Five questions to ask your Imposter

If you’ve ever doubted your own abilities, feared being ‘found out’ as a fraud, or put your achievements and accomplishments down to luck, then you’re not alone — a staggering 70% of us will experience[1] these thoughts at some stage of our lives, with women being more susceptible than men.

These thoughts and feelings, left unchecked, can have a profound impact on career progression, not to mention the hugely detrimental impact that Imposter Syndrome’s friends — low self-esteem, perfectionism, procrastination, risk avoidance, and emotional exhaustion — can have on your ability to grow and flourish professionally.

It’s not impossible for imposter feelings to be a constant, but for others, they’re something that are likely to ebb and flow throughout your career journey, perhaps hitting you hardest at those times when you need your confidence to pull out all the stops, such as when you’re starting a new role or stepping into leadership. When you notice that familiar creeping sense of ‘I’m going to be found out’, ‘I don’t belong here’, or ‘I haven’t earned this success’, you might feel a tendency to try to brush off those thoughts. But here’s an alternative suggestion: take some time to have a deep and meaningful conversation with your Imposter, using these five questions as a framework…

1. What does the actual evidence tell me?

Your thoughts are not facts. Feelings aren’t facts either (although they often contain important information). It sounds simple, but it’s easy to forget this when the voice of your inner imposter is growing louder and more powerful. When you’re feeling this way, the tendency might be to fall into the thought-trap of ‘emotional reasoning’, in which you’re so convinced that how you’re thinking or feeling must be true, that you ignore or deny all evidence to the contrary.

This is often compounded by another thought-trap — mental filtering. When you believe something to be true, your brain scans your surroundings for any signs that support your beliefs. Anything that challenges your perspective is received as ‘unpredictable’ (and therefore psychologically threatening), leading the brain to discount it and hold onto whatever fits with your initial beliefs (even if they are negative and causing you distress). Your brain is literally acting like a sieve, sifting away all information that contradicts your thought, thus prolonging the idea that you’re a phoney or you don’t belong.

The trick is to press pause on these thought patterns, to take a step back and see them as a biased guess rather than an accurate reflection of reality. Once you have zoomed out and held these thoughts at arm’s length, you are much better placed to look at the bigger picture and ask yourself, ‘What does the actual evidence tell me?’ You can’t stop your brain from inventing stories, but you can focus on the facts.

2. Is there someone I can talk to about this?

 If you are struggling to trust your own evidence, it can be helpful to introduce a trusted third party. Talking to someone can reduce any feelings of loneliness associated with your thoughts; it will also open the door for others to share how they view you and your professional success.

When you keep your thoughts and feelings secret, they can grow and intensify, which gives them more power over you. So, if you can share your experience with someone you trust, they can often provide a more balanced, empathic perspective, enabling you to build a more helpful picture of your accomplishments and values. However, it is important that you are strategic about who you share with; ensure you are utilising a relationship that feels safe, rather than one that could promote comparison.

3. Are my expectations fair or unrealistic?

 Does your imposter tend to make an appearance during those times when you’ve set an impossibly high standard for yourself? Research suggests there is a high correlation between imposter syndrome and perfectionistic tendencies[2], meaning that those who experience imposter thoughts often set the bar extremely high, and are dissatisfied with a less-than-perfect performance. If your professional self-worth barometer requires you to give 100% each day, consistently exceed your KPIs, receive nothing but praise when suggesting new ideas, and never make mistakes, you will be far more vulnerable to imposter thoughts when you inevitably fall short.

Adjusting your standards for success is crucial. Focus on progress over perfection, allowing you to internalise your accomplishments and build self-acceptance. It isn’t possible to be perfect all of the time, so rather than striving for perfection, take a step back and ask yourself, what ‘good enough’ could look like.

4. What am I scared of?

 Fear of failure often lies at the root of a person’s imposter syndrome.[3] This is understandable; no one sets out to fail, and making mistakes can feel uncomfortable and awkward. However, when your inner imposter is at the helm, these fears can grow to such a size that the idea of failing at something — and therefore being discovered as a fraud — results in self-sabotaging behaviours that hold you back from seeking new opportunities, promotions, projects, responsibilities or pay rises.

The fear of being told ‘no’ becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as you cheat yourself out of the possibility of being given a ‘yes’. You remain stuck in a comfort zone — lethargic and demotivated.

So, it can be helpful to resist falling into the trap of seeing failure as exposure, and instead reframe potential failure as an opportunity to learn and grow; that whilst it may sting, it is still ultimately moving you in the direction of the success you are seeking. Of course, this is easier said than done! In order to believe it, you must convince yourself that it is safe to fail. If slipping up results in self-criticism and self-attack, you are likely to associate it with feelings of shame, inferiority and unworthiness. The next time you find yourself making a mistake, instead of jumping to self-deprecating commentary, instead try and exercise self-compassion. Treating yourself with respect, kindness and encouragement after a setback is associated with better outcomes and increased motivation.[4]

5. Is this how I would talk to a friend?

If the idea of practising self-compassion gives you the ick, it can be useful to engage in a little role play exercise, and consider how you might respond to a friend, colleague or loved one if they were talking about themselves in the same way that your imposter self is.

Practising the art of considering alternate perspectives, finding a more balanced view, and employing a more compassionate lens can help to lessen the power imposter thoughts have over you. Just like learning any new skill, strengthening your compassionate side requires you to put in some work on a regular basis, helping you build that mental muscle so it is there when you most need it. So ask yourself, ‘If I were helping a friend through this, what would I say?’ The best kind of help is honest, fair, and encourages you to lean into your own strengths, to trust the evidence, and to consider a balanced, objective perspective.

[1] (Gravois, 2007)

[2] (Thompson, et al., 2000)

[3] (Neureiter & Traut-Mattausch, 2016)

[4] (Wohl, et al., 2010)


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