Do Leaders Feel Like Imposters?

Photo: Kyle Glenn, Unsplash

Did you ever say to yourself that you’re not good enough, that you don’t belong, that you don’t deserve the job, the promotion, the book deal, the seat at the table, etc.?  If you have, you are in good company.

  • Tina Fey:  Actress and author, said the following about imposter syndrome “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 onto me! I’m a fraud!’” Women tend to explain their successes away by ascribing them to things like “luck,” “hard work” or “help from others” rather than the innate ability or intelligence than men often cite.
  • Maya Angelou: The prizewinning author once said, after publishing her 11th book, that every time she wrote another book she’d think to herself: “Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody.” 
  • Michelle Obama: The former first lady has spoken and written about how, as a young woman, she used to lie awake at night asking herself: Am I too loud? Too much? Dreaming too big? “Eventually, I just got tired of always worrying what everyone else thought of me,” she said. “So, I decided not to listen.

My friend Google, showed me that many famous people suffer from imposter syndrome, including, Tom Hanks, Natalie Portman, Arianna Huffington, Serena Williams, Sheryl Sandberg and Mike Cannon-Brookes, an Australian billionaire and CEO of Atlassian who told his story in this TED talk.

Leaders in every walk of life have experienced the imposter syndrome. How they deal with it is an important lesson in leadership and managing your mindset.

Who is Prone to Imposter Syndrome?

This syndrome was first applied to women by two psychologists in a 1978 study.. Since then, it was found to apply to anyone from any walk of life. Anywhere from 9% to 82% of people can experience imposter syndrome

Minority groups may be especially susceptible to it. A 2013 University of Texas study  of ethnic minority college students found that Asian-Americans were more likely than African-Americans or Latino-Americans to experience impostor feelings.

What Does Imposter Syndrome Look Like?

A person with impostor syndrome does not internalize the positive feedback they get. They don’t see it as an accurate reflection of their abilities. Those who don’t feel like imposters, receive positive feedback, feel good about themselves and confident in their abilities.  

Imposter syndrome is:

  • Feeling like a fraud and fearing being discovered,
  • Having difficulty in absorbing personal successes,
  • Feeling like success isn’t deserved, they don’t belong, or are out-of-place.

Feeling like an imposter can lead to a drop in job performance and job satisfaction, as well as increased anxiety and depression.

Valerie Young, expert and author of, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, found the following patterns: in those with imposter syndrome:

  • Perfectionists are prone to imposter feelings because of the high expectations they set for themselves. Small mistakes will make them question their own competence.
  • Experts feel inadequate if they are not fully prepared or knowledgeable before they start a project. They won’t ask questions or speak up in meetings if they don’t know the answer.
  • The natural genius feels like an imposter when they have to put effort into their work.
  • Soloists work on their own and if they need to ask for help, they think that means they are a failure or a fraud.
  • Superstars feel the need to succeed in all aspects of life and may feel stressed or like imposters when they are not accomplishing something.

Managing Impostor Syndrome

Re frame your thoughts

  • Recognize the imposter thoughts and put them in perspective. Ask yourself: Does this thought help or hinder me? Then, take action; either let it go, or take positive action.
  • The way to change your self-talk is to guide your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.  Replace negative thoughts with positive ones or phrases that break the cycle like, “You got this!”,”Go get ’em”, or ” I can do hard things!”, You are good enough!”
  • Recenter and calm yourself, go for a walk, meditate, do some deep breathing or something that is relaxing. Over time, when you refute the negative chatter in your brain with more accurate and positive thoughts, your brain will become rewired to believe better.

Discuss your feelings

  • Discuss how you feel with a trusted friend, mentor or seek professional help. People who have more experience can reassure you that what you’re feeling is normal and knowing others have experienced it can help make it feel less scary.
  • Most people experience moments of doubt, which is normal. The important part is not to let the doubt control your actions.  Use the information you have to remove imposter doubts more quickly.  Young says. “They can still have an impostor moment, but not an impostor life.”

Write it down!

Your successes

  • A study of over 12,000 journal entries from 238 employees found that capturing small wins helped increase motivation and build self-confidence. Write down your successes, so that you can visit them when you need to. Take time to absorb your successes.

What you are grateful for?

Successful people practice gratitude by writing down the things they are grateful for. Gratitude:

  • releases positive emotions,
  • helps to adopt the wins,
  • improves health,
  • helps to deal with adversity, and
  • builds strong relationships.

Your self-doubts

Writing is a great remedy for impostor syndrome and has a healing effect. Write down your feelings of self-doubt. In fact, participants in a study who wrote about their most traumatic experiences for 15 minutes, four days in a row, experienced better health outcomes for up to four months later.

Writing can help you find meaning in your experiences, provide a different perspective, see the positive side of an experience, and provide lessons for future use.

Takeaways

Imposter syndrome is a mind game. It is a matter of who has control of your mind, is it you, or is it your thoughts?

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