Don’t let imposter syndrome zap your self-confidence

Have you ever had an all-consuming moment of panic before a meeting or a presentation? Not the normal butterflies but a massive wave of self-doubt. A feeling that you shouldn’t be there, that you’re a fraud? If so it could be imposter syndrome.

I gave a presentation on hidden disabilities this week at a conference. The organisers asked me to present because I am on the steering group a disabled employee resource group and because I chair a neurodiversity support group. When asked to present I jumped at the chance as it was a great opportunity to raise awareness about life as a different thinker. The night before in my hotel room I felt like a fraud. Why was I talking? What did I really know about hidden disabilities?

Clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes created the term Imposter syndrome back in the 70’s. They to describe people who, despite evidence of competence, thought they were frauds. It is not a formal mental condition though it can lead to anxiety, stress and low self-confidence.

The initial research studied high-achieving women but this is something that crosses the genders. A quick trawl of the internet suggests that up to 70% of the population have had importer syndrome feelings at one time or another with equal representation across the genders. It may appear less common in males because let’s face it, blokes don’t talk about feelings and mental health issues are still sadly a taboo.

As a dyslexic, tendencies towards the imposter syndrome are not always self-inflicted. In my presentation, one of the reasons I gave for individuals not disclosing conditions to managers was the response they feared. An example I got was a manager saying “you can’t be dyslexic, you’re smart”.

“Sometimes I wake up in the morning before going off to a shoot, and I think, I can’t do this. I’m a fraud.” – Kate Winslett

After I long early morning run distracted by my podcast playlist I sat down to breakfast and tweaked my intro. I carefully worked disclaimers into my about intro. My excuses were in early before anyone could call me out.

I need not have worried. The positive feedback I got on my talk proved to other found it interesting. More importantly, I provoked thoughts which would not have been triggered if I made excuses and pulled out of the talk. I’ve raised awareness that accessibility and inclusion are about more than ramps. Hopefully, I’ve made a difference.

How to beat imposter syndrome

Don’t compare yourself to perfection. I did not start mentoring other project managers until relatively late in my career. It took getting promoted to a level where it was no longer considered optional for me to dip my toe in the mentoring waters. I reasoned there were far better people to mentor than me so why should I get in the way. Once I started I found there was loads of value I could add. More importantly coaching others improved my self-awareness and accelerated my self-development.

Remember – no one else knows either. As a child taking part in a service in front of a huge audience I got a great bit of advice. I was told if I forgot what I was supposed to do to walk to him slowly, but with purpose, and whisper that I needed a prompt. He knew I was going to ask what would everyone think so he added – no one knows what you are supposed to be doing and no one will notice that what you are doing is out of place.

Think about the value you can add. If your focus is on adding value you don’t have to be the best in the world, you just need to be able to help. Reviewing my presentation (it’s always good to look at what when well and what could be improved) I realised something profound. Even if there were questions I could not answer I could still deliver value to the participants.

Don’t be afraid of “I don’t know”. I don’t know opens the door the learning. Even better “does anyone have an insight on this” opens the possibility to understand more about what your colleagues can contribute.

Practice fear setting. This is a tool Tim Ferris presents in his 4 Hour Work Week book. Think about what is the worst that can happen and what you can do to mitigate it.

Recognise your credentials. If you are invited to a meeting, asked to speak about a topic or mentor or whatever then there is probably a good reason. Think about what makes you a good candidate. This about the skills, knowledge and experience you have that means you are well placed to step up to the plate.

Set boundaries. If all of the above does not work and you still feel like an importer then provide some context. Explain that while you are an authority on underwater basket weaving you specialise in weaving in temperate oceans so can’t offer a perspective on freshwater basket weaving.

Have a support network. Having people you can confide in is a key component to building resilience against a number of aspects of mental health. For bouts of imposter syndrome they can provide that reality check that you are not faking it.

The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.


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