KATE ATKIN

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I recently came across research by KPMG entitled “Advancing the Future of Women in Business: The 2020 KPMG Women’s Leadership Summit Report“. Now, don’t get me wrong the report makes interesting reading and is spot on with its research.

It’s just that, well, it seems to me that it perpetuates a few myths…

First of all, the report refers is all about women experiencing imposter syndrome.

Myth one: it isn’t a syndrome, not really. While most media outlets refer to it as such and it is in common usage (which is why I have imposter syndrome in my LinkedIn profile and my website, because that’s what people are searching for), it really is a PHENOMENON. I don’t mind anyone using the term syndrome, providing they also indicate that the imposter chatter is not a medicalised condition, and it would be great if everyone states that it really should be called a phenomenon (something that occurs at certain points in time or in certain situations). People don’t suffer from imposterism, they experience it.

Secondly 74% of the women interviewed report that they believe male counterparts don’t experience feelings of self-doubt as much as female leaders do. While that may well be true, it refers to another myth and a bugbear of mine…

Myth two: imposter feelings are one and the same as self-doubt. It’s just a confidence issue. No, no, and no again! the imposter feelings are not the same as self doubt, they are much more pervasive and should not be confused with what is normal, healthy self-doubt. When you are doing something for the first time, second or even third time wondering whether you are good enough, if it will turn out ok, or what will happen if you make a mistake is normal. Indeed, it is healthy. Normal self-doubt stops us from being arrogant, from taking unnecessary risks and keeps us self-aware. However, imposter-style self-doubt is so much more debilitating on the inside. This is when you have lots of evidence that says you are good at what you do, a string of successes behind you to prove that you are up to the job, and you still don’t believe them. That’s imposter self-doubt.

Thirdly, the report also states that: Imposter Syndrome is a persistent inability to believe one’s success is deserved or achieved by working hard and possessing distinct skills and capabilities but by other means such as luck or being at the right place at the right time. It is often accompanied with feelings of self-doubt, fear of success or failure, or self-sabotage. Which sadly perpetuates another myth, that of hard work being ok…

Myth three: If I work really hard, it will be ok. Many individuals achieve success through hard work and an element of luck, but those experiencing imposter chatter put their success down to luck and/or hard work – and not their own knowledge skills and abilities. Indeed, they put in extra effort to make sure the outcome is successful often to the detriment of the outcome (see Yerkes-Dodson law). The desire for perfection can mean they miss deadlines, procrastinate on important topics and get caught up in the detail. So letting go of the myth that you need to work really hard to be successful would be beneficial.

There are some great things in this report, and it is well worth a read. I am truly delighted to see top organisations taking the internal experience of imposter chatter seriously and commissioning reports on it. It’s just that I’d like them to be a bit more accurate.

A phrase by Dr Shima Barakat springs to mind: “fix the system, not the women”.

 

A couple of the useful bits:

47 percent reported experiencing Imposter Syndrome due to the fact that they never expected to reach the level of success they have achieved.

Research backs this up as IP is often experienced by those who have outgrown their childhood expectations, or society’s expectations, or indeed what is seen as ‘normal’ in the organisation. So from a diversity and inclusion perspective, banishing the myths that women don’t belong at the top would help; start creating allies and sponsors to encourage more women to reach for the top and when they get there to feel comfortable in that position.

72% of female executives relied on the advice of a mentor or trusted advisor when doubting their abilities to take on new roles.

Yes, and… mentors are great, having someone who can help you see yourself objectively can be really beneficial in taming the imposter chatter. AND having someone help you to review your successes, to accept them as deserved, to help you highlight your skills and your strengths. There’s so much more that a mentor and/or a good line manager can do.

If you’d like to know more about the imposter phenomenon please take a look around my website. I am currently researching the imposter chatter with men and women in the workplace for a doctorate and I also give talks and run workshops to help others acknowledge their internal chatter, identify where it might come from and how to covercome it. Imposter feelings can be lessened and overcome with time, and support whether from a manager, mentor or supportive other half.

 

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.
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