The Imposter Syndrome - Do You Feel Like a Fraud?

There is a disquieting trend emerging among women particularly - that of feeling like a fraud at work, along with the accompanying fear and anxiety about being "found out".

The Scientific Evidence

This trend has been investigated scientifically only relatively recently, with studies beginning in the seventies, with findings that the people who suffered from this syndrome had significantly high levels of self-doubt and an inability to internalise their success (Clance & Imes, 1978). Further research has shown that there is a link between the Impostor Syndrome and high Neuroticism and low Conscientiousness on the Five Factor Model of Personality (which are Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, & Neuroticism), and depression and anxiety were particularly important characteristics of those with imposter feelings as well as low self-discipline and perceived competence (Bernard, Dollinger & Ramaniah, 2002). This implies that there is a tendency for those who score high on Neuroticism and low on Conscientiousness to develop this syndrome, not that there is a necessarily causal link between the two.

In English Please?

Enough of the science, basically what we have is a set of characteristics that you may find rather familiar: depression, anxiety, fear, neuroticism, low self-discipline and a distorted view of reality (the latter particularly through not being able to recognise achievements for what they are and instead attributing them to sheer luck). While that list is still rather technical, if you think that you are not 'worthy' for your position at work and dread being found out, you have classic symptoms of the syndrome.

How many people have it and who are they?

What you might not realise is quite how pervasive this syndrome is: it is estimated that 30% of the population has some form of this, and that it is cross-cultural to the extent that it appears so long as people have gone beyond the basic need for survival. You don't see this in people who either are imposters or who have not achieved a high level of success (of course that latter is subjective, so difficult to pin down). Generally there is a higher tendency for women to display symptoms, but it is not unknown for men to develop it. You can particularly see it in high achievers, and the higher incidence in women I would suggest might be due to the pressure to 'have it all' - the career and the home life and its associated pressures.

How does it develop?

It has been suggested that it develops when children who are told by their parents that they are wonderful, then meet a challenge (either by being put in a bigger pond, or by simply encountering a subject which they take a while to understand and 'get') and start getting the feeling that they may actually not be wonderful, but instead may be average or, worse, stupid. External proof of achievements is dismissed and instead it is assumed that any success is due to luck or through their contacts. Since nothing is ever without a bit of luck, and rarely without asking someone you know for help, this is a really vicious circle.

So what to do?

There are many things that you can do to work on the self-doubt and low confidence, among which are reality-checking, gremlin-squishing, affirmations, and the swish technique. You may want to look for more information on these and similar techniques: try the internet and you might want to look at the links on my website: http://www.lifeisvital.com

Reality Checking

This is a simple as it sounds: you check whether what you're saying is true or not. If you say that you're not qualified to do whatever it is, check whether you are or not - and give due respect to your training and experience. If you got a 2:1, but constantly wish you got a first (or equivalent situation), give yourself a break! A 2:1 is good. Likewise, if you compare yourself with others all the time, catch yourself and stop. It serves no purpose as you can never know what other people are thinking unless they say so (and then you can never know whether that's the truth or not). Give yourself a pep talk and stop wasting your time beating yourself up.

Gremlin-Squishing

Also known as Gremlin-Bashing, this series of techniques allows you to separate that voice in your head that says 'you'll fail' and take a stick to it. Frequently the first hurdle for those following this technique is that you don't notice when that voice comes into your head and takes over. You might want to try writing down a list of your skills and failings and seeing which ones really aren't true - the ones that make you feel self-conscious or depressed tend to be your gremlin talking.

Gremlin-Bash 1: When your gremlin starts talking, give your gremlin a form in your mind - and then either try some violence on it, or try metaphorically putting it in a box and hiding it under the bed.

Gremlin-Bash 2: Imagine your gremlin in your mind and then imagine him/her/it shrinking into the distance, with the associated voice getting quieter and further away.

Gremlin-Bash 3: Talk to your gremlin - say thank you for your opinion, but...

Frankly your gremlin is there to protect you from hurting yourself - so it does have a function, but it can frequently overstep its mandate. Get it back to the stage at which is does its job, but you can over-rule it at any point.

Affirmations

A very simple technique, but one which is often not explained properly - it is not just about saying something to yourself several times every morning, you have to imagine it in every way and integrate it into your life. The easiest way to learn how to be confident is to act confidently. Think about which behaviours you want to have and try them out. It can be difficult to remember to do them all day long, so integrate some triggers into your daily routine to help you remember (such as a special ring, pair of shoes, photo, etc that you'll notice throughout the day and which will make you remember). If your affirmation is "I am a confident woman", imagine yourself acting confidently in a variety of different situations and also set up triggers so that you keep practising throughout the day - every day. It takes 12 weeks to ingrain a habit, so don't expect instant results - there is no such thing.

The Swish Technique

This is a wonderfully simple NLP (that's Neuro-Linguistic Programming) technique that allows you to change your thought processes and your beliefs.

The Basic Technique

1. Identify Context. Pick a situation that induces the undesirable feelings - where or when would you like to behave differently?

2. Identify Cue Image. What do you see in the chosen situation just before you start doing the behaviour or start the thought process you don't like? Imagine actually being in the situation, first person narrative.

3. Create Outcome Image. See yourself acting/thinking in the way you would like to behave/think. In the case of thoughts, what associated feelings do you want to have (a good feeling in your belly, a lack of tension in your forehead etc). In the case of actions, imagine yourself doing what you wish you could do instead (such as speaking confidently, or not getting frozen in the style of the metaphorical rabbit in headlights).

4. Swish. Starting with the Cue Image in your mind, big and bright. Then put a small dark image of the Outcome Picture in the lower right corner of your vision. The small image becomes bigger and brighter and cover the cue image (which in turn will get dim and small and shrink into nothing).

When you try this for the first time, take your time with imposing the new picture onto the old picture. When you've tried it a few times you need to do the Swish very quickly - it has to happen in less than a second in your mind for it to be effective.

5. Blank Out Screen or open your eyes

6. Repeat the Swish five more times.

7. Test yourself: try and recall the initial picture again - if the swish has worked, it should be quite difficult to recall as you have trained your mind to replace that image with another - your Outcome Image.

While this technique needs to be practiced at home before you can use it at work, it is very useful as it takes, literally, one second to do.

You can also use this for many other situations in which you have self-esteem problems, you can use it for any set of beliefs you don't want to have anymore. The greatest thing about it is its swiftness to use. In less than the time it takes to take a breath you can have done at least one swish.

Fraud Control

The most important part of personal development, not just improving confidence levels, is that you need to recognise which techniques suit you best - not all of the ones above may suit you, so do some research and find ones that do. Then you must keep going, keep motivated and really try to integrate these new beliefs into your life. A half-hearted attempt is almost as bad as no attempt at all.

References

Bernard, N. S., Dollinger, S. J., & Ramaniah, N. V. (2002) Applying the Big Five Personality Factors to the Impostor Phenomenon. Journal of Personality Assessment, Vol. 78, 2, 321-333

Clance, P. R. & Imes, S. A. (1978) The impostor phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 15, 241-247.

About The Author

Charlotte Burton is a Licensed Career Coach & Psychometric Assessor. For more information and to sign up for the ezine, view the website at http://www.lifeisvital.com or email [email protected] to request your complimentary consultation.

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