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Uncertainty is a great catalyst for learning. When we are faced with uncertainty a signal is sent to the brain that something is not right, that something is different. There is often a feeling of discomfort and a range of emotions that accompany uncertainty. In our current climate uncertainty is possibly the only element that is certain. Our current global challenge has provided the most uncertain period in living memory and has left many people in an unfamiliar environment where they have been forced outside their comfort zones. Many of us have found ourselves operating in the discomfort zone. This is a place where, whilst uncomfortable, we are open to new learning and if we act on it, accept it and wrestle with the challenge we have a significant opportunity to expand what may be possible.
The discomfort zone is a place that challenges how people view a system, a behaviour, a belief, an attitude or a plan. Being in the discomfort zone interrupts how we would normally deal with or behave towards a certain situation or in a particular circumstance. It poses enough challenge that it forces you stop and pause. In some cases it seems insurmountable which can lead to us finding a work around or in some instances ignoring it altogether and refusing to engage. Those that choose this path are closed to learning at this stage and will find it difficult to engage with the predicament. Currently, there is no ignoring the discomfort, it’s worldwide and how we choose to sit with discomfort may be a defining moment.
In many circumstances skilled leaders have used the discomfort zone as part of the development process for those they lead. Through targeted conversations they draw people to realisations, shifts in perception and possibly self-awareness of how values, attitudes and beliefs impact on behaviour. By having these conversations at the right time with the right person you may be able to help create a new awareness and see growth and change by developing an agreed course of action. For this to be most successful the person has to be open to change, feel safe and be ready for it. However given our current climate change is here whether we are ready or not forcing us deep into the discomfort zone.
While it may not feel like it at the moment, this period of discomfort will go a long way in building your leadership skill set. No one likes to feel uncomfortable especially when others are looking to you for guidance and answers. For many of us when we get into an uncomfortable situation in professional settings we start to second guess our ability. We have doubts, we question our skill set, we make comparisons with others ability to cope in this setting. A flood of questions wash over us, are we intelligent enough? Do we have enough knowledge in this area? What is someone asks a question I can’t answer? What if I don’t have a solution? This leads us down the next path where we start to think of reasons why we shouldn’t take on the challenge. The fear of making a mistake in front of our peers or those we lead can be crippling. This negative self-talk, this skewed perception, this sometimes visceral emotional response is a result of being in the discomfort zone. As leaders we like a plan, some certainty, there is comfort in knowing we have control over the direction. It can be extremely challenging to lead in uncertain times, when you don’t have all the answers. But we need perspective, this is not excruciating pain that is never ending. It is for the most part a moment in time, a series of events that are punctuated with briefs moments of discomfort.
Moving into the discomfort zone has become increasingly challenging in modern society. We have shifted from a landscape of challenge to one where we have so many supportive structures in place that we limit our interaction with discomfort. We have unintentionally eroded some of our natural resilience to discomfort. On a personal level we surround ourselves with like-minded people, our social media feeds are made up of those that we agree with, our posts are highlights carefully crafted to reflect a particular image, photos are cropped and retaken to ensure we are comfortable with what we are portraying. In some ways the ‘everyone is a winner’ and ‘everyone gets a ribbon’ mentality that has gripped our society has impacted on our ability to work in discomfort. These carefully constructed environments limit our potential to grow and explore what is possible.
There are many who try to resist discomfort. In doing so they deny themselves an important opportunity to see things with fresh eyes, to break away from underlying assumptions and perspectives that may be limiting their view or potential opportunities. The challenge is to persist and move past that feeling of wanting to return back to what was comfortable. It’s a valuable exercise to listen to your internal dialogue during times of discomfort. What thoughts are you having? Are you looking for ways out? Are you using language that escalates your feelings of discomfort? Do you have a physical reaction? Does your pulse race? Do you get a sinking feeling in your stomach? How do you manage this? Making yourself aware and drawing your attention to your reaction is the first step in overcoming it. Remember emotions are responses to stimuli and are no reason not to take on a challenge.
Once your mind settles into the discomfort of a challenge a change happens. As the work starts to unfold it actually becomes increasingly comfortable and possibly exciting as you lean into the challenge and explore what is possible. Learning to be comfortable with discomfort may be the most important skill we take out of this pandemic. Sure, no one likes feeling uncomfortable, but think of the incredible work you and your teams have been able to achieve whilst operating in the most uncertain of environments. Discomfort forces us to view our circumstances from a completely different perspective and stretches us to imagine what might be possible. If we learn no other lesson maybe we could inject some unpredictability into our leadership challenges to normalise the feeling of discomfort. By doing this we can ride the wave and understand that it will end.
What is it that you will take away from this period that will become the new normal for you? What will you let go of that you have done without? What will you continue to use, do or act on? How will you manage another period of uncertainty when it comes, because it will come, maybe not of this magnitude but you will face uncertain situations in the future. We are now deep into this challenge. It would be interesting to spend some time reflecting on how you have responded. Did you lean in or did you try to swerve?
I’m a fraud! This thought hit me hard just recently. I observed some of the quality leaders around me and thought, I don’t measure up. They were so confident, so articulate, infallible to a point. I have good days and bad days sure, but not like these people. They are always on top of their game, never missing a beat, across every aspect of their learning to a degree I could only imagine – or so it would seem.
Have you ever been involved in an educational conversation full of jargon when all participants are nodding at the right times and interjecting with highly technical language? Did you feel out of your depth? Have you ever been invited to speak at a professional learning session or had your work singled out for the positive impact it has made? Did you question if you were the right person to be delivering the message? Was your work really of note? Did you question if you were worthy of the praise? Was there a nagging feeling that maybe you don’t deserve to be there? You rationalise by thinking that you’re just lucky, you’ve been in the right place at the right time, you’re not doing anything different when compared to other leaders. You then start to think, what if people start asking questions? What if they dig deeper? Then you have that sinking feeling of self-doubt. You feel like you don’t measure up. Did you feel like a fraud? Sound familiar? If so, then you’ve been held hostage by the Imposter Syndrome.
Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, both American psychologists, named the Imposter Syndrome in the late 1970’s. Their work outlined the psychological fear felt by high achieving individuals who perceived themselves to be intellectual frauds waiting to be found out and exposed. They often questioned their ability to be mixing in the company of their colleagues, feeling like they were somewhat misplaced. In the minds of those who feel it they’re not worthy of the position they had worked so hard to find themselves in. Clance and Imes concluded that people who challenge themselves and place themselves outside their comfort zone are more susceptible. These people are in a state of growth, looking to learn new skills and refine their practice because they have a firm belief that they can always improve. Acknowledging that we are always learning, whilst embracing the growth mindset, can be challenging and potentially leaves us exposed to the Imposter Syndrome.
The sometimes debilitating Imposter Syndrome can strike us all, in fact research suggests that over 70% of people will feel this way at some stage in their career. The feeling that in some way we are undeserving, that our success has come more from luck and being in the right place at the right time, than from anything we have actually achieved is at the core of the Imposter Syndrome. We doubt our ability, question our decision making processes and look for reasons outside our influence for our success. Those who get struck often neglect to look at the fact that they work hard, they do their homework and sometimes they take the calculated risks that others won’t. What we sometimes forget is that we are currently in our positions because someone saw something in us and gave us the opportunity. In times when you doubt yourself, at least have faith in those that saw your potential and gave you the opportunity. Whilst you may believe that you were lucky to be afforded the opportunity, you proactively took it and made it your own. Far too often we undersell our hard work and commitment.
The more I’ve tuned into the Imposter Syndrome the more I’m recognising it in others. It’s allowed me to take stock of those who’ve also talked about feeling this way. From what I can see, in order to feel it you must be making a positive impact. I believe you can take it as a sign that you’re on track. You can fake it for a while but eventually it will catch up with you, smoke and mirrors only lasts so long. From what I’ve observed the real imposters don’t get the syndrome. They seem to be almost oblivious, claiming to be something that they clearly are not. They continue to sell the snake oil, pumping up their own tyres regardless of the lack of progress. They show little ability to reflect on their practice continuing down well-worn neural pathways of self-praise utilising small subsets of data and research to support their work. In comparison those that feel the Imposter Syndrome often feel self-doubt. They question the accuracy of data and research, wanting to make sure that they are hanging their hats on a solid foundation. They trial new initiatives not because they are popular but because they have a belief they can enhance practice. My advice is to embrace the feeling when it comes and use it as an opportunity for self-reflection. Reflect on the work and obviously look for continuous improvement, but occasionally acknowledge that you do have some skills that serve you well.
So now that you have recognised that you may have encountered the Imposter Syndrome, I believe the following steps may assist you in using it as a tool.
- Confide in someone you trust and talk it out, not to actively seek a compliment but to get some perspective on your feelings. They can help you take an objective look at what you have achieved and guide you to understand that you’ve actually played a part in your own success.
- Understand that it’s not always about the paper credentials, don’t think you have to be the most highly credentialed person in the room to have expertise. Remember a title does not always give you credibility.
- Listen to the language you use. Sometimes the low modality of our language subconsciously leads us down the path of self-doubt. Phrases like “I’m not sure”, “it could just be me”, “I hope I’m on the right track”, “maybe I’m missing the point” shows you don’t back your own judgement. Believe that you can operate in this space and feel comfortable having an opinion.
- Stop comparing yourself to others. I’m currently involved in a learning community where we are discussing our personal assumptions that limit us. What’s interesting is that there are a great deal of people who share the same insecurities in leadership positions, yet we often hold them up as the perfect being not knowing that their own internal dialogue may be very similar to our own.
- Understand that you are growing and that you can actually change your point of view when new information comes to hand. Having an alternate opinion doesn’t make you a fraud, it makes you human. Realise that you don’t know everything and that anyone who thinks you should has placed a unrealistic expectation on you.
- Occasionally, just take that compliment. It’s good to be humble but sometimes you just have to take the compliment and say thank you.
- Know that perfection is unattainable. Celebrate you successes by reflecting on what you did that worked and refining what didn’t.
I spoke to an aspiring leader recently who was doubting their recent promotion. They trotted out the usual “I’m lucky, right place right time” line. My advice to them was simple. You can’t continually be this lucky. Be comfortable with your success and continue to work hard to maintain it. Stop and take note of how far you have come and reflect on the effort it has taken you to get there.
If you’re not sure if you’ve ever been held captive by the Imposter syndrome, try taking this test. Maybe then you can recognise it and acknowledge that you’ve had something to do with your own success. http://paulineroseclance.com/pdf/IPTestandscoring.pdf
Self-belief is not arrogance, it’s not blind loyalty to a misguided cause. True self-belief comes from deep honest self-reflection underpinned by a strong moral purpose that your work is making a positive impact. Maybe I’m not a fraud after all.