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The potential impact of the Imposter Phenomenon during the current crisis

In the current situation of a global pandemic we are all finding ourselves dealing with internal and external challenges.  Whether it is how to home-school, or keeping the kids occupied, worrying about older relatives, sorting out online or in-person shopping and that’s not to mention the worries, stress and anxiety that Covid19 may trigger from a health perspective… and then there’s the logistics and psychological impact of working from home.  Or if you are with one of the essential services and a key worker then you must be experiencing vastly different challenges from the rest of us, but challenges none the less.  If you are a key worker reading this, then I give you my wholehearted thanks for all that you are doing.

This blog will address the issue of the imposter phenomenon (IP), or imposter syndrome as it is often, though erroneously, referred to.  First of all a little about what IP is and where it might come from.  Then I’ll look at where it might show up, especially in the current circumstances and I’ll close with some suggestions that you can follow if you experience imposter feelings or if you manage others with those feelings.

The Imposter Phenomenon is an internal feeling of not being good enough, that you will be exposed as a fraud, even though the external evidence suggests you are really successful at what you do (Clance and Imes, 1978). Research indicates that these feelings increase can increase stress and trigger procrastination and maladaptive perfectionism – among other impacts.

The imposter chatter varies from person to person and from day to day or even minute to minute. It is not a constant feeling, nor is it at the same level all of the time. It can be experienced on a continuum from light to intense, and it is the moderate to intense feelings which create more issues and anxiety.

Causes of the phenomenon vary too. For some the cause can be hyper-critical parenting where you are never quite good enough and there is always room to improve, while for others it is hyper-supporting parenting where “you can do anything, darling” has been misinterpreted as “you must do everything, darling”.  It can be perceiving yourself as different from others around you, whether that is in upbringing, or ethnicity, or sexual orientation – to give just a few examples.  Societal expectations and messages weight heavily on others and for some it can be a misinterpretation of a childhood message such as “don’t get too big for your boots”, or “pride comes before a fall”. (I have unruly curly hair and my mum would often recite the rhyme “there was a little girl, who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead.  When she was good, she was very, very good, but when she was bad, she was horrid”. As a child, I subconsciously interpreted that as “I must be good, because I don’t want to be horrid”, so feared making mistakes).

If you experience the imposter chatter, take a moment to reflect on what your own causes and triggers might be.  Are they true?  Are they still valid?  What has changed?  How have you changed?

You might like to take some time to reflect and re-write your own story.

Success comes with its own triggers.  For someone experiencing the imposter chatter, being promoted or performing well in a task or in a role can create an initial euphoria, closely followed by a sinking feeling or “oh dear, now I’ve got to live up to that”.  Indeed, Clance & Imes noticed that the more successful people were, the more prone to experiencing the phenomenon they were.

Given the current circumstances of the global pandemic, there are other triggers that may be causing imposter chatter in people.  For those working from home, it can be the fact that you no longer have the chance to run your ideas past your boss or co-worker in a casual “what do you think of this…” manner.  The isolation of home-working doesn’t provide a chance for someone to walk by your desk and break you out of a reverie, or to check whether you are ok when they see a frown upon your face.  Or you might be juggling with home-schooling, and feeling that nothing you do is good enough, feeling guilty about not spending more time with your children, yet equally guilty about not being able to focus on your work.

If you are a key worker, especially within the NHS, you might be enlisted to perform a role that you used to do and are qualified to do, but haven’t done for some time.  You might find yourself promoted from student into a front line role.  You might worry about knowing what to do at the right time when treating a patient with Covid19. You might experience IP feelings in some, all, or none of these situations – and I’m sure there are many more instances where the imposter chatter can rear its head that I haven’t mentioned.

So if you are experiencing the imposter chatter – and please note I say experiencing, not suffering from (“suffer from” is somewhat disempowering, “experiencing” gives you the option of choosing a different experience) – there is something you can do, both to support yourself and others.

Before I get to what to do, one thing not to do, counterintuitively, is to tell people experiencing imposter feelings that they are amazing. They may be doing amazing work, and you may see them as amazing people, but pause a moment… if you tell them they are amazing, while that might be true it  could exacerbate their imposter feelings as now they feel like they have to be amazing all of the time to live up to expectations. So be more explicit, give praise by saying WHY you think they are amazing and cite specific examples.  And look out for the dismissal of “oh, I’m just doing my job” or “It’s nothing really” or “anyone would have done it…”.  Encourage the person you are praising to accept the praise by gently reinforcing that they did that piece of work, dealt with that patient, calmed that customer down…  Be explicit about their actions, the impact they had on the situation, and the impact their actions had on you and the team.

Research indicates that an effective way of combatting your own imposter chatter is to gather positive feedback and to talk about your internal feelings with others (Lane, 2015).  Both of these you can continue to do, even if you are remote working, or in isolation.  Gathering positive feedback is about noticing; noticing when someone says something positive or you receive a positive email, tweet or text, and then noticing your reaction to it.  While you can collect any number of positive emails or texts, how many you have, or what they say, won’t matter a jot if you a) don’t review them and b) believe the praise when you do review them. So start to collect the positive feedback and notice your reaction.  Are you saying “thank you” out loud because you know that’s polite, but in your head you are making loads of excuses not to accept the praise?  Instead of internally saying “yes, but”, try saying to yourself “yes, and…” or  “yes, and I learnt this while doing that work”  or “yes, and I used this skill”, etc.

Knowing and using your strengths can also be of great benefit when combatting the imposter chatter.  Taking an online strengths profile, such as this one, can assist you. So can simply asking friends, family and colleagues to tell you your strengths.  Or may be able to spot them yourself by looking for the commonalities in the positive feedback you receive.

Key tips for Leaders and Managers

At this time, more than any other, remember the importance of regular communication. Everyone is busy, everyone is adjusting, and each person will be coping in their own way.  Keep in contact with your staff, by phone, online catchups, one-to-one meetings, a short text message as well as through the more formal (virtual) gatherings. Be a listening ear, even if you have heard it before.

Don’t try to solve the issues, unless specifically asked to do so.  It might be easier or quicker, but it can easily undermine someone’s self-confidence.

Reassure your staff that their work is of the standard you expect.  If someone is worried how they will be able to replicate something they’ve done or live up to expectations, gently remind them of their skills and training, ask them how they’ve coped if they’ve been in a similar situation, help them identify what they have done in the past that will be useful in the current situation.

And please do not give in to the temptation to make minor, unimportant, amendments to work that staff have submitted, as that can undermine their confidence very quickly.

It can be very helpful to provide an opportunity for staff to network (online at this time, obviously!) so they can share their feelings in small groups – try to simulate the “water cooler” and “coffee machine” conversations that are not happening at the moment.

Finally, remember we are all experiencing a situation we haven’t been in before.  Give yourself a break if that imposter chatter has reared its head, and then tell it to pop back down again as it’s not useful at this time.  Stepping up, using your skills and focussing on what you can control will help you be the best version of you that you can be right now.  And that is all that is needed.

Be you. Be safe. Keep well.

Kate

CLANCE, P. R. & IMES, S. A. 1978. The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15, 241 – 247.
LANE, J. A. 2015. The imposter phenomenon among emerging adults transitioning into professional life: Developing a grounded theory. Adultspan Journal, 14, 114-128.

Images: Helena g Anderson

The Insurance Institute have posted a blog post of a recent talk that Kate gave on Courage, Confidence and the Imposter Syndrome.   It can be found here.

Kate was interviewed recently about the Imposter Phenomenon by journalist, podcaster and broadcaster Emma Gunavardhana.  You can listen to the interview here: Emma Guns interviews Kate Atkin.

Clip featuring Kate in a recent BBC Look East report on the imposter phenomenon, following up on research conducted by Totaljobs in conjunction with Kate and Dr Terri Simpkin of Anglia Ruskin University. First aired by BBC Look East on 14th June 2019, video extract by kind permission from the BBC. (I’m at 0.36!)

 

https://youtu.be/uLMIxo0Q92E

As you may know, I have started a PhD focussing on the Imposter Syndrome.  While reading academic research, blog posts and press articles it struck me that there are a number of inaccuracies in the way the Imposter Syndrome is portrayed.  Here are five myths I would like to bust – the first being that it should be called the Impostor Phenomenon, not syndrome! Here’s why…

Myth #1:  It’s a syndrome and therefore a mental health condition

Wrong!  While the popular press are terming the experience of feeling like a fraud as the “imposter syndrome”, technically it is a phenomenon not a syndrome. A syndrome is typically used to refer to a medical condition, and one that is pervasive. The imposter thoughts and feelings people experience occur in certain situations, and are not present all of the time.

For example, some people find they feel like a fraud at work wondering when someone will spot that they really aren’t up to the job, or worry that they got the promotion on false pretences, when actually they truly are capable, and really did deserve that promotion. Others are fine at work, but may experience the imposter feelings at home, perhaps as a parent – are they a good enough father/mother, when will people realise they are just winging it and don’t know what they are doing? For others it may feel as if they are not as good as their friends, and they spend time wondering why people would want to be friends with them (clue; it’s because you are a good friend to them).

So, it really is a phenomenon; something which occurs at times and is situational.

 

Myth #2:  If you have self-doubt it means you have Imposter Syndrome

Self-doubt is not the same as having imposter feelings. While blog posts and articles will often confuse the two, one doesn’t necessarily mean you have the other. Self-doubt is normal when you are doing something for the first time. It is quite natural, and I would suggest healthy, to wonder whether you are able to do the task. That natural self-doubt may persist for the next few times you do the same, or similar, task.

The self-doubt which is an indicator of the Imposter Phenomenon is persistent, even when you have completed several successful tasks and have lots of external evidence as to your abilities. In fact, success is one of the fuels for the imposter-style self-doubt and can make the imposter feelings more pervasive and the sufferer more anxious as a result.

But don’t confuse the two!

 

Myth #3:  It only affects women

No, no and no again.  Back in 1978 when the Impostor Phenomenon was first identified Clance & Imes suggested that it was more prevalent in women. However, subsequent research shows that it affects both men and women about equally.

In my experience of talking to hundreds of people about the phenomenon, men and women both recognise it, but react differently. While women will tend to say, “oh, that’s so me!” men tend to say, “doesn’t everyone get that?”

It’s definitely not a “woman thing”, and women don’t need fixing.

 

Myth #4: It keeps you humble

Often people will express a desire to keep their imposter feelings as a way of ensuring they don’t become arrogant. While I have no desire to promote arrogance, I would really encourage you to be able to say, “I did that” or “yes, thank you, I’m glad my skills were useful”. Being able to acknowledge your own knowledge, skills and experience is not the same as boasting about them!

C S Lewis Humility Quote

Humility Quote

Arrogance tends to occur where there is no consideration for others. If you have had imposter feelings it is unlikely you will ever become arrogant. In the words of C S Lewis “True humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less”, and wouldn’t it be refreshing to have both humility and courage without the anxiety that the imposter feelings can bring?

 

Myth #5:  It’s incurable

If you have had imposter feelings you are likely to notice that they come and go.  They may be present at work, but perhaps not when you are down the gym (or vice versa). There is nothing to be “cured” from.  A blog I read on a training company’s website referred to the Imposter Syndrome as being incurable, and someone once told me her mum had been “diagnosed” with the imposter syndrome.  What awful, incorrect messages to give people. They are feelings, irrational maybe, but simply feelings triggered by thoughts. As mentioned in Myth #1 it is not a mental health condition and it is inappropriate and unhelpful to ‘medicalise’ it.

 

However, it would be nice to get rid of those feelings wouldn’t it?

 

Here are five quick tips on how to lessen imposter feelings

  1. Confide in someone you trust who can help you become objective.
  2. Know and use your strengths, either take an online strengths profile or ask people what you are good at.
  3. Accept positive feedback; don’t “yes but…” it, say “yes and…” – at least inside your head.
  4. Objectively observe your thoughts and challenge them with external evidence.
  5. Stop striving for perfection, it isn’t attainable. In the words of the author and lecturer, Tal Ben-Shahar, “go for optimal”, not perfection.

While weeding at the allotment the other evening I spotted a lovely black and red moth… it turns out to be a Cinnabar Moth. Its main food is ragwort and to my knowledge there isn’t any ragwort at the allotment, so what is the moth doing there?

Sometimes we too are out of place. It is at those moments that imposter feelings can strike. Feeling inadequate, wondering whether we will be found out to be a fraud, or whether we are good enough to be in the position we find ourselves in. Reactions to those feelings vary; some people (often men) tell me that they think everyone feels like that, so they just “get on with it”. Others worry about their situation, and for some this worry can turn into extreme forms of anxiety. If this is you, the charity Anxiety UK can be of great help, see: www.anxietyuk.org.uk.  While for others it can result in perfectionist tendencies, and/or periods of procrastination.

But when do we learn the imposter patterns of behaviour and thinking?

For some it can be as a child, having an over-critical parent (whose best intentions is to encourage their child, but the feeling of nothing being quite good enough can be the result). Or it might be a parent who tells the child they are perfect, just as they are, and that no matter what, they cannot fail. Which when the real adult world hits, can be detrimental as the child in question may not have built up any resilience to experiencing failure, so when it happens it is put down to an internal failing, rather than external circumstances.

Other times, it can be from the school system. I was recently invited to be a speaker on the imposter syndrome at the Cambridgeshire Festival of Education. During one of my workshops we had a good discussion about giving feedback. The structure of “what went well; even better if” seems to be a great structure, something positive to use while always giving some encouragement to improve. But therein lies the problem. If this structure is used ALL of the time, when is good enough, going to be good enough? When will the child’s best effort be ok?  If this structure if isn’t sometimes balanced with “good job, well done” or “great work on the way you presented XYZ” it can have the same effect as the hypercritical parent. Nothing is ever quite good enough, ergo the child isn’t quite good enough either. (I know it is illogical thinking, but imposter  feelings are not about logic!).

So if you are giving feedback, whether to an adult or a child, let them know when good enough is good enough. Perfection is unattainable, but being good enough is — and that’s no bad thing. We can still strive for more, but if we don’t achieve it, please give us some encouragement, or reassurance that we are ok as we are, and don’t have to be perfect!