KATE ATKIN

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kate@kateatkin.com
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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.
What has a swan rescue got to do with finding your strengths?

 

Research in the field of Positive Psychology indicates that using your strengths at work increases your engagement at work. But how do you know what your strengths are?

 

Strength Profiles

One way of identifying your strengths is to take one of a  number of online strengths profiles that will produce a list of your strengths.  One free profile is the VIA Character Strengths that lists 24 value-based strengths and has been well validated.  Another well-researched profile, and one of the most detailed, is the aptly named Strengths Profile that provides a report of your strengths categorised into four areas:  realised strengths (good at, do often & enjoy), unrealised strengths (good at, enjoy, but don’t do often), learned behaviours (good at, do often but don’t enjoy) and weaknesses (not good at) – which at £30+VAT is good value (if you are interested in a strength-based workshop, or a team profile do get in touch).

I particularly like the nuance in the Strength Profile of things you are good at, do often but don’t enjoy – these can be things you have enjoyed in the past but fallen out of love with as you have done them too often; or if you’re like me, things you need to do, such as the accounts and paperwork where the attention for detail is necessary, but they don’t fire you up.

 

Strength Spotting and Swans

If you don’t want to take a “test” then you can simply ask someone, or a few people, who know you well, what they see as your strengths.  Or keep an eye out yourself on what you do well, and enjoy doing.

Sometimes strengths come to the fore in adversity or they may be something that you were good at as a child, but had forgotten about. Or something you never realised you were good at until a certain event occurs.

 

Swan rescue

Taking a firm hold! (click to play video)

Last Tuesday was such an occasion.  I had just finished a meeting in Cambridge and exited onto Mill Lane,  one of the streets that leads down to the river.  As I walked towards where I had left my bicycle, I noticed a number of passers-by had stopped and were photographing a swan which was sitting forlornly in the middle of the road.  Some of the Scudamores punting staff were there too, wondering what on earth to do with the swan – was it hurt? lost? confused?  As traffic started to build up, it was obvious something had to be done.  Shoo-ing the swan had had no effect except to make the swan even more confused.

By now a van was  blocking the swan’s path back to the river.  So I took off my coat and gave it to one of the Scudamores’ staff with instructions to throw it over the swan’s back while I took hold of the swan.  As he was somewhat astonished at my instructions I explained that it was to stop the swan flapping its wings, and that I would gather up the swan and take it back to the river.  So I swiftly picked up the swan, and ignoring her hiss of protest, carried her back to the river where, with a quick shake of her tail feathers, she happily swam away.

 

Teenage Kate with geese she reared (not a swan!)

Teenage Kate with geese

This short video was taken by another member of Scudamores’ staff.

 

By the way, did I mention that I used to rear geese as a teenager?

 

PS: don’t try this at home!  Not all swans are as docile!

 

Impostor syndrome

Who is the fraud?

Who am I to write a guest blog for the Oxford English Dictionary on the Impostor Syndrome?

I have now given several talks on the subject of the Impostor Syndrome – more correctly termed Impostor Phenomenon – chaired a panel discussion for the General Assembly on the subject, been interviewed by the Telegraph and Cambridge TV on it, as well as receiving a distinction for my research into it when doing my Masters Degree a couple of years ago.  So why did I still think, “what me?  Really? can I do this?” when contacted by the Oxford English Dictionary to be a guest blogger on their new entry “Impostor Syndrome“.

The answer, as you may have guessed, is that I am one of the 70% who experience ‘imposter’ feelings.

Of course I said yes, and then set about controlling my internal chatter to be able to write a comprehensive piece.

Then I spot a completely incorrect use of the term in the The Times today.  A fraudster does NOT experience the impostor syndrome or phenomenon.  Those who set out to deliberately deceive others are actual impostors.

Please, it’s hard enough to experience the feelings without being confused with with real fraudsters.  So, a plea to all journalists, please don’t muddle the use of impostor syndrome with real impostors.

Impostor Syndrome dealing with the imposter phenomenon

reveal your imposter for what it is, a mask, not reality

How to banish your impostor or cope with imposter feelings

Having spent the past two years studying for a masters in applied positive psychology, and completing a dissertation on the imposter phenomenon and self-efficacy I should know enough about it by now to write a blog.  Yet my own Imposter rears its head when I go to put my fingers to the keyboard…. You probably know the sort of stuff, an internal voice which says “there are so many writing about this already, why you?”, “who’s going to want to hear your take?”, “are you sure you’ve got anything to add?” or “what if you write something that’s incorrect?”, “make sure there aren’t any spelling mistakes or typos” and “do you really know what you are talking about?”

Well do I?  I have read a few (ok, several!) books, numerous research articles and interviewed successful entrepreneurs, six men and six women, for my dissertation on the subject.  So does that qualify me to write a blog post?

What really qualifies me is my own experience of dealing with what I now know to be an Imposter for many years. Something which pops up every so often, or rather very often!  On coming across the term two years ago in the early part of my studies I realised that this is what I had been dealing with.

 

It wasn’t exactly a lack of confidence, more a crippling

“don’t put yourself out THERE as you’ll be FOUND OUT” feeling…

For those of you who, like me, can relate to the imposter feelings, there is often a huge desire to be successful, to do well and make a difference in the world, which contrasts big time with the internal struggle of what to do if you are successful, if you do make a difference because then you really have to work hard at not failing. To fail, so the imposter tells you, negates the success you have achieved and proves that you weren’t worth it after all.

Right from my early primary school days I have been subjected to ridicule, or “teasing” as it is often innocuously referred to. Harmless to many, for me it became something to avoid. If I didn’t do well, I would be ridiculed. If I didn’t succeed I was a failure. If I didn’t know something I was an idiot.  Not in other people’s eyes I might add…but in my own!  Others would tell me how well I was doing, how entrepreneurial I am to start a training business on my own (sixteen years ago), and how brave I am (to travel to Outer Mongolia on my own, for instance). Internally those comments only fueled the desire to work hard, to be 100% perfect… so as not to be found out.

 

Stop Hiding

Last weekend I spoke at the District 71 Toastmaster Conference and I let my Imposter completely out of the bag by pulling off my mask. I spoke about the ridicule, the internal angst, the perfectionism and also ways to overcome the feelings, which I confessed I was still working on.  Surprisingly (that’s my Imposter talking, to everyone else it wasn’t a surprise) I wasn’t ridiculed, I wasn’t run out of town for talking nonsense, instead I had people coming up to me to thank me for my honesty and to say how well I had connected with their own experiences.

Then just two days later I attended an event at the O2. A graduation ceremony for my masters in applied positive psychology. Again, I feel amazed that I not only now have a masters, but was awarded it with distinction!  Compare that with failing the 11 Plus, an examination all primary school leavers had to take in the UK to determine whether they were clever enough to go to the grammar school. I obviously wasn’t clever as I attended the Spilsby Franklin School, a secondary modern. But just two years ago, at the age of 48, at the same time as learning about the imposter phenomenon, I realised that I probably failed the exam as I took it at the age of 10 because my birthday is in August. How I hadn’t come to that realisation before I don’t know, but there it was staring me in the face.  My sisters both passed, I didn’t, yet I’m the only summer-born sibling.

 

What to do if you have experience imposter feelings

So what can you do to alleviate your imposter feelings?  The first step is to recognise them for what they are.  Feelings, not necessarily truths.  The second step is to start to talk about them.  You don’t have to go to the extreme of going on stage at a conference, but talk about them with family members or friends, or a work colleague you know you can trust.  Chances are they’ll go “yeah, me too”.

 

Further ways of banishing the imposter and boosting confidence will be the subject of subsequent blogs.  Meanwhile if you’d like me to speak at your conference, or to your staff or organisation, or for one-to-one coaching do get in touch. I’m on a mission to Banish the Imposter, my own included.

Contact me on kate@kateatkin.com or see www.kateatkin.com for more details.

Thank you.

Kate recently gave her ‘Dream, Dare, Do’ keynote speech to Cambridge AWISE, an organisation with the mission to connect and inspire women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine. Read about its success here:

AWISE

 

 

I have just come across a very interesting blog on Emotional Intelligence, and how it has progressed over the years since Daniel Goleman wrote his book in 1995 “Emotional Intelligence: why it can matter more than IQ”.  The blog is a very interesting read and rather than replicate the whole of it here, I’m providing the link:

https://intentionalworkplace.com/2013/06/13/emotional-intelligence-20-years-on/?goback=%2Enmp_*1_*1_*1_*1_*1_*1_*1_*1_*1_*1

There’s a great difference in being emotionally self-aware and able to read emotions in others.  Some people I find are good at both, while others are good at one or other.  How confident are you in assessing your own and others’ feelings?

To hone your own emotional intelligence I suggest you try looking at these two things in isolation:

First, find a list of feelings (there’s a good list here by Byron Katie).  Then start to notice your own emotions, pause a review the list a few times a day to increase your own feelings vocabulary.  Once you have done that for a week notice whether you can register and name your emotions more quickly.

Next, focus on other people.  How might they be feeling in certain situations?  Look at their body language, the subtle facial expressions and listen to their tone of voice to help you draw your conclusions. Remember, this isn’t about how you are feeling.  Aim to adapt your responses to how you think the other person is feeling, and if appropriate ask them.  Continue to do this for a week and then assess whether you can gauge an emotion from others with greater accuracy than before.

 

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