Dealing With Imposter Syndrome

Ego Is The Enemy

How You Frame A Situation Has A Profound Impact On How You Respond To It Emotionally

Dealing With Imposter Syndrome. Ego Is The Enemy. How You Frame A Situation Has A Profound Impact On How You Respond To It Emotionally. Graphic

Dealing With Imposter Syndrome - Introduction

Imposter syndrome is a feeling that many of us experience at some point in our lives and it is where we feel that we are not good enough and will be found out and shown to be a fake.

Psychologists describe this as a psycho-emotional experience of a fear of being found out as incompetent despite ongoing evidence to the contrary.

The American Psychological Association reports that in the absence of a clinical diagnosis, this experience has been more accurately framed as a "Impostor Phenomenon" by Atlanta-based clinical psychologist Dr Pauline Clance. However in this article I am going to stick with the term "Imposter Syndrome" as that this is term used by most of us.

Imposter syndrome affects people in a range of different ways including increased anxiety, under-performance and depression. It can affect mental health and overall functioning. In short, it is debilitating.

There are many and varied factors that can trigger the experience of imposter syndrome which can include:

  • Past trauma
  • Family issues and upbringing
  • Work/educational environment
  • Personality traits and characteristics
  • Lack of social skills/social anxiety
  • Taking on a new role/new responsibilities
  • Cultural issues
  • Under-represented identities which can include, but is not limited to, ethnicity and/or gender expansiveness

Where to start in dealing with imposter syndrome?

The focus of this site is on learning how to think effectively because, over the long term, the outcomes that you experience in your life are determined by how you respond to what happens to you.

There are so many random things that do happen and will happen that are out of your control.

Your response to what happens is far more important that your experience of what happens.

The cumulative impact of all  your choices will - over the long term - have a major effect on your health, wealth and happiness.

In this context, you can control your response to the feelings and experience of imposter syndrome - it is a choice and it matters.

However, the first big question in dealing with imposter syndrome is do you really want to deal with it?

This may seem a silly question but in my lived and observed experience most people who say they want to change generally don't change.

Immunity to change

This is not about will power but is about a competing inner commitment to stay as you are. Why? This is about your safety.

There is a part of you - a self or sub-personality - that sees it's role as maintaining the status quo to stop you failing and getting hurt.

This has been referred to as an immunity to change.

The ugly sisters

Imposter syndrome has a number of ugly sisters, two of whom are quite well known: "Inferiority Complex" and "Procrastination".

These ugly sisters all share the same parent and that is ego.

Ego is the enemy

Ego does not  want to admit weakness or risk failure so:

  • It whispers in your ear like the Roman slave appointed to continuously whisper in the ear of a conquering general enjoying his victory parade ‘Remember you are mortal’, as it cuts you down to size and makes you feel unworthy and an imposter.
  • It inflates its own sense of self-importance and encourages peacock-like displays of superiority; or it takes the opposite tack and deflates its sense of self-importance and takes on the role and identity of put upon, badly treated victim. An alternative mask it assumes is the halo of the all suffering martyr. In each case it compensates for, and masks, a deep seated feeling of inferiority.
  • It puts up a roadblock in the form of 'perfectionism' and a raising of standards that are out or reach, so you procrastinate.

A two-pronged approach

In my experience people can, and do, waste a lot of time thinking about their issue and analyzing it, typically how they got it, why they have got it, how it affects them, and talking with other people with the same or similar issue.

This has some value, but it is limited.

Being informed about your problem is not going to solve it. 

The real work lies in dealing with your head and your heart, your thoughts and your emotions.

Cognitive and energetic

This two-pronged approach to dealing with imposter syndrome is Cognitive and Energetic.

Before we go into that, I want to share two personal examples of situations where I experienced imposter syndrome and how I dealt with it.

    Dealing with imposter syndrome starts or ends with one very simple question:

    Do you really want to deal with it?

    Immunity To Change

Personal Experiences Of Imposter Syndrome

[1] What are they saying about me?

Personal Experiences Of Imposter Syndrome. What Are They Saying About Me? Graphic

In the late 1990's the UK economy went through a very bad recession. Hundreds of thousands of small businesses were wiped out - including mine. My circumstances were so bad I was about $200,000 [£100,000] in debt. I had negative equity in my house. I had no immediate prospects of improving my situation. My self esteem was very poor.

During this time I was invited to become the voluntary Chairman and CEO of a new charity focused on mental health issues. Over first couple of years we had funding of about $1.5 to $2mill USD and a staff of about 20 people.

One of my very early actions was to restructure the board and to bring in some experienced professionals. As is often the case in these situations there was a culture clash between the professional and business people I brought in and the founding directors who were all social worker types.

Privately, I framed this as a clash between the "suits" and the "woolly sweaters". As a board we had to make some tough policy and financial decisions. As Chair and CEO  I had to make some tough calls which as a business man myself, I knew had to be made.

But, and here's the thing, I felt so inadequate because of my circumstances. I knew I had the ability to make the decisions, and I knew they were right but I struggled with implementing them. I felt like an imposter. I cared [too much] what the rest of the board thought of me.

The turning point came when a set of circumstances occured within the dynamics of the board which revealed a very important truth to me and enabled me to rapidly rebuild my self esteem, and it was this:

Nobody on that board was spending much time thinking or talking about what I was doing. Why? Because they were are far too busy thinking about themselves and pre-occupied with their day jobs!

They assumed I knew far more about what was going on than they did  and they were very happy to let me get on with it.

    If you knew how little other people were thinking about you, you wouldn't care at all what other people were thinking about you!

    How To Build Self Esteem

[2] I feel totally and utterly out of my depth here

Personal Experiences Of Imposter Syndrome.  I feel totally and utterly out of my depth here. Graphic.

I was working for a corporate client in the IT sector and I was asked to go and help one of their programme directors who was experiencing major delivery problems.

They were 6 months into an 18 month systems integration and hadn't hit a single milestone! $30m ill  was at stake!

When I got on site the programme director swore and said:

"Why have Head Office sent me another bl**dy consultant  - as if that will make any difference!"

He gave me a 3 week contract. I was absolutely terrified. Why? Because here I was, helicoptered into a major failing IT programme, and I was IT illiterate [this was a long time ago].

I gazed at the teams of 300 software developers, project experts, and technical experts - and I froze.

This was a massive career and commercial opportunity for me, and yet I felt overwhelmed. All of my dormant insecurities rose to the surface.

To say I suffered from imposter syndrome is an understatement. I felt so totally and utterly useless and out of my depth.

As I returned to my hotel room at the end of that first day, I realised two things:

  1. That the problems were people problems and not IT problems and so I COULD solve them; and
  2. That the people at head office had big confidence in my proven ability to diagnose problems and implement solutions and that was why I was there.

By reframing the situation I was able to very rapidly take ownership of the situation and do it my way by playing to my strengths.

Within my first 3 weeks I made sure that the core team met their first milestone.

12 months later I was still there and the programme was completed on time and in budget.

The team hit every single one of the subsequent 183 milestones and delivered a $5m profit and I earned over $400,000.

    How you mentally characterize a situation has a profound impact on how you respond to it emotionally.

    The Power Of Framing

Solutions For Dealing With Imposter Syndrome

Solutions For Imposter Syndrome. Graphic

We are now going to look closely at the two-pronged approach to dealing with imposter syndrome. 

I am now going to highlight 2 key points for each of the Cognitive and Energetic approaches and also suggest further background reading if you want to go deeper.

Each key point is based around relevant articles on this site, and each article provides the actionable steps together with further resources if you need them.

I am not going the replicate the contents of those articles here but I will explain briefly what matters and why.

Then it's up to you, and we revisit the question I asked you earlier:

Are you serious about dealing with imposter syndrome - or are you just reading this to be entertained?

The Cognitive Approach

[1] You Are Not Your Thoughts

  • What matters is not the content of your thoughts but your relationship with your thoughts.
  • The 4 stages to dealing with your thoughts

[2] The Power Of Framing

  • Change your language to change how you feel
  • Framing is the link between the cognitive approach and energetic approach [head and heart].

Further Reading:

Cognitive Distortions

Self Dialogue

Embracing Your Fear Of Failure

How Build Your Self Esteem

How To Overcome Fear And Perform Powerfully


The Energetic Approach

[1] Stop Thinking

  • Most of our emotional and psychological stress happens because our Thinking Mind and our Observing Mind are fused.
  • The most powerful and proven technique for gaining control of your mind and learning how to stop thinking - over the long term - is mindfulness meditation.

[2] The Transformative Power Of Acceptance

  • The power of acceptance is the freedom that it gives you from the tyranny of your thoughts and emotional responses to the events and circumstances of your life.
  • "What am I feeling now? I accept that I am feeling...."

Further Reading:

How To Practise Mindfulness

6 Key Practices From Eckhart Tolle

Are You Waiting For Change?

Emotional Freedom Technique

Resources For Dealing With Imposter Syndrome

Imposter Syndrome: Types, Causes, & How to Stop It

Caitlyn Hewitt and her team at Business-Essay have posted a comprehensive and fully indexed article which looks at:

  • Definition & Types
  • ️Symptoms
  • Risk Groups
  • Causes
  • Self-Check
  • Treatment

How to overcome impostor phenomenon

Experts from the American Psychological Society share why impostor feelings arise and how psychologists can overcome them and best help others with the same struggle

Next Article: How To Benefit From The Unseen Margins

Return from "Dealing With Imposter Syndrome" to: Walking The Talk

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