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Impostor syndrome: dispelling the myths – an expert view

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At 10 Digital Ladies, we want to have the conversations that matter to you, our community. Time and time again at our meetups, you’ve raised the topic of impostor syndrome – how it sneaks up and undermines your ability to feel confident about your strengths, or own your successes. But what is impostor syndrome? Why does it happen? And what can you do about it? I decided to hunt down an expert on the topic to get to the bottom of things.

Here Dr Theresa (Terri) Simpkin, authority on the impostor phenomenon, shares her views.

FFS!  <insert celebrity name here> has ‘imposter syndrome’… How I love and loath these social media stories.

I knew it would be a problem when I did it: setting up a Google alert to diligently track how the imposter syndrome is reported across the globe each day was going to make me mad. I was not wrong.

As an academic, researcher and now crusader on the topic of ‘imposter syndrome’ (particularly among women) it’s my job to keep on top of the current thinking in the scientific community.  I also spend a good part of my late afternoon keeping up with the daily populist and social media reportage which is duly delivered to my inbox. As such, I spend much of that time rolling my eyes and whispering ‘for f*#k sake!’ under my breath. 

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great that the topic is making it to the public arena and I’m pleased that more people are talking openly about their challenges and telling of their triumph over adversity.  But what really does my head in is that much of what is termed ‘imposter syndrome’ is not actually ‘imposter syndrome’. Here’s why.

Numero Uno.  It’s not a syndrome. I’ve said this so many times, I swear I’m going to put it on a T-shirt.  When PR Clance and Suzanne Imes made public their seminal research they called it the ‘impostor phenomenon’ (IP).  Granted, syndrome is much easier to say, but what we’re talking about here is more accurately identified as a complex experience that is often contextual and developed over time via social learning. Defined as an internal experience of intellectual phoniness despite success, it can be debilitating and last a lifetime if not addressed.

Secondly, it’s not something you have or you don’t.  It exists on a continuum which means a person could experience IP only occasionally in some circumstances and not at all in others.  Alternatively, like some women I’ve interviewed as part of my research, individuals may constantly experience an irrational but very real feeling of being on the cusp of being found out as a faker on the brink of monumental failure.

One outwardly successful and capable woman I interviewed said that every morning she sat in her car mentally rebuilding herself just to go into the office.  She was absolutely convinced she was unqualified to be doing her job. She did this Every. Single. Day.  

Impostor Pheonemon experiences can be few, moderate, frequent or intense. 

You can find out your IP ‘score’ by doing the original test that was devised by Dr Clance.

Third, this is not simple self-doubt.  I see this reported time and time again.  “<insert celebrity name here> tells of their battle against imposter syndrome”.  Then the story goes on to say that after some soul searching and a bit of confidence building <insert celebrity name here> enjoys success and is now rolling in cash/adoration/Instagram followers/whatever. 

This is more likely self-doubt and a normal, often useful experience that can make us better.  When faced with something new or challenging or within public gaze we may feel like we’re not equipped.  But we do it, succeed, we get over the self-doubt and move on. When something similar happens we can look in our mental ‘rearview mirror’ and take comfort that we did it before and we can do it again.  Happy days.

People experiencing IP do not have that ‘rearview mirror’.  It might be foggy or broken or missing entirely and this means that they genuinely do not recognise their past achievements or successes. 

Instead, success or overcoming challenge is seen as luck or attributable to something or someone else and at some point they’re going to get found out for it.

Finally, it’s cyclical.  My interviewees told me essentially the same story.  For example, they’d go through similar feelings of dread when something new came along.  They’d procrastinate and self-handicap by putting things off or not asking questions then they’d be struck by a need to make sure it was perfect, going above and beyond by overworking and frantically trying to polish and polish and polish it until it needed to be evaluated/handed in/put to their boss.  

Then they’d catastrophise about how bad it was and what mistakes they’d made. More often than not, when good feedback and praise is handed out for a job well (or brilliantly) done, they genuinely dismiss it as luck, the work of others or just doing the job.  Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat.  

The cycle goes on and on.  And the tragic thing is, my own experience and my interviewees tell me that they know this is happening but they simply can’t stop it.  The thoughts, behaviours, the fear continue on, time and time again. For some people, this will result in them getting off the treadmill and quitting, or taking a job where they can remain below the radar but are unfulfilled.  Alternatively, some will live with this and develop stress, anxiety or depression-related disorders. 

This is what I loath about the social media reporting of the ‘imposter syndrome’.  It often fails to realise that this can be a tragic, long term and debilitating experience that people may know they’re doing but can’t stop.  The frustration of that can be palpable.

One interviewee suggested that she knew, in her quiet moments that she could take on the world, but she was terrified of being found out as a fake and a failure.

This paradox is not what’s reported.  The wasted talent, the real and profound sense of frustration and sometimes crushing fear of failure, fear of success and mental anguish is not reflected in quick and dirty media posts.  

Instead, bright and breezy suggestions such as writing down your achievements and thinking happy thoughts are suggested and they’re all well and good but they don’t recognise that this can be a deeply embedded learned experience.  It can, and often does, require a more nuanced and concerted approach. Making light of how easy it should be to get rid of only makes matters worse.

So, I shall continue to research the ‘real’ impostor phenomenon as it’s become my mission (and actual real job!) to bring the truth of this ‘thing’ to light.  It’s my calling to help others distinguish fact from fiction in order to better understand why it’s so hard to shift often deeply held beliefs about the self that drive these experiences. And so, I shall continue the eye-rolling and ‘FFS’-ing until the job is done.

Quietening your inner impostor:

  1. Seek evidence: Find someone who is able to provide honest, direct and more importantly, evidence-based feedback
  2. Make friends with your strengths
  3. Allow yourself ‘worry’ time (and put a time limit on it)
  4. Reassess your need to be the best
  5. Get uncomfortable and accept praise
  6. Learn more about the Impostor Phenomenon
  7. Help others

About Dr Terri Simpkin

Terri Simpkin (BBA HRM, BCom (Hons), PhD, CIPD, CPHR, FHEA, Churchill Fellow) is an industry experienced academic, educator, researcher and expert in emerging leadership paradigms and an authority on the impostor phenomenon.
As CEO of her own company, Mischief Business Engineering, she works globally with governments, industry associations, large and small business and is a Visting Fellow at Anglia Ruskin University.

Her current research interest has developed into Braver Stronger Smarter – a suite of initiatives designed to address personal and structural issues leading to workplace inequity and the under-representation of women.

Terri has recently been included in the Power 50 – the fifty most powerful women in the data economy. She is a devout (some might say, tragic!) Duran Duran fan and a dedicated devotee of the work of the late, great, Sir Terry Pratchett.

Contact Dr Terri Simpkin:

Lucia AdamsImpostor syndrome: dispelling the myths – an expert view