feeling like a Fraud
By Dr Galia Barhava
This is a new edition of the original article I wrote for Professionelle – link here
Over the years I have coached over a hundred women and men, and delivered workshops for over a thousand. One thing that keeps coming up in facilitated discussions, is that so many successful and talented women feel that they are frauds – that any minute now, they will be found out.
I stopped being surprised long ago when accomplished women would confide in me that they constantly feel like imposters. Well, for years and years, I too shared the same sense of dread that I am not as good as others seem to think I am.
When introducing the notion of the Imposter Syndrome to those women (and men), you can almost hear the sigh of relief in finding pout that they are not alone.The purpose of this short article is to give to backstory for the Impostor syndrome, and some super practical tips and tricks for overcoming it.
Impostor Syndrome is not an officially recognised psychological disorder, but it has been the subject of study and books by psychologists and educationalists, probably because it is quite prevalent once you start working closely and intimately with people who outwardly look like they’ve got it all sorted…
It was thought that women most commonly experience it, with may attributing their success to external forces such as luck and being in the right place at the right time. Those of us who suffer from Impostor Syndrome seem to be unable to attribute our success to our own efforts and abilities and that’s why we’re constantly worried we’ll be found out. (If you are a psychology geek you can think of it as an expression of an external locus of control.)
The Syndrome was studied first in the 1970s with high achieving but under-confident women: women who seemed to have high levels of self-doubt and felt unable to internalise their success. Research undertaken since then suggests that it is equally prevalent in men and is also common in gifted people. Interestingly, people who aren’t that smart or capable don’t seem to suffer from this syndrome. So, the smarter you are, the more you seem to know what you don’t know…
I guess the good news is that if you feel like a fraud, the chances are that you are not. But still, there is the niggling voice at the back of your head that you need to deal with. And too often that voice can grow ever louder until it actually debilitates and paralyses.
How can you silence the destructive voice or at least quieten it down to mere background noise?
Managing Your Environment
All too often we don’t notice how our environment influences us, be it the physical space we work in, our social life or the culture in our workplace. When you are deeply involved, you stop noticing the effects these things have on you, even if they can be quite corrosive.
For example, it wasn’t until I started working exclusively using a positive psychology or positive organisational development lens that I realised how draining it is to work from a deficit – or ‘what wrong and how can we fix?’ – perspective.
Changing your environment, be it your physical, psychological or cultural environment, is something you can almost immediately take control of which, in turn, will serve to counter those niggling self-doubts.
Choose the right working environment
We insecure over-achievers tend to be attracted to very competitive, high pressure environments. Yes, this is a generalised statement, but I think that most of you will agree. According to workopolis (a Canadian job site), some workplaces are so “aggressively competitive” that they make even the most talented individuals feel inadequate.
In my experience and observation, some workplaces deliberately foster competitiveness and leave you to ‘sink or swim’. If managed well, where individuals get to play to their strengths and have structures such as peer support or mentoring schemes in place, these environments can get the best out of people. However, when these support systems are not in place or are poorly implemented many highly capable people end up feeling isolated and full of self-doubt.
So, you should think carefully about the nature of the organisations you consider working for. If you know yourself to be susceptible to feelings of inadequacy, then you would be wise to avoid workplaces where managers are focused on your ‘areas for improvement’ rather than focusing on your strengths, and where the culture is to ‘treat you mean’ and ‘keep you keen’ for praise.
If, however, you really want to work for such a company, then set about developing a good support system for yourself. If there is a good mentoring or peer support system in place, make sure you hook into it. Otherwise, actively build one for yourself outside work using old colleagues, friends and family members you trust.
There is an old Hebrew saying:
‘The shy will never learn.’
Overcome those feelings and make sure that in the first hundred days in a new job you ask as many questions as you need in order to feel on top of the local culture and the requirements of your job. People expect you to and often respect and appreciate it. Even in the most competitive environments, you’ll find some people who will be happy to help and support you as a newcomer.
Beware of friends who might be adding to your feelings of self-doubt
We are often drawn to people who may not be good for us. Yes, it sounds like pop psychology and you’ve all heard the stories about smart women who choose men who treat them badly, or wonderful kind men who marry women who treat them badly.
But consider this: do you have friends who, in the name of cautiousness, always point out the potential for you to fail? Do you have friends who somehow, despite appearing very sincere, manage to rain on your parade?
If you do, consider reducing contact with them when you are in a period of change or when the niggling voices are stronger than usual. Instead, spend time with those friends who are always supportive, who you know will back you up no matter what.
Our friendships are super important and not be treated lightly. Positive Psychology researchers tell us that the most effective way to achieve a fulfilled life is through relationships. In fact, they would go as far as to say that the best predictor of happiness (and often health) is the quantity and quality of a person’s social ties. Research found that people with many friendships are less likely to experience sadness, loneliness, low self-esteem, and problems with eating and sleeping. In a recent study with 6,500 adults it was found that people who had 10 or more friends they saw in person at least once a month had greater well-being. So make your friendships count.
Managing Your Thoughts
Once you have got your environment sorted out, controlling your thoughts should become more manageable. Thoughts are obviously the source of the problem and should be dealt with!
Easier said than done though; those insidious voices inside our heads just pop up. Worse, when we’re stressed we may be completely unaware of them, yet profoundly influenced by them.
I have three practical suggestions for managing your thoughts.
Be deliberate about documenting your achievements
Depending on how loud that insidious little voice is, I sometime take it on and have a full-blown argument with it. It goes something like this:
Well, if I am such a failure, can you please explain how I managed to come top of the class in my first year of University even though English was my second language?
Sometime, the voice persists, and then I have to launch into full achievement listing mode. I sit down, write out all my achievements (or look at my CV) and try and systematically discount all possible external explanations –
No, I didn’t come top because everyone else was stupid…
I don’t think we are deliberate enough about our achievements. I believe (and research shows) that we focus far too much on our failures and our shortcomings. One negative comment has as much weight in our minds as five positive ones.
You could also do this simple exercise. Sit down with your CV and add to it all the other achievements that you are proud of. You can then discuss them with your partner or a trusted and supportive friend and systematically discount any possible external explanations there might be.
It is always good to get someone else’s perspective about your achievements. You may have forgotten or discounted some and your partner or friend will be sure to remind you!
‘For when you need those’ mail box
When people send us lovely emails thanking us for something good, kind, helpful we did, we go ‘oh that’s nice’ and move on to deal with the drama that inevitably lives in our in-box. One of my favourite hacks is to save them in a mailbox titled ‘for when I need those’. And when I feel down, or overwhelmed and those niggling thoughts of self-doubt creep in, I go back and read ALL of the messages I kept. Try it – you will like it.
Learn new thought strategies
I deliberately left this one to the end because I believe that once you sort out your environment and develop some good, practical strategies, it will become a lot easier to teach yourself new thought strategies. If you are in a great deal of turmoil, than consider getting some professional help. Cognitive behavioural therapy is probably the most suitable and helpful form of therapy in dealing with self-doubt and negative thoughts.
If, however, you are not quite at that point, I suggest you read good self-help books regularly. The key is that you need to recognise the onslaught of the little voice and take action as soon as it starts.
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