If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “One of these days people will realize I don’t know as much as they think,” then you are in excellent company!
Liz Bingham, managing partner Ernst & Young, once thought to herself: “What are you doing here? What do you think you’re doing? You’re going to be found out.” Academy Award-winning actress Kate Winslet confided: “I’d wake up in the morning before going off to a shoot, and think, I can’t do this; I’m a fraud.” Fellow actor Don Cheadle shared a similar sentiment: “All I can see is everything I’m doing wrong that is a sham and a fraud.”
Needless to say, the list of people who sometimes worry about being uncovered as an impostor is as impressive as it is long. Living with a nagging fear of being “found out” as not being as smart or talented or deserving or experienced or (fill-in-the-blank) as people think is a common phenomenon. So common, in fact, that the term “Impostor Syndrome” was coined to describe it back in the 1980s. Indeed, researchers believe that up to 70% of people have suffered from it at some point. Myself included.
Apart from serial narcissists, super low achievers and outright crazies, no one is immune to the self-doubt that feeds Impostor Syndrome. But what matters most is not whether we occasionally (or regularly) fear failing, looking foolish or not being ‘whatever enough’; it’s whether we give those fears the power to keep us from taking the actions needed to achieve our goals and highest aspirations. Unfortunately, too often, people do just that.
Focus on the value you bring, not on attaining perfection.
Impostor Syndrome is the domain of the high achiever. Those who set the bar low are rarely its victim. So if you are relating to what I’m sharing, pat yourself on the back because it’s a sure sign that you aren’t ready to settle into the ranks of mediocrity. Rather, you’re likely to be a person who aims high and is committed to giving your very best to whatever endeavour you set your sights upon. A noble aim to be sure.
But giving your best is not the same as being the best. Likewise, there’s a distinct difference between trying to better yourself and being better than everyone else. Overcoming the syndrome requires self-acceptance: you don’t have to attain perfection or mastery to be worthy of the success you’ve achieved and any accolades you earn along the way. It’s not about lowering the bar. It’s about resetting it to a realistic level that doesn’t leave you forever striving and feeling inadequate. You don’t have to be Einstein to be a valuable asset to your organization and those around you. Nor do you have to attain perfection to share something with the world that enriches people’s lives somehow.
Nobel Laureate Maya Angelou once said: “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’ Fortunately for all of us, she has never let her fear of being ‘found out’ stop her from putting pen to paper and sharing thoughts that have expanded our hearts and enriched our lives.
Own your successes. You didn’t get lucky by chance.
Those who often fear being “found out” tend to attribute their success to external factors – like luck or a helping hand. Unsurprisingly, women tend to do this more often than men, who are more likely to attribute their successes to a combination of internal factors, such as grit, talent, brains and sheer hard work.
High achievers tend to focus more on what they haven’t done versus what they have. Take Dr. Margaret Chan, Chief of the World Health Organization, for example. She once said:” There are an awful lot of people out there who think I’m an expert. How do these people believe all this about me? I’m so much aware of all the things I don’t know.”
But just as we must take responsibility for our failures in life, we must also take responsibility for our successes. Minimizing them serves no one. So, if you sometimes feel undeserving of your success, try writing a list of all the key things you’ve accomplished over the last 5 years. I would hazard a guess that even the fruits of your last 12 months’ effort will help you see how well deserved your success.
Own your successes. You didn’t get lucky by chance.
Author Iyanla Vanzant believes that “a comparison is an act of violence against the self.” Comparisons are always subjective, often biased and rarely helpful. Acutely aware of how hard we are working to keep our head above water and fulfill expectations, we often mistakenly assume others are getting by more effortlessly. The reality is that many people are stretched and struggling just like you. Perhaps not in the same way, but in their own way, with their own unique set of challenges, insecurities and internal struggles.
Too often, we fall into the trap of comparing our insides with other’s outsides, our weaknesses with other’s strengths. We say to ourselves, “If only I could speak with the confidence and humour of John,” “If only I could decipher a P&L as fast as Ruth,” or “If only I were as creative as Susan.” Meanwhile, all the Johns and Ruths and Susans are thinking: “If only I were as good with the details, or navigating the politics, or creating social media strategy, or fostering collaboration” as you!
Hold firm to ambition. Risk outright exposure!
Fear of being “found out” can sabotage success on multiple fronts as it drives us to settle for less than we want and steer a wide berth from situations that might expose our inadequacy and unworthiness. Yet while our fears urge us to stick with what we know we’re good at – where the risk of being uncovered is minimized – letting fear sit at the helm in life is a surefire recipe for a life of lacklustre mediocrity.
As I wrote in Stop Playing Safe, “While playing safe removes the immediate risk of exposure, it opens up the greater risk of never knowing just how capable, deserving and “more than” worthy you truly are.” It’s why, as Sheryl Sandberg has declared so loudly in her book Lean In, women must “lean in” to new challenges. It’s why, regardless of gender, we must all dare to lay our pride and vulnerability on the line, particularly when our fears are urging us to play safe.
It takes courage to take on challenges and pursue aspirations that leave you wide open to falling short, losing face and being ‘found out.’ But when you refuse to let your doubts dictate your choices, you open new doors of opportunity and discover just how much you can really do. Even if you never accomplish all you aspire toward, you will accomplish so much more than you otherwise would have. In the process, you’ll come to realize that the only impostor you ever had to worry about is your fear of people thinking you are one.
Margie Warrell is the best-selling author of Stop Playing Safe (Wiley) and Find Your Courage (McGraw-Hill). Stay connected on Twitter, Facebook or sign up for her free Live Bravely! newsletter at www.margiewarrell.com.