Imagine having some annoying little annoying runt follow you around, everywhere you go, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It tells you that you’re not good enough, you don’t deserve the things you have, you’re a liar, a fraud. It tells you that one day you’re going to mess up and everyone will see what a massive failure you actually are.
Even worse, you have a presentation to make at work today and THIS is the perfect opportunity for that exact thing to happen – you’ll mess it up and your manager is going to call you for a ‘quiet chat’ after.
If this little was an actual thing, eventually you would probably tell them to bugger off right? Except it’s not, it’s inside your head and it’s going to stay with you. For many, it’s the stuff of nightmares but it’s also an uncomfortable reality.
It’s called Imposter Syndrome and we seem to be seeing more and more mention of it in the media and social media. In a 2019 review of 62 studies on imposter syndrome (IS), it suggested that anywhere from 9% to 82% of us experience IS at some point. My personal opinion and experience is that the higher number is much closer to the actual figure.
It’s not classed as a mental health condition itself but it’s becoming increasingly recognised in psychology as a very real thing and can absolutely fuel mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression and when we look at the feelings and beliefs associated with it, it’s easy to see why:
- Feeling worthless
- Lacking in ability/intelligence
- Feeling inadequate
At this point you might be reading this and thinking ‘but Pete, you’re asking is it THAT bad? It sure sounds it!’ and it can absolutely be a total dick and hold great people back, causing all sorts of emotional turmoil but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely negative like most things, there’s another side to the coin and a grey area in-between.
Imposter syndrome can be a sign that you’re being stretched a little, pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and into a growth zone. In the same way as lifting weights is uncomfortable, it causes us to grow and become stronger.
If we look back over the events of our lives, especially the difficult times, we see how those times have shaped us.
That time I was flat broke by the 3d of the month taught me to save a little every month
That time I was made to look foolish taught me to walk away if it’s not that important
That relationship breakdown made me stronger and that I’m worthy of respect & kindness.
They may not have been instances of IS but they’re times when we were uncomfortable and probably couldn’t see how we would make it out the other side, but we did and we were better off for it.
IS is something I experience regularly as a public speaker and someone who often presents to executives of big, scary multinational companies but providing it’s not causing me crippling anxiety about whatever I’m going to be doing I’ve learnt to embrace it.
If I’m terrified of being an imposter that must mean that this thing is really important to me, if it’s really important to me then I really care about it and want to get it right. If I really care about it and want to get it right then am I really an imposter?
Because an imposter wouldn’t give a shit, they would be happy that they’re getting away with the lie so how can I be an imposter?
We can take it even further; if I care about something this much then let’s prepare as much as I (realistically) can and then get out there and give it everything I have got.
Suddenly ‘I’m not good enough’ has turned into ‘Let’s smash this out of the park!’
So whilst we should definitely be aware of IS and acknowledge that for some people, it’s a real struggle that we can’t just rationalise away and in those cases, there is absolutely nothing wrong with getting some support from friends, family or a counsellor. But for many of us, we can actually embrace those Imposter thoughts and acknowledge that right at that moment, we’re growing and becoming better, stronger and more rounded versions of ourselves.
If you would like to learn more about imposter syndrome, Dr. Valerie Young is an expert on impostor syndrome and the author of the book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It.
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