Imposter Syndrome (IS) is that little voice in our heads that says to us that we are fraud, we are not good enough, they will soon find out who we really are, we don’t have what it takes to excel in our current role, and in life. What the little voice does not tell us is who we really are and what we are capable of doing. IS shows up in our private lives by making us believe we do not belong, we are not good parents, wives, husbands, sons, daughters, and that life treats others better than us. This little voice is further amplified by our line managers, parents, teachers and the society that tell us we are not good enough. The purpose of this article is to address the sources of IS and how to overcome it.
I spoke to one of my coaching clients recently who said that she sees other people happy most of the time which brings sadness to her as she does not feel happy. She is unhappy because she thinks other people have got it all and she has nothing. She sees other people happy on the outside without understanding what they are going through on the inside. During our interaction, she confirmed there are people who looked up to her and wanted to be like her. “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence”, the saying goes. She has a Masters degree and lives in her own house. She acknowledged this much when we started counting her blessings. A lot has been said, written about IS and some of my coaching clients still bring it to coaching. We held a workshop for the Boys to Men Africa (BMA) 2023 Cohort recently as part of creating IS awareness which was facilitated by Mofoluwaso Ilevbare. It was obvious from the workshop that IS is here to stay.
I suffered from IS throughout my career until I read books about self-worth. It was that realisation that liberated me as I gained the confidence necessary to relate with other people. Thereafter, I took control of meetings that I attended, because I realised I had something to share with the participants. That was when I started looking forward to meetings and meeting people instead of being afraid of meetings and meeting people. That was when I actively sought out opportunities instead of being afraid of them. That was when I realised that I actually was not remunerated for the value I created.
In my case, the source of my IS was lack of confidence resulting from believing that I didn’t have all the qualifications and experiences necessary for my role. Now, I tell my clients that no one has all the qualifications and experience required for any position. There is always a first time. We assume roles that we didn’t prepare for and excel. No one taught us how to be good parents, yet some of us have been very successful parents. In addition, I was a perfectionist who was never satisfied with less than hundred percent. Now, I accept eighty percent and look for ways to improve on it.
Maya Angelou, a well know author once said “I have written 11 books, but each time I think ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.”
Sources of IS
Growing up, we were constantly told we were not good enough either at home or in school. We were told that we must work hard at all times to be successful. Success was defined by our grades in school, our parents, siblings, friends and the society in general. Unfortunately, success as defined by the society today is the amount of money we have in our bank accounts, the number of cars and houses we own. Growing up and living in a society where we are minority or in a racist environment can also lead to IS.
2. Lack of confidence
Lack of confidence and belief in ourselves restrict us from showcasing our talent. If we do not believe and have confidence in ourselves, it shows and we should not expect other people to have confidence in us. A client of mine after meeting with some top executives of her department said to me, she didn’t see anything special about them, but from a distance, they were “heroes” to her before now. This was after we coached around networking and influencing. Being an introvert, she didn’t make effort prior to our coaching to interact with the leadership and colleagues in the office.
3. Inadequate preparation
With adequate preparation comes confidence. Sometimes, we don’t prepare enough before meetings and meeting people or taking on tasks. Inadequate preparation can lead to self-doubt when challenged even when we are right or have the ability to deliver on the assigned tasks.
4. Inadequate knowledge
Limited knowledge of the subject matter under discussion or consideration could lead to self-doubt. Not knowing enough puts us in a position where we cannot speak authoritatively even when we know what we are talking about. In some cases, we don’t do enough research and our homework before taking on assignments.
5. Our judge and saboteurs
According to Shirzad Chamine, the author of Positive Intelligence, our greatest enemy is that little voice in our head called ‘Judge’ that is always judging us and telling us we are not good enough, we shall fail in our endeavour, we are fraud, and they will soon find us out. When we listen to it, we feel negative emotions leading to fear, anger, jealousy, anxiety, unhappiness, and lack of self-confidence.
Dealing with IS starts with our acknowledgement of what we are dealing with. A problem identified is half solved. The realisation that we are good enough is the beginning of overcoming IS. This is not to say we should not play our part by doing the following to overcome IS:
1. Build self-confidence
People that put us in positions believe in us and our abilities which should give us enough motivation to believe in ourselves. We must tell ourselves we merit and deserve every position we find ourselves and do our best giving the opportunity, trusting that our best will be enough. Self-confidence comes from equipping ourselves with knowledge and skills necessary for surviving in this ever-changing world.
2. Adequate preparation and research
We should always do our research to gain more knowledge and understanding. To become a coach, I studied for and acquired the relevant academic qualification and certification which opened up the way for me to meet with the coaching community with confidence. Self-confidence requires us to be versed and knowledgeable in our areas of specialization and the subject matter.
3. Acknowledging what we don’t know
I always tell my coaching clients, it is fine to say “I don’t know” and requesting for permission to do more work on it. No one person knows everything and people will respect us for acknowledging that we don’t know and will be willing to help us than we think.
4. Embrace positive intelligence
There are various tools and techniques to help us quiet our minds and be able to live in the moment. Our brains are wired in a particular way resulting from old habits acquired over the years. Our brains are always scanning for dangers in the environment, what can go wrong and what is bad that can harm us which in turn generates negative emotions. Replacing negative emotions with positive emotions is where we find happiness and self-confidence. This requires rewiring our brains which takes time and effort. There are available tools and techniques which research have shown to be useful.
5. Seek the help of a Coach or a Mentor
Sometimes we need professional help where we cannot do it by ourselves. A role model or a mentor can help build the required confidence. They are able to share their journey with us and clarify any doubt we might have about ourselves. A coach can help us unpack the source of our IS and in building that confidence that we require to overcome it. The feedback from coaching intervention has been positive.