As a young child I didn’t speak. While other kids were saying ‘doggie’ and learning their ABCs, I gave no baby talk whatsoever. My worried parents, thinking I might be deaf or even have a learning disability, took me to doctors, who found nothing wrong. Then, after three years of silence, I started chattering away in complete sentences. My parents weren’t just relieved; they took this as a sign I was a genius in the making.
This became a bit of a family joke, but the high expectations felt very real to me as a child. While my siblings were studious types who applied themselves academically, I was more creative and gravitated towards the subjects I most enjoyed. Over time I think I somehow inferred that anything ‘fun’ wasn’t ‘proper work’. So when I graduated university in the top bracket of my class, I presumed there must have been some mistake. I’d loved studying linguistics, and it didn’t feel right that my enjoyment should be rewarded with a top grade. For days after the results were posted, I repeatedly telephoned the school secretary to double check they had it right. Eventually she asked me to stop calling!
I recently read an article circulating on social media about a guy who’d gone for counselling because he was struggling with a job he felt drastically under-qualified for. The therapist argued that a Masters degree from Harvard made him more than a good fit. He replied: ‘That was just a fluke!’ To learn about Impostor Syndrome wasn’t just a revelation in the sense that I now had a name for the way I’d felt for so long; I was also astonished to see that friends and colleagues I’d always judged to be supremely confident, were chipping in to say they felt the same way too.
As I’ve progressed from graduate to senior manager in a global broadcasting organisation, the Impostor thoughts have been there every step of the way.
Sometimes they’ve been the driving force for seeking promotion; other times they’ve lead to periods of debilitating anxiety. When I was a junior manager it was always ‘Why haven’t I progressed further yet?’ When I became more senior the thoughts turned to ‘Yes, but what does it all mean if I’m not saving lives on a daily basis?’ The times when work was challenging and stressful left me feeling that I wasn’t cut out for leadership, and during the light-hearted, fun times, I told myself I wasn’t making a serious enough contribution to the world. Exhausting!
After discovering more about Impostor Syndrome I realise that in my own way I’ve developed coping strategies that have enabled me to continue forging high profile roles at respected organisations – and, crucially, to stay sane.
One of the most powerful lessons for me has been the realisation that everyone, everywhere sometimes experiences thoughts like mine. Through reading I’ve discovered that CEOs and world leaders get by despite hugely limiting beliefs. There’s no finishing school for presidents or entrepreneurs – they’re just making it up as they go along like the rest of us. As someone who often feels like a ‘professional faker’, that’s been hugely comforting, as has the realisation that successful people can and do make mistakes.
Over time I’ve also become better at setting expectations.
Extreme perfectionism is a terrible side effect of Impostor Syndrome, and one that’s often stopped me from taking opportunities for fear of failing, or, put more accurately, not being able to complete it perfectly. Recently I took part in a triathlon, which was a huge challenge for me. My expectation was that I should come first; my belief was that I would come last. Reconciling those two thoughts is impossible, so I set myself a target that was achievable but still challenging. If I hadn’t done that, I would in all likelihood have dropped out. Instead I took part, and achieved my goal.
Another really important strategy is using humour. Some of the Impostor thoughts I give myself are nothing short of ridiculous – my MBA tutor only gave me a distinction because he felt sorry for me; I made a mistake at work and now everybody thinks I’m rubbish; I confided in my manager that I sometimes have confidence issues so now he thinks I’m useless. Being able to find the silliness in the thoughts can really stop them taking hold. When I found an online tool for assessing Impostor Syndrome, I scored 93. Anything over 80 was described as ‘extreme’. I had to make myself see the funny side of that. And when I found myself thinking that I must have someone cheated at the test to get such a high score, that’s when it was useful to have friends on standby who could point out just how neurotic and ridiculous I was being. Cheers guys!
Injecting humour into the everyday isn’t just important for shushing the Impostor voice; it’s also hugely beneficial to teams. I remember once being caught up in the middle of a hugely stressful product launch. The website wasn’t going to arrive on time, I was on the verge of collapse and presumed the rest of senior management would be too. The director I reported into took me aside and said, ‘It’s only a website!’ I remember those words to this day, and always look for ways to lighten my own team’s mood during critical phases.
When it comes to my team, my Impostor Syndrome has in many ways been a force for good.
I can empathise with and mentor others suffering confidence issues, and am good at spotting when someone needs support. That said, senior managers do have to project confidence, and so I have had to become adept at ‘faking it’, treading a careful line between empathising and sharing too much.
One of the critical aspects of Impostor Syndrome is an inability to take on board good feedback. That really resonates with me. When managers offer praise, I’ve a tendency to shrug it off. ‘Anyone could have done that,’ is my stock response. Accepting and internalising praise is something I really struggle with still. I recently had a tough time on a three-month secondment to another department, where my role hinged on chivvying up the team to deliver. Because there was no tangible output of my own, I constantly felt as though I wasn’t performing, and was glad to get back to my regular job. Someone I barely knew wrote in my leaving card: ‘Never has someone made such a big difference in such a short time.’ It took some believing, but it taught me that I’m not always the best judge of my own work. I have to make a conscious effort to respect the views of others, even when I doubt their validity.
Something I try out for time to time when I’m having thoughts like ‘I’m not performing’ is my ‘evidence’ technique, inspired by my law studies. If I find myself having a limiting belief I ask myself what the evidence is to support its truth. If I had to stand up in a court of law and prove that my manager doesn’t think I’m good enough, what would I say? Realising that there’s nothing to back up a belief can help squash it.
The final trick in my bag is something I picked up by reading up on cognitive behavioural techniques. It’s called ‘squashing your gremlin’ and it works by assigning all your negative thoughts to a little devil on your shoulder. If I receive glowing feedback and tell myself someone’s ‘just being nice’, I distance myself from the thought by thinking ‘That’s just the gremlin talking, not me’. It requires a lot of brain training and it doesn’t always work, but I do tend to come back to this one over and over again. The more ridiculous and cartoonlike I make my gremlin, the more successful the exercise. And once the gremlin has been squashed as much as possible, all that remains is to do a Taylor Swift – just ‘Shake It Off!’
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