This was a short talk I presented at The Wing, an all women’s private members club in London, on 6 November before a panel discussion with high achieving women in the music industry. The topic was Imposter Syndrome.

 

I am a couples and individual therapist and have been working in London privately and for the N.H.S. for the past 30 years. I like to think I have a great deal of experience and every once a while, I feel as if the people I see genuinely appreciate working with me. I wake up every morning feeling grateful to be doing this job. And yet, every single time a client walks into my consulting room, I feel like an imposter.

 

At times, I sit across from couples who have come to me for guidance and to learn new tools to improve their relationships. I stare at them, and think “I have absolutely no idea what to say or how to help them”

 

Now, I’m sure this admission will bring a lot of comfort to those of you currently in, or contemplating therapy; but for me, it’s important to acknowledge that this phenomenon is not unique to me. It’s universal and most people suffer from it.

 

Imposter Syndrome is a term that was first coined by clinical psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. It is defined as a psychological pattern in which individuals doubt their accomplishments and are unable to internalise their achievements. The study originally focused on high achieving women, but further research has shown that Imposter Syndrome transcends gender, class and race.

 

So despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing Imposter Syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and that they do not deserve what they have achieved. Individuals with these feelings incorrectly attribute their success to luck or as a result of deceiving others into thinking that they are more intelligent than they perceive themselves to be.

 

That’s why Panels like this are important. They help to name these feelings and normalise them. Sharing is essential in order to challenge our negative thoughts and our stories about who we are. They help us to see ourselves in a more balanced and integrated way.

 

So what are the factors contributing to Imposter Syndrome?

Developmentally, when we learn a new task as a child, the way we consequently deal with the experience leaves a lasting impact on us. If we got things wrong and were encouraged, the result is a child who will believes in their ability to learn and to improve. However, if a child is shamed or ridiculed, they will internalise this feeling and their self-worth and confidence will suffer.They grow up with the feeling that they have to be perfect and if they don’t deliver they default into being useless.

The Negative Impacts of Imposter Syndromestops us sharing our ideas, speaking up at meetings or applying for positions that we are qualified for. For some people, these feelings can fuel motivation to achieve, but it usually comes at a cost in the form of anxiety. You might over-prepare or work harder than necessary to “make sure” that nobody finds out you’re a fraud but this only sets up a vicious cycle that fuels more and more anxiety.

 Even when a person is sailing through a performance or meeting, the feelings of being an imposter continues. The inability to experience the success is based on a core belief that is so strong it wipes out the experience and the joy of doing well.

In psychological terms, this is an over-identification with the negative aspect of not being competent or good enough. When we are able to acknowledge, and most importantly accept our less than perfect aspects, we are able to see the other parts of ourselves as competent, being good enough and sometimes even great.                                                           

Impostor Syndrome causes us to lose confidence in ourselves and can result in depression. When we lack confidence and feel low we just aren’t our best selves. In turn, we don’t deliver the way we usually do, the way we want to do. We hesitate, we are unsure, and those around us pick up on this, which, of course, is our biggest fear. It’s a complex and nasty cycle to be in.

 

How Can We Move Past These Feelings? By naming and sharing our feelings. We each doubt ourselves privately and believe that we are alone in thinking this way because, let’s face it, no one wants to risk sharing their feelings. But talking openly to others allow us to normalise them and have a more balanced perspective.

When our feelings go underground, our confidence erodes, but when we share them, there is a snowball effect. Others will open up and share similar feelings. Brene Brown talks about shame in this way and her studies show that shame diminishes when we share.

Develop a Growth Mindset:This means we believe in our ability to improve. So begin to challenge the way you think about your ability.  Do you think it are fixed at birth or that it can be developed like a muscle? These beliefs are important because they can influence the way you respond to new challenges and setbacks. If you have afixed mindset, you are more likely to give up and believe you’re just not good at something. With a growth mindset, a problem becomes an opportunity to learn and grow. Neuroscience supports this and shows that new connections in the brain develop with practice and study.

Lastly, Practice Failure: Face it, you’re going to fail sometimes, maybe more than sometimes – everyone does. But studies show that those who fail regularly and keep getting up and trying again are better equipped to respond to challenges and setbacks constructively. They learn strategies, they ask others for advice, they persevere.

As Elizabeth Day says in her book “How to Fail”, celebrate the things that haven’t gone right and learn from your mistakes. Understanding why we fail ultimately makes us stronger and helps us to succeed.

Part of a new challenge is accepting that making mistakes is part of the process so therefore, be kind to yourself. You can still stand up and keep going knowing that whatever the outcome, you will have gained knowledge and a better understanding of who you really are. And this my friends is realconfidence.

Shirlee Kay