Another way in which I see ‘not good enough’ showing up is when clients feel as if they are about to be found out – for not being ‘good enough. They feel they don’t really ‘belong’, that they are a ‘fraud’, or that they don’t actually deserve the role they have their accomplishments or the recognition they’ve received.
Even the fabulous Meryl Streep, who has been nominated for more Academy Awards than any other actor (how much more evidence of being ‘good enough’ can there be?), has experienced this. Imposter syndrome, a psychological term rather than an actual disorder, refers to a way of thinking and behaving in which people really believe they have only succeeded due to luck, and not because of any talent or actual achievements. This belief is coupled with a real fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’.
The ‘syndrome’ was first named by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes back in 1978 when they hypothesized that this was something high-achieving women experienced. Despite having plenty of tangible evidence to the contrary, these women remained convinced that they did not deserve their success.
Rather, they called their success ‘luck’ or ‘good timing’, and dismissed any acknowledgement of their intelligence or competence. Since this initial study, the syndrome has been found to impact both men and women, but, in the latest study on imposter syndrome in 2018, it was still found to be more prevalent in women.
The gender difference
‘You think, “Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie?” And I don’t know how to act anyway so why am I doing this?’
Writing this section has thrown up many unexpected feelings for me. Reading all of the research and study results, questioning whether there is a gender difference (there is always research to prove it either way), I don’t think I’ve wanted to face the reality before now. Yes, I’ve always said to (primarily female) clients, ‘there is said to be a gender difference’. Beyond that, I have never really thought about what it has meant for me personally and professionally. I thought I’d done pretty well in my professional life – that I had not really been held back by being a woman, I had always done what I wanted, I had achieved a lot …
But I don’t think, until now, that I’ve wanted to face the fact that I could have been limited by the fact I am a woman.
It is in this way that I see imposter syndrome taking hold of, and limiting, so many of the smart and wonderful women I work with. There is definitely a difference in upbringing from our male contemporaries: as girls, we are more likely to be told or believe ‘no one likes a show-off, or how we should be ‘nice, good, modest and lady-like.
The sad fact is that people do seem to dislike women who acknowledge their own achievements more than men who do the same. I was really shocked when I read about a case in Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In. She cites an experiment in which business students were given a case study to read – that of a successful Silicon Valley venture capitalist. Half of those who took part received a case study featuring the name Heidi Roizen; while for the other half the name ‘Heidi’ was changed to ‘Howard’.
The students rated ‘Howard’ and ‘Heidi’ as equally competent. However, they liked Howard, but not Heidi – viewing her as more ‘selfish’ and less worthy of being hired. This was exactly the same profile. Remembering our basic human need to belong, it’s no wonder that women worry about putting themselves out there and of being proud of their achievements, or of wanting to succeed – when power and success for women are seen as negative. Until now, there was a part of me that didn’t want to admit this: I wanted to believe that we are all regarded and treated as equals.
When I scan back over the last decade, I can name woman after woman who has brought this issue to coaching – together with a lack of self-belief – despite evidence to the contrary. Conversely, not one of my male clients has brought this an all-encompassing issue to coaching. Added to this, research shows that women and girls are typically more likely to internalize failure, mistakes and criticism, while boys and men are more likely to externalize them.
The impact of this is that if women don’t do well or ‘fail’, we often see it as yet further evidence that we’re not good enough for the role or task at hand – that we are a fraud. Underrepresentation is a further issue that can trigger impostor feelings. This is because as we all feel more confident in situations where we look like everyone else, and being ‘different’ can fuel the sense of being a fraud. Y
ou can see that if you’re the only woman in the boardroom it’s going to have an effect. Imposter syndrome, like comparison, can be utterly debilitating. It can lead to feeling like a failure unless you do more and more training or earn more and more qualifications; to not applying for jobs unless you meet the exact criteria; to not asking questions or speaking up in meetings for fear of looking stupid; to not asking for help for fear of looking like a failure; and to pushing yourself harder and harder to prove you are good enough.
All of these manifestations have a huge impact in themselves and can also cause stress, anxiety, low self-esteem, increased levels of shame, and even depression. Ultimately, imposter syndrome stops you from going out in the world, being courageous, seizing opportunities, and living the most meaningful, satisfying life possible.
The key element of imposter syndrome is the ability to internalize your own wins and achievements instead of attributing them to either luck or the work of others. Shifting this mindset is not easy and the exercises on the following pages are intended to help you start doing that.
‘The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: I’m a fraud! Oh God, they’re on to me! I’m a fraud!’ So you just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud.’
- Talk to your friends
By talking to your friends, you will undoubtedly discover that you’re not the only one feeling like this – and seeing your friends talk about their imposter feelings will show you how ridiculous they are. With evidence, make a list of the things you don’t feel your doing well enough in. Get three friends to do the same. Then write down what you think each of your friends is doing really well at – this could be a quality (eg. ‘Your really brave because…’) or an achievement (eg. ‘You wrote a really inspiring blog which made me take action…’). Take it in turns to read out your lists and celebrate each other’s accomplishments.
- Celebrate your achievements
Write an evidence-based list of your skills and successes. Put a copy of these up somewhere you can see them on a daily basis.
- Keep positive feedback
Write down any positive feedback given to you in emails, cards or verbally; particularly feedback that gives evidence to support the praise. On bad days refer back to the list, read through this evidence, and celebrate who you are, what you have already achieved and the positive impact you have had.
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