are you afraid of being found out?
Do you sometimes wonder why people can’t see right through you? That they’re bound to find out sooner or later that you’re only masquerading as a successful professional – you really haven’t got a clue what you’re doing?
If so, you’re not alone. Impostor syndrome is a term coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Clance and Imes to refer to high-achievers who live in persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud, putting their success down to luck, timing or what they perceive as others’ incorrect assumption about their competence.
Whilst their original research focussed on women, it’s not limited by gender. Only the other day, a male friend confided in me that he frequently feels more like a 12 year-old schoolboy than a 50+ year-old CEO in charge of a multi-million pound business.
Reassuring words are not the solution
In my experience, when you let people know how you feel, they’re likely to adopt A Look of Incredulity and say something along the lines of, “But look at what you’ve done/achieved/how successful you are? How can you think like that? You’re amazing!”
Much as this is very nice and may give you a temporarily Warm Fuzzy Feeling, if you have a case of Impostor Syndrome you probably find that the words just bounce off you and make no difference whatsoever to how you feel.
How do you experience impostor syndrome?
My hunch is that there’s a voice in your head, a bit like a radio station that is on all the time in the back of your head and gets louder on Special Occasions. For example, presenting at the monthly company meeting or closing a deal with an important client. It’s saying something like, “You can’t do this. Who do you think you are? You’re talking absolute rubbish. You can see it on their faces.”
However, I suspect that because you’re so good at what you do (theoretically – I know you don’t believe me!), you’re adept at getting the job done without giving any outward signs of disturbance. You’re a bit like a swan gliding on a lake – serene on the surface and paddling furiously underneath.
A game of two halves
I doubt that you see your fear of being “found out” as a positive thing, and it’s certainly not pleasant to feel fearful. Yet, it’s worth considering how your fear has been taking care of you up to now. It’s been driving you to work harder, strive for excellence and take feedback on board. Ironically, it’s been making you even more likely to make you successful and even less likely to be an “impostor”.
Saying that, not only is it unpleasant to experience a permanent undercurrent of anxiety, it also prevents you from being fully present. As well as the negative noise in your head, you may not feel a sense of being “grounded” – your energy may feel quite “high” and you may notice that your breath is shallow.
What can you do about it?
- Become present. Often, we can allow ourselves to be carried away with negative thoughts, thinking they’re real when they’re just a product of our over-active imagination.Negative thoughts are a throw-back to our origins, trying to keep us safe from perceived harm. Yet the more we think them, the more our body contracts to “protect” us which leads to less oxygen to the mind and body. The result is acting, thinking and speaking from a place of fear rather than possibility. We don’t even realise we’re doing it.So when you find your thoughts running away with you, do anything you can to bring yourself back to the present moment. A good way to do this is to get in touch with physical sensation. For example, feel the sensation of your feet on the ground, rub your fingers and thumbs together, notice your breath (are you breathing?!) and make it deeper. Doing this should help you to slow down, feel calmer and feel more “yourself”.
- Focus on the difference you can make. I know that you’re a high achiever precisely because you suffer from Impostor Syndrome (even though I know you still don’t believe me) which means you are a force for positive change. Whether or not you are afraid of being found out, you have the power to make a difference. Focus on what you can influence for the better rather than on your perceived lack of fitness for purpose.
- You are still 12! Finally, remember you are still that 12 year-old. Being a grown-up with responsibilities doesn’t mean that you’re a different person – you’re just playing a bigger game now.
What do you think?
Alison Reid helps new Directors focus on what matters, communicate with impact and stay calm and effective under pressure so they can lead themselves and others to great results. She's the author of Unleash Your Leadership : How to Worry Less and Achieve More. Download an extract or buy the book.