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Episode 010

Episode 10: Imposter Syndrome

by Gillian Fox

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Ever feel like your achievements are a fluke, or that you’re one conversation away from being outed as a fraud? Well, you’re not alone. Welcome to imposter syndrome, an affliction affecting many women. Today, we are exploring why we discount our abilities so quickly and how to manage imposter syndrome in your career, so it doesn’t diminish your success.  

You are listening to Your Brilliant Career. I’m your host, Gillian Fox executive coach, women’s career expert, and entrepreneur. The podcast that teaches you how to get the most out of your career.  

We talk tactics, tools, and stories that all help incredible women like you achieve the success you deserve. If you want to learn more about how to create the brilliant career you’ve always wanted, I encourage you to check out the RISE Program.  

It’s my four-month career development program. Through a combination of individual executive coaching sessions and group workshops, you’ll discover how to overcome obstacles, create opportunities and reach new heights in your career.

Well hello everyone and welcome to the podcast. Today we are talking about Imposter Syndrome. Such a fascinating subject, particularly for women, who suffer the most from this condition.

Imposter syndrome is that belief that we are a fake, a fraud, and will be found out one day. Any day. Any moment really! It’s only a matter of time. It’s debilitating because success is deemed a spot of luck or a fluke. It certainty had nothing to do your skills, effort or talent.

If you don’t manage your imposter syndrome, it will hold you back and diminish your career success.

I know people find comfort in the fact that many humans have experienced imposter syndrome at some point in their life. According to the International Journal of Behavioural Science, almost 70% of adults are impacted by imposter syndrome.

In fact, a wide range of leaders admit to feeling like an imposter: Jodie Foster has said she feels like her Oscar was a fluke. How many incredible movies has that woman been in?

Michelle Obama has spoken about she used to lie awake at night asking herself: Am I too loud? Too much? Dreaming too big?

Even my friend Debra Hazelton, who I admire greatly and continues to hold very senior roles in the corporate sector, admits to feeling like a fraud in some situations.

So we are all in good company – that is the good news. Imposter syndrome would seem to impact all kinds of people to varying degrees.

The research confirms that women are affected more, and in fact the term imposter syndrome was coined by not one but two female psychologists in 1978. The focus of the study was on high achieving women who had accomplished great things but didn’t believe they were smart or good enough. Sound familiar at all!

Well, their findings spurred on decades of research and discussion around imposter syndrome.

My experience is that many women have convinced themselves that they are an imposter or fraud in their careers.

In fact, you know when I read the participants background questionnaire for the RISE program, our women’s career advancement program – next one launching in May so not far away, I see so many women – possibly as many 50% mention their concern with imposter syndrome.

So I know and appreciate that this is a real concern for many women, particularly career-focused women. This is why I am dedicating this episode to the topic because I want you to see that Imposter Syndrome could be destroying the career you’ve worked so hard to build.

If you are feeling constantly disappointed by your lack of progress and know that you’re capable of more – but you don’t know what to do next to shift yourself up a gear – then plug right in today’s discussion.

What gets on my nerves most about imposter syndrome is that it denies you self-recognition. It bothers me when you don’t credit yourself for your achievements.

As a result, you can wonder if I really got that promotion based on talent or was it just a fluke. Or did I deserve that recognition, or maybe I was just in the right place at the right time?

I hope you can see that it is exhausting to think that every time you achieve something notable or pull off something great– you reject it? You deny yourself of celebrating and enjoying that success

Yah – it’s exhausting and prompts the question – why do we do it to ourselves?

When I was offered my dream role in publishing many years ago – a senior position – it seemed too good to be true. I was 31 at the time and was supposed to replace a terrific professional, a man 20 years my senior.

It’s extraordinary to think of this today, but I declined the role twice. Then I read something that changed everything. It’s common knowledge now, and I am going back a LONG time, but the research stands true today and that is, men believe they need 60% of the qualifications to apply for a promotion, while women won’t go for it unless they have 100%.

Over several weeks, I speculated that if a man pursued the role with just 60% of the credentials and landed the gig, I’d kick myself for the rest of my career.

So I took the job, leading 100-plus people, joining the executive board and running acquisitions and mergers. It’s the best thing I could’ve done. It taught me so much and still helps me excel in my business today.

Nonetheless, for the two years, I spent in that position, I never felt qualified or good enough to be there. The horrible fear of being discovered was pervasive.

I walked away with terrific results. I only wish I enjoyed the journey more because now I know there’s no point spending so much time sitting with that fear of not feeling good enough or that someone is going to find out.

Come on….Who wants to feel rubbish about themselves. Who wants to devalue their own worth. Not me…hopefully not you either.

If you achieved something great at work or in your career and you have evidence that it happened – it’s probably not smoke and mirrors – you haven’t tricked anyone – you’ve actually pulled something noteworthy off. And how awesome is that!

So own it.

Imposter syndrome can undermine your experience or expertise – and why would you allow that given the hard work you’ve already dedicated to your career. You are worth so much more – I know that to be true and I imagine you know that too – but nonetheless, you keep defaulting.

I personally believe the impact of imposter syndrome can be harsh on women.

It can keep you off the radar, prevent you from sharing ideas in a meeting, make you work like a dog to ensure everything is perfect and you’re not found out, and even cause you to procrastinate.

Any way you slice it up….it’s not beneficial to your career progression.

So what can you do about it?

There are many tips and tricks out there – some more effective than others. This morning, I did some extra research – it’s quite fun to understand if I was going to give three tips today – what would be my best three.

So here we go – 3 ways to help manage your imposter syndrome so it doesn’t diminish your career success.

Number one comes from Dr Valerie Young – for me she is the expert on the subject of imposter syndrome and if you’re interested, check out her TED talk (just google Valerie Young) or her book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women. Both are very good.

One of Valerie’s tips is to look at imposter syndrome like sports.

She explains this is a useful way of looking at feelings of imposter syndrome.

So when you think about sports, (and you don’t have to be a sports nut to understand this!), we understand somebody is going to win and somebody’s going to lose.

That’s what happens in team sports, right?

But when it comes to ourselves, we can be very hard on ourselves if things don’t turn out well or the way we envisaged. For example, if we don’t get the job or the project or the recognition we desired, it may leave us feeling like we are the loser.

And here’ s the interesting point Valerie makes: you can be crushingly disappointed when you’re in the losing team. You can be sitting on the sidelines sobbing. But you’re not ashamed. The only time you feel shame is if you didn’t try.

From years of running with groups of people socially and training for events together, I know that it’s not the pace that makes you great – it’s the effort. If someone slow joins the group and really puts in – they are equally admired. There is no shame returning last. They are respected for their efforts because everyone knows that with that kind of commitment, they are only going to get better.

What people in the sports world do that is different is they watch the recording of the game. They look at what happened, what they could have done differently, what they could do better next time. They gather their insights, get some more coaching or practise, and say, ‘We’ll do better and get them next time’.

So we know when things don’t go well for us in our career that we’re unhappy, disappointed – and this is fine. It’s natural. But the analogy is you don’t give up – athletes don’t give up – why should you!

You have another go. So even if you deliver an important presentation and you bomb or you forget or you’re rambling – you’re going to be disappointed.

But if you tried your best on the day – let’s face you cannot do better than your best – and you still didn’t do well, you sit with the disappointment. Valerie says maybe even have a good cry – acknowledge the loss – then you go out there and practise and go try again.

The next time you do something is going to be better than the first. The tenth time is going to be better than the fifth.

I like this tip – looking at imposter syndrome like a sport – frees us up. Makes it less personal. More practical – and I think that is very helpful.

The second tip I want to share with you today comes from Susan Ritchie  – a leadership expert in the UK

Susan recommends that when you begin to recognise those imposter-type feelings that can emerge, you’ll know because you’ll be saying things to yourself such as….

  • How on earth did I get this role?
  • My success right now is a fluke
  • Other people don’t see the real me – and if they did, they wouldn’t be impressed.

So when these types of thoughts land, Susan says ask yourself this one question:

In what ways am I not an imposter?

She says say one answer out loud and then write it down. Then ask the question again.

So let’s say you’re struggling with a situation at work and let’s imagine you’ve been invited to participate in a project that has you working in a new team and a bit more senior or experienced than yourself.

And you notice that these people are very confident in the way they make decisions, talk amongst themselves, challenge each other, make jokes, and even commit to big results.

With these first impressions from just a couple of meetings, you immediately feel behind, like you don’t belong. In fact, your imposter thought is someone else should be on this project – not me. I’m not good enough to be here, so you revert to being quieter than usual and you start to worry.

So the question – ‘in what ways am I not an imposter in this situation?’ can be useful. Our natural instinct in these moments is to collect the data that says we’re not coping – we don’t belong – so this question flips it around for us. It asks us to pause, get off autopilot and think about why we are legitimately there.

The response might be – my expertise in data analytics. That might be one reason. Susan says state that reason out loud, and then ask the question again, find another reason that you state aloud.

I know this sounds like a lot of work and a bit silly, but when you’re stuck, you need to be open to being silly. So just be playful with this. There’s no downside.

The idea is to keep repeating this until you have a good list of reasons why you’re not an imposter.

There’s something about saying things aloud that can take away the sting of the problem – it can be helpful if you are feeling negative about a situation. Saying it aloud could actually help you see if you are over-reacting or being unreasonable. In any case, it will loosen the grip of the imposter. And that’s what we want

Another powerful way to do this is to have someone else ask you the question: in what ways are you not an imposter in this situation? You could ask a trusted peer this or a girlfriend that you go walking with – it doesn’t really matter – the idea is to get another perspective and get out of that story loop that you don’t belong and this is a bad situation for me.

The final tip is to give imposter syndrome more visibility. I said earlier, 70% of humans experience imposter syndrome, so you are not alone. When you have impostor syndrome, some of the most important encouragement comes from realising how many hugely successful male and female people have built amazing careers even while regularly coping with it. – the differentiator in my mind is not allowing imposter syndrome to have a big role in your work life.

Personally, I have found talking about that feeling of being an imposter super helpful. Sharing my thoughts and experiences with someone else helps me feel more equipped to deal with the situation.

So what can this look like for you?

One option is to share your concern with a mentor and your manager if you have a great relationship. Someone in your professional sphere.

Within the conversation with them, you could also ask them if they’ve ever felt that way or if they know someone who has. This gives you perspective. It makes them think more deeply and build empathy. I think this also gives imposter syndrome more visibility and normalises it.

I find making a bit of a joke about my imposter helps. So I might say something or think something and I stop and call her out.

Sometimes I’ll even say it in front of people ‘there she is – my little imposter’.

It trivialises a bit plus brings a real awareness. I find I actually change my emotional state by doing this. I can switch from a moment of worry to giggling….at myself.

If you want to stop feeling like an imposter, then stop thinking like one – this helps you do that.

That’s a wrap. Let me know how you go. You can drop me a line on Instagram or message me on Facebook at Your Brilliant Career.

Have a great few weeks – bye.

Thank you for listening to today.

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