By: Hira Ali
We all experience a feeling of inadequacy regarding our self-worth and whether or not we are qualified enough to achieve something, especially when we are pushed outside our comfort zone or doing something for the first time. Some people feel the same despite repeated external evidence of competence. This fear or feeling is called Impostor Syndrome. This term was coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne A. Imes, and is marked by a persistent fear of being exposed as a "fraud" and an inability to internalize accomplishments. According to HBR, common thoughts and feelings associated with this syndrome include, "I must not fail," "I feel like a fake," "It's all down to luck," and "Success is no big deal."
I had these feelings, too, every time I delivered training to Senior Managers. When my target audience changed from being local to global, despite having international accreditations, I still thought I needed to add more credentials to my name until I felt qualified enough to cater to the latter.
And, I am not the only one.
Millions of people including celebrities, sportsmen and CEO’s have been plagued by constant self-doubt and feeling of unworthiness. Hollywood star Meryl Streep, Dr. Chan, Chief of the World Health Organization and Nobel Laureate Maya Angelou are all examples of famous people who have expressed inadequacy in their work, and hinted the fear of being found out. Emma Watson, Sheryl Sandberg, Michelle Pfeifer, Kate Winslet, Sonia Sotomayor and countless others have admitted to similar sentiments. High achieving people particularly often doubt themselves and feel undeserving of the recognition they receive. While both men and women experience the impostor syndrome, studies show that women are more often affected and more likely to suffer the consequences. Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, says, “Being female means you and your work automatically stand a greater chance of being ignored, discounted, trivialized, devalued or otherwise taken less seriously than a man’s.” It is hence no surprise why women tend to question their abilities and feel inferior.
So what can you do to limit the negative impact of Impostor Syndrome?
1. Identify the feelings.
The first important step is to recognize that you are experiencing these feelings. Awareness is the key to bringing about a change in the way you think and act. The moment you know and say what it is, you are opening yourself to different possibilities of handling it.
2. Let it out.
There may be many others who share the same fears as you. By sharing your concerns you may find out that you are not in this alone which makes the fear far more bearable. Seek support from those who identify with your belief and have effectively conquered it.
3. Reconsider your perception of failure.
It is okay to be wrong, to fail or to not know everything: Occasionally being wrong or not knowing everything doesn't make you fake or non-deserving. Remind yourself that you will learn more as you progress. Top notch teams sometimes lose, the best players often miss the goal, and there are many million dollar businesses that sometimes fail as well. Evaluate the impact of what could go wrong by asking yourself, "What's the worst that can happen?" This will help mitigate the fear. Most importantly, reframe the failure as an opportunity to learn. Always remember, no one really knows the outcome. The fact that you are trying even when you are unsure makes you admirable and not fake.
4. Reaffirm your self-worth.
Accept your success and be kind to yourself. Don't shy away or dismiss compliments by attributing your success to external factors. Own it! When you feel undeserving, go back and review previous accomplishments or positive feedbacks. Recount the people whom you made a difference to. This will help assure you that nobody belongs here more than you do. No one is telling you to be ostentatious, but downplaying your success will help no one.
[Related: Be a Walking, Talking Alpha]
5. Refrain from comparison.
Comparison can be lethal. There are many famous people out there who are doing similar to what you do and even better, so why bother; you might as well not do anything at all. But this is not a justified comparison. If you don't measure up against successful people around you, that doesn't mean you are any less. Never compare other people’s highs to your lows. Remember, these very successful people were in your place once. It may even seem that some people achieve success effortlessly but the reality everyone is facing a unique set of challenges and struggles, known only to them. Learn to value your own strengths and once you start respecting your own potential, you will soon realize that you have a lot to offer.
6. Re-evaluate the context of the situation.
Often situations exist in which you many not feel 100% confident, but ask yourself, "Do you always feel this insecure and uncertain?" "Has there been a time when you felt on the contrary?" These questions will help you identify the circumstances in which you did feel in control and what steps you took to ensure the same. Perhaps, the same tools and strategies could be applied in a less confident scenario?
7. Pursue your goal relentlessly regardless of what you feel.
The best way to beat impostor syndrome is to continue taking action, irrespective of how you feel. It is said that if you take the risk and do what you fear the most, then you can do anything. It takes a lot of courage to pursue challenges even when you're doubtful. After all, you can never really know how much you can accomplish if you don’t try.
You achieved because you did something different, something extra, something which you believed in, something which others didn’t do, others didn’t try. And trust me, the world needs believers, innovators and doers, someone they can look up to, someone who can inspire them to try, even when they are unsure.
Ellevate Network is a global women’s network: the essential resource for professional women who create, inspire and lead. Together, we #InvestInWomen.