, divert attention away from those thoughts – whether with a ‘cease and desist’ phrase, or a silly comment. You might say “Enough” or “Quiet now” or “Pink pineapples”…choose a short phrase that quickly disrupts the thinking.
3) Change the narrative – say something nice to yourself, even if only “You can do this” or “Hello smart and sassy person.” You know you have kindness in there for yourself – what phrase will make you smile, or reduce the negative emotion?
4) Win the debate – whether the thinking pattern is comparing yourself to others, or is putting yourself down, or catastrophasising that all is doomed, or is doubting your abilities – it’s time to win this argument.
Exactly how do you win this debate then? Well a great place to start is something called logical disputing. It’s understanding what the belief is behind your thoughts and feelings in a situation, and then providing a touch of reality or a counter-argument.
Engage Your Healthcare Leadership has created a model called ‘UNFEAR’. It simply steps you through a thought pattern to take a more logical look at it, reduce the emotion and allow you to silence the overly critical narrative and focus on taking action.
Taking action is important. In previous blogs on this topic, I’ve actually hypothesised that imposter thinking has a silver lining (as long as it’s not overly debilitating, of course). To me, that potential positive is that sometimes it can be examined to understand a particular gap in our knowledge, skill, or experience, and identifying that can be helpful if we then work to close the gap, rather than focus on the critical thoughts. And while you do this, also remind yourself of what your specific strengths are – that’s important too!
5) Remind yourself – to reinforce a new way of approaching imposter thinking. Addressing it once won’t solve it. In fact, you may find that it’s something you deal with for years on and off – yet practicing addressing it will slowly create new neural pathways and new thinking habits. Reminding yourself might be different for each person – sometimes a journal helps to capture thoughts on your strengths and areas of action, others might like chatting to a mentor or coach, some might use a small laminated card on your desk with a quote that creates a more realistic and positive outlook. Find something that works for you to reinforce your new ways
It’s been so interesting revisiting this important topic! If you’ve liked this post, let us know in the comments below!
(This topic is also available as a podcast with extra information and insights!)