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.
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