Imposter Syndrome in Leadership: You Are Not Alone!

by Sarah Jones, Personal & Career Coach

Being a leader in today’s challenging climate is difficult enough. If you’re not dealing with the changing working practices caused by a global pandemic, there are also the implications of Brexit to take on board. So you’d be forgiven for feeling a little overwhelmed at times. But why is it that so many talented, experienced and perfectly capable leaders suffer from Imposter Syndrome?

Who suffers from Imposter Syndrome?

It’s estimated that around 70% of people will suffer from Imposter Syndrome at some point in their lives [1]. Sheryl Sandberg, the author of ‘Lean In’, talks about being ‘plagued’ with self-doubt and constantly expecting to embarrass herself at work. Actress, Lupita Nyong’o, spoke of a constant fear that she would be ‘found out’ after winning her Oscar, and even Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that she experiences a feeling of insecurity at work – but that she has learned to step out of it.

So, it helps to know that even women (and men) at the top of their professional game sometimes feel that they are there by accident and that they may be discovered as frauds.

How do I know if I have it?

Although Imposter Syndrome hasn’t been diagnosed as a psychiatric illness, the term is being widely accepted as a collection of symptoms that prevent men and women from experiencing their fullest, best lives.

Signs that you might suffer from the condition include:

– A feeling that people are watching over your shoulder, waiting to see if you make a mistake.

– A sense that you have somehow achieved your professional position by accident and that you may be ‘found out’.

– A nagging feeling that your best isn’t good enough, and that you don’t stand up professionally to your peers.

– That you don’t ‘belong’ in your role.

In essence, Imposter Syndrome makes us frightened that we are frauds, regardless as to how accomplished, skilled, experienced and respected we may be to the exterior world. The issue lies internally in the way that we think, the way that we perceive ourselves and the language that we use internally to reinforce these fears. [2]

If you’re still not sure whether you are struggling with this often-crippling condition, ask yourself:

  1. Am I a perfectionist, who insists on everything being ‘just right’ and who cannot otherwise relax?
  2. Do I tend to overwork, to constantly prove myself?
  3. Do I struggle with criticism, and become upset and defensive – rather than analytical and constructive?
  4. Am I uncomfortable with praise, and feel that it is misplaced?
  5. Do I constantly compare myself to others and feel that I am lacking?
  6. Do I feel like a fraud, and avoid putting myself in the limelight for fear of being shot down and humiliated?

If you find yourself nodding along to these statements, you may suddenly be feeling some sense of relief – firstly, to know that you are absolutely not alone, and secondly, that the condition can be greatly improved.

What causes Imposter Syndrome?

Psychotherapists believe that the roots of this condition lie in childhood – and often before the school years. Where children are scolded for doing things wrong, or mocked for failing to meet parental standards, these situations can lay the foundations of later feelings of fraud. Similarly, where young children try their hardest and are ignored, or if they don’t receive encouragement or praise from caregivers, they can sometimes develop a negative perspective of their efforts and achievements and believe that they have to put in twice the effort and work to simply earn recognition and praise from the world around them.

Who might be susceptible to it?

The first thing to know is that anyone can experience this crippling condition – men and women alike. However, women do seem to suffer from it more frequently, perhaps as a result of social conditioning and professional barriers, as well as early years experiences. Young professionals are particularly susceptible, with studies suggesting that nearly 30% of millennials feel intimated at work. Experts have identified five categories which typically hold people who identify with Imposter Syndrome:

  1. Perfectionists – as we mentioned above, these individuals feel driven to constantly give 100%.
  2. Experts – who are noted as such externally, but who constantly and privately berate themselves for lacking the necessary credentials.
  3. Soloists – who go through life believing they must achieve without any help.
  4. Superwomen (and Supermen) – who feel they must be able to do everything extremely well with minimal effort.
  5. ‘Great Minds’ – who feel the pressure to constantly come up with rapid, easy and profound ideas that change the game. No pressure then.

How can I fix it?

This is what we really want to know; how to fix it! Although there is no quick solution, the answer to overcoming Imposter Syndrome lies in changing the way you think about yourself, the way you talk to yourself and the actions that you take which inform your behaviour and thought-patterns.

So, for example:

  1. Rather than obsess about perfecting things, recognise that perfection is an illusion. Instead, focus on completing your necessary work and fulfil it to a level that does the job. Then, simply let it go and learn to work through the difficult feelings that you may experience with this initially.
  2. Set limits to your work. Go home at a fixed time. Accept that you have done what you have and that you have done it well. Then go home and forget about it.
  3. Reframe criticism. Have a stock set of phrases that you can use when faced with criticism, such as ‘thanks for your feedback, your ideas are interesting and I’ll take them on board’. Negative feedback is a chance to grow – not a reason to feel bad.
  4. Stop comparing. Focus on your path – which is different from the path of everyone else. Learn to understand yourself; your values and your truth. Focus on those things, not the ambitions of others or the fleeting trends of the world around you.
  5. Learn to love praise. Give praise and receive it. You’ll find that it’s a wonderfully sustaining feedback loop.
  6. Remember that you are enough. You ARE enough. Meditate on it, repeat it to yourself, practise affirmations. Do it often enough and you will start to truly believe your own unique strengths and power, and finally release yourself from the limitations of Imposter Syndrome to lead your best life.

Sources:

[1] https://www.thecut.com/2017/01/25-famous-women-on-impostor-syndrome-and-self-doubt.html

[2] https://theawarenesscentre.com/imposter-syndrome/

About the author

Sarah Jones is a seasoned personal, life, business and career coach. Born with an entrepreneurial spirit and an insatiable drive to help others find their happiness, she founded her successful coaching business to help people find purpose, meaning and direction in their lives and careers. Sarah has been through many of the roadblocks and challenges she coaches on, herself so is able to empower others to identify and reach their full potential.

She works with individuals on a one-to-one basis for personal and career coaching; and both on a one-to-one and group basis for businesses. She has also devised several  programmes to help people personally to reach their desire potential. Sarah is also a regular speaker and media commentator.

To find out more about Sarah’s coaching programmes for individuals, executives, teams or organisations visit: www.sarah-j.com.

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