How to deal with the ‘imposter syndrome’

Someone in your executive team might be suffering from ‘imposter syndrome’ and you don’t even know it

How to deal with the ‘imposter syndrome’

Has a member of your executive team ever confided, “I’ve been faking it for years and each second of the day, I’m petrified that I’m about to be exposed”?  Unlikely.

Feeling like a fraud isn’t something that we readily share in conversation, yet it is a common occurrence.  The authors of ‘If I'm so Successful Why Do I feel Like a Fake?’ estimate that “70%, of the general population has felt imposter tendencies with regard to their work.”  

Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s the high achievers, those extensively skilled, practiced, and knowledgeable, who experience the syndrome with heightened intensity.  The further we shimmy up the corporate tree trunk, the further we have to fall and the more serious the consequences - or so we think in those dark moments of doubt and insecurity.

Entertaining thoughts of ‘fear of discovery’ can be fleetingly annoying or in the worse case, debilitating.  The suffering is silent, causing irritability, stress, and down periods of difficulty to think creatively or take risks. If you’ve experienced these symptoms, know that you’re in good company.

A fascinating documentary ‘From Nothing Something’, features interviews with a variety of accomplished artistic professionals, where they share they’re inner truths about lapses in confidence.

One, Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist Steve Breen, says that the pendulum swings back and forth for him between mini panic attacks, where he asks himself “will I be revealed for the fraud that I am?”

As well, Sara Quin of ‘Tegan & Sarah’ who wrote the song ‘Everything is Awesome’ for the Lego Movie moaned that for a good portion of her career she’s felt ‘incapable’.  “It was mostly a test of just not failing every day.”

But what about professionals functioning in a more logical, analytical world?

Ryan McWhinnie, Director of Legal, and Business Affairs for Merlin states: “Feeling like a fraud is prevalent in law.  Lawyers have a feeling they’re not qualified and they’re faking it to some degree. You’ve passed that initial stage of competence, but the more capable you become the more you’re aware of how much you don’t know. You’re never going to know everything. If you focus on that concern it can shut you down and even at the highest level, you can have a bad day.”

The following are a few suggestions for managing yourself and/or a high-achieving colleague through these distressing intervals in time:

Normalise: It will pass

Relax in knowing that what you’re feeling is totally normal…and temporary.

We’re experiencing the syndrome because we have high expectations for exceptional outcomes, and are simply facing a transitory fear of potential failure- the concern that we may not be able to maintain or augment our current level of success. This acknowledgement as a first step opens the door for a more realistic outlook.

Reframe: Create a fresh perspective

Reinterpret your feelings, by seeing things from a new vantage point.

Our lapse into insecurity actually demonstrates the degree to which we care about excelling, both for our own sense of self-worth and for the good of our team and organisation. That very awareness can neutralise our fears and place the focus back onto a ‘forward-looking, can-do’ mind-set.

Trust: Review your success stories

Examine the reasons you are seen to be a highly successful, valued and respected professional.

Consider your strengths. What are the skills and capabilities that have lifted you to your current position? Is there any logical reason that these competencies will abandon you in the near future? Trust yourself to perform at an exceptional level on autopilot. You’ve done it for years and look where you’ve landed!

Muffy Churches is an executive coach, leadership trainer, speaker, and counsellor. She has extensive experience in inspiring and initiating positive behavioural change in clients around the world.

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