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Is Imposter Syndrome Real? Or Just a Destructive Habit You can Conquer?

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Imposter Syndrome– It’s the term for the label that ‘sinking feeling’ that ‘sneaking suspicion’ that everyone will find out you don’t deserve your success and at any moment your carefully crafted façade of confidence will come apart when you’re denounced as a fraud.

With both questions, it’s a yes from me. 

If you’re in the grip of imposter syndrome, you can feel as though your education, background, maybe your family profile, your personality, in fact, anything and everything about you, isn’t as great as it should be or as impressive as others see you. And once you are in the habit of viewing yourself this way, the skewed focus on what you aren’t convinced you that you’re just NOT enough.

This feeling of being a fraud is particularly damaging because it can strike anyone who has reached any level of success or is striving for greater personal heights. This unfounded anxiety about being unworthy and/or exposed could hold you back from accepting a promotion, welcoming the opportunity to speak in public, and exploring any number of new possibilities.

Whatever flavour of imposter syndrome you might have, it is a real affliction evidenced by a pattern of thinking and speaking, no matter what your background is.  

The great news is that once you know how to notice the patterns that entangle you in Imposter Syndrome, you can refocus your thoughts and behaviors so it will no longer have a hold over you.  

The three patterns of thinking and behaving that reveal imposter syndrome

The first pattern is you choose to observe how well your colleagues behave, speak, and perform at work, to convince yourself you’ll never be able to measure up. I am not saying that you should look to find every possible fault with a colleague to avoid imposter syndrome but ascribing unrealistic personal attributes to other people like (I bet she never gets nervous about public speaking, or he will get promoted ahead of me because he went to the ‘right; school) won’t help you maintain a balanced perspective about yourself.  

The second pattern starts when you build on the habit of focusing on others being fabulous (pattern one), but then you constantly criticize yourself with unrealistic negative comparisons. This reveals itself in the words you use. I couldn’t…., I wouldn’t be able to…. I should be more…..

Even if you manage to dodge the first two stages, the third stage of imposter syndrome can be very beguiling. And it’s not to do with comparison. It’s focusing on a distraction, a fixation on an unimportant, tedious detail of your potential future that you blame for holding you back.  

For example, I coached an incredible artist stuck in imposter syndrome, who overcame the comparison with other artists, focusing on everything she wasn’t, only to get stuck on planning the ‘perfect’ date when the exhibition would open. It became the one thing she believed was holding her back. Really, it was the final element of imposter syndrome, an external element to blame for not being able to move forward. 

Related: Self-Confidence for Beginners- 11 Confident habits to battle self-doubt

After exhausting several techniques without success, I took her through the visualisation of seeing a poster advertising another female artist’s exhibition, someone who had the courage to pick a date and get started! Then I took her through another visualisation of catching up with friends and listening uncomfortably while they raved about the exhibition. Worse, one of her friends commented, ‘Weren’t you thinking of putting on an exhibition just like this? Why didn’t you?’ Only then, by harnessing her Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO), did my artist client overcome the final aspect of imposter syndrome to pick the opening date for her own exhibition and stop being crippled with self-doubt. 

How to break out of the habit of feeling you’re not ‘something’ enough?

Destructive observation occurs when everything you look at for proof reinforces why you feel unworthy. To stop constantly comparing yourself with others and fixating on everyone else and how they seem to have it together when you don’t, I suggest thinking about your life journey as a race. Have you ever watched an event in which one athlete ran an entire race while simultaneously watching the competitor next to them and won? It’s impossible to give or feel your best when your focus revolves around what everyone else is achieving. 

Related: 4 Things That Shouldn’t Determine Your Self-worth

As a first step, I recommend Reversing your To-Do list. 

Now I love a list as much as anyone. And a To-Do list can be very helpful to keep you on track, but it can also create a focus on what you didn’t get done and how far away you are from where you want to be. I’m not saying to ditch your To-Do list but at the end of the day, rather than just tick off or remove the completed tasks from your list, reverse it. Create a list of what you did complete, both personal and professional. Turn up the volume by congratulating yourself on what a successful day you’ve had, not focus on what is still on the To-Do list.  

Use this exercise to change your focus to what you are doing and are achieving becomes a habit over time, shifting you away from feeling as though you will be found out for less than you are. I promise to do this even for a few days will have a dramatic impact.    

Perhaps the greatest irony about imposter syndrome? Once you stop focusing on how others perceive you, the power of imagined external critique starts to fade. And while imposter syndrome is real, what isn’t real are our imaginings about what others might be thinking. As Eleanor Roosevelt observed, You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do. 

Give yourself permission to focus on your own race and celebrate all that you are.

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