What do Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and all-round wonder-woman Meryl Streep have in common, other than being fantastically talented and highly successful? They have both admitted to suffering from ‘Imposter Syndrome’. In other words, they both feel like frauds; not worthy of their roles; fearful of being exposed as incompetent and overwhelmed.
According to the California Institute of Technology Counselling Center, Impostor Syndrome is, “A collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in the face of information that indicates that the opposite is true. It is experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence.”
Research shows that the feelings associated with Imposter Syndrome are surprisingly common, especially in high-achievers. A recent study reveals that over 70% of respondents had experienced Imposter Syndrome.
Furthermore, in her newest book, The Charisma Myth, Olivia Fox Cabane talks about a yearly ritual she conducts with her incoming class at Stanford Business School. She asks them, “How many of you in here feel that you are the one mistake that the admissions committee made?" Every year about two-thirds of her students raise their hands.
However, the news is not all bad. Leading scientists and professionals agree that experiencing Imposter Syndrome might actually be the best thing to happen to someone professionally.
Bear with me as I explain a hypothetical, yet common, scenario:
Karen has recently begun at a new workplace in a role that has more responsibility and leadership duties than she’s ever experienced before. Naturally, Karen is anxious and wants to make a good first impression to earn the respect of her new staff. However, she has little past experience to draw confidence from, so she feels like a fraud. Karen decides she has two options to address this situation. The first is to admit to her team that she’s new to this position of responsibility, which would allow her to look to everyone for help and champion a collaborative approach to leadership. This approach would also reduce Karen’s uncomfortable feelings of anxiety and being inauthentic as she ‘comes clean’. The second option is to fake confidence and authenticity in order to establish her position of authority and ensure her staff are confident in her leadership.
I’m here to tell you that if you choose the second option and experience Imposter Syndrome, you can grow both personally and professionally. In an article in the Harvard Business Review, Professor Herminia Ibarra of INSEAD argues that ‘faking it’ and taking on a new challenges forces us out of our comfort zones and established routines. This process is a sign of positive change and growth and opens up the potential that loiters in the unfamiliar beyond. Ibarra also suggests that if you consistently ‘fake it’, you’ll eventually ‘become it’, and then your Imposter Syndrome is no more.
However, this process takes time, and it almost always triggers strong feelings that incite us to retreat back into our comfort zones.
Tips to boost your confidence and authenticity until you ‘become it’:
Accept it: The feelings of Imposter Syndrome are completely natural, and are programmed human survival instincts for when out of your comfort zone. Accept that this is normal, and remember that you’re in good company (Sheryl and Meryl).
Be ready for failure: Until you ‘become it’ you’ll probably try many different styles of confidence and authenticity. This is a process of elimination until you find the right fit – so be ready for failure and criticism. Expect it, learn from it, and move on.
Create your all-star support team: One of Cabane’s most useful strategies is to regularly ‘sit down’ with three or four of your most admired people. Hold a little meeting in your mind; ask them for advice, and listen to their suggestions. Although it sounds a bit obscure, there is a strong argument for the mental placebo effect. Your brain doesn’t necessarily know what’s real and what’s not.
Log your success: Either mentally or on paper, create a list of your past achievements and successes. Just before exiting your comfort zone, go over this list, and re-experience all the positive emotions. Remember, Imposter Syndrome makes you feel fraudulent despite your real life competency.
Be aware of your voice:We all have the tendency to mumble and trail off when speaking without confidence. To counteract this, speak just a little louder than you do normally.
The power stance: Before embarking on something that requires you to ‘fake it,’ for instance, a big presentation, pose in front of the mirror as Superman – shoulders back, chest out and hands on hips. Feel triumphant and indestructible. This will release a range of chemicals in your brain and make your feel more confident.
Visualise success: Whilst standing in the power stance, visualise success, such as the nods of approval from your peers after you’ve finished your presentation. This technique is invaluable and widely used among the most successful business and sportsmen and women alike.
Letter to yourself: Write a letter from one of your colleagues to yourself, detailing how much they respect and admire you for the great job you are doing in leading the team in your new position. Get as detailed as possible. As stated above, the mind doesn’t know what’s real and what’s not.