Hands up if you’ve never felt like an impostor in a new job or one you’ve done for yonks. If you’re like me your hands will be glued to your sides. Are you waiting for the world to wake up to just how clueless and ill equipped you really are? If so, impostor syndrome probably has you in its grip.
The term impostor syndrome has been a ‘thing’ since the 1970s. It’s that freeze inducing ‘fear of being found out’. It’s the feeling that somehow you snagged a lucky break and snuck into a career you’ve no business being in. Any moment now the game will be up and someone will expose you as a total fraud.
The original research on impostor syndrome focused on high achieving women but we now know that almost all of us experience it. All fresh starts including career changes leave us vulnerable to querying our capabilities. Furthermore, anecdotal evidence and loads of studies confirm that feeling completely out of your depth doesn’t diminish with success.
Severe impostor syndrome is a recognised and treatable condition. In its less debilitating forms it’s probably part of the messy, complex business of being human.
With the possible exception of actual impostors, almost everyone feels less than authentic lots of the time. The questions in this short quiz highlight the thinking that drives that trapped and sinking feeling. Like any other online quiz, take it with a pinch of salt.
If you’re feeling out of your depth in a new or established role one of these four lifebuoys may help you stay afloat.
Disarm your demons
It’s natural to panic when you feel you’re out of your league with no obvious escape route. Feel like a cornered fake and watch your inner demons start spruiking gloom and doom. If you’re stuck with a headful of shouty critics telling you the ‘fake squad’ is coming to get you, here are three ways to quieten them down.
While impostor syndrome is serious it’s also absurd. Tap into its comic potential by imagining the fake squad arriving. Maybe they’re wearing bad suits and toting clipboards. My tormentors are snarky, cardigan clad clones of a horror show headmistress complete with bulletproof perms.
Chill but don’t freeze
A serious bout of impostor syndrome can stop you in your tracks. If you’re paralysed by fear of being ‘caught out’, Mike Cannon – Brookes has some sound advice. His wry, engaging TED talk describes fifteen years spent learning to harness the power of impostor syndrome and use it as ‘a force for good’.
Recognise that impostor syndrome is about fear of exposure not fear of failure. Counter its impact by exposing your ideas and expertise to scrutiny.
Once you’ve disarmed your inner demons, engage with actual people including those whom you suspect could be about to ‘out’ you as a fraud. Ask heaps of questions, seek advice, do masses of research, make glorious mistakes. Resist the urge to seek safety in silence. Do as Cannon – Brookes suggests and ‘keep the conversation going’.
Pretend to be someone who ‘can do it’
If you struggle to believe that you genuinely belong where you are - stop trying. Instead pretend to be someone who can do the job. Then act as they would. This twist on ‘fake it til you make it’ is one of a number of gems in writer Neil Gaiman’s inspiring commencement address entitled ‘Make good art’.
Give your alter ego the best chance of succeeding by not making them a perfectionist. Gift them a curious flexible mindset that understands the power of ‘not yet’. This means they’ll be comfortable being clueless and see it as a cue to explore and learn new stuff. Make them someone who thrives on uncertainty, makes healthy comparisons and pursues their personal best.
Record your successes
Feeling like a fake has little or no connection to how capable you are or how well you’re performing. Nor are stability and achievement antidotes to the scary sensation that you’re playing out of your league.
Compiling the evidence for being anything but a fraud won’t inoculate you against impostor syndrome. However it could help restore your perspective, especially when you find yourself waiting for the fake squad to knock.
Keep an up to date file of your favourite successes to hand. Read it when you feel threatened and when you don’t. Moreover, if your version of the clipboard toting, helmet headed fake squad ever do turn up, you’ll have their measure.
By Jo Green, Career Coach
I know how it feels to be lost in your career. That’s why I coach, to create learnings, action and help others get stuff done! Career transitioning can be lonely and confusing. I walk alongside my coaching clients to support them, be their cheerleader and challenge them to make the changes they want in their life.
Drop me a note to organise a free 20 minute consultation to chat about your career change and how coaching could help.