Impostor syndrome is the name given to a certain form of insecurity around one’s abilities and knowledge. An assumption that others know much more than you and you’ll get found out.
Maybe you’ve recently accepted a promotion within an organisation, or have started your perfect job then feel out of your depth. You believe – with no evidence to back this assumption up – that other members of staff and management will point their fingers at you shouting “Fake!” and frogmarch you out of the building.
A dark and sinister movie in your mind plays out of shame, embarrassment and anxiety. You’ll never get another job and it will ruin your life.
Rationally you know this is not true, the evidence that you qualify is there on your CV, your service record and educational grades. So why is your brain screaming “Danger!”? It’s because it’s an ancient part of the brain, the part we share with animals. To be an outcast from the herd, means you’re a target for predators. The lame, old or infant, straying away from the protection of the tribe makes a tasty meal for a passing lion.
More female sufferers
Impostor syndrome is common amongst women in particular, and we can often trace this back through family attitudes towards women – the place for a woman is in the kitchen. We’ve come a long way since gaining the vote in the twentieth century, but not far enough. Many of the anxieties young women struggle with are the attitudes of their age group, and I’m afraid to say Social Media and the internet have played a significant part. When we look around the world at other cultures and their attitudes towards women, many young impressionable men appear to see misogyny as a good thing.
Politics, culture and gender aside, Impostor syndrome can paralyse you with fear and stop you from achieving any further. So how do the therapies on offer here help with the problem?
Case Study – The impostor with A grades
Colette was studying politics and economics at Oxford University and was struggling. She wasn’t struggling with grades; achieving ‘A’ grades at A level to enter. She just didn’t feel she fitted in. She was a high achiever in her Comprehensive school in London. Big fish in a small pool. The cultural difference between her life in London, living with her mother and younger sister to a solitary life, was bad enough. Shocked at the radical difference between the ex public school students and herself, she found it difficult to mix.
Colette found it difficult to make new friends, and her homesickness meant that she was back home in London every weekend. By her second term, she was desperate. She didn’t feel her tutors or her counsellor understood her problem.
I approached it from a slightly different angle. I too had gone to a London Comprehensive – in fact, they used it in the very first series of Grange Hill. But I went to Oxford Polytechnic, later to become Oxford Brookes. Not that exposure to the same kind of student was different, but the culture was different – more inline with my own attitudes.
How life could be
I reframed her problem to her and asked her to imagine what student life could be like if a miracle were to happen. What she described sounded wonderful, and usually, I can go with whatever my clients are imagining. But she was changing the way the world ran at this present time and how the attitudes of others would change.
Not to burst her utopian bubble, but I asked again how life could be different by her changing how she felt, behaved or saw herself. She frowned, thinking hard, and shook her head. What did she need to change the way she felt? Strength, Confidence, and trust in myself, she answered.
Right, those are attributes we can work on. I asked her to imagine herself now going to tutorials, feeling more confident about her abilities. Seeing herself and her body language as more upright, her clothes smarter, her hair tidier. It wasn’t how she saw herself normally. That’s just it. If you are trying to fit into a roll, it’s not just what you know that matters. If you convince yourself that you can play the role, look the part. It’s amazing how people make quick assumptions just by the way you look and present yourself.
Over the next 6 sessions, Colette realised she didn’t like the new her. She now believed in her abilities wholeheartedly. But by talking through her value system and that of the area in which she had focused so hard to break into, she knew it wasn’t her. Having discussed this further with her mother and tutors, she focused on her exams at the end of the third term. Then she could transfer the points to another university and a different subject.
Sometimes we need a crisis to realise we were heading in the wrong direction.
Colette realised she was not an imposter, felt good about her decision to change. Thankful that had she stuck it out, she would still act out a role that just wasn’t her.
Case Study 2 – Impostor Syndrome in the workplace
Simon is a graphic designer and pretty good at his job, having won several awards. He works for a large design agency in London and until recently really enjoyed his job.
Then, five months ago his manager left the company, and they advertised the position. Simon believed he was up to the job. He had had little respect for his boss, Dan. Dan was always popping out of the office, leaving him and a few of the others to cover for him. Simon was always confident in putting proposals forward to clients, so didn’t think the change would be so radically different.
However, it became clear only within weeks of him stepping into the position that he was so wrong. His staff wouldn’t take him seriously. Consequently undermining his authority. Other colleagues ended up arguing with him because he put a new structure in place to keep the workflow at a more constant level. Supposedly ending the feast and famine his boss had let develop.
By the time Simon approached me, he was seriously feeling stressed out and depressed. His wife accompanied him to the clinic. HR had signed him off work with stress for a month.
Convinced it was Impostor Syndrome
How could he have been so wrong about himself? The entire company knew he was a fake and fraud.
Over the weeks, I helped him re-frame the problem and to see where his skills and talents lie. He had seriously underestimated the new skills needed to navigate the murky waters of managing people. Over a period of weeks, Simon slowly started looking at the problem in a more solution-focused way. Realising where he needed to improve, he asked to go on some courses to help him become a better negotiator and manager.
Using time off constructively
In the time he was off work, he exercised regularly, and taught himself to play the guitar. He started back to work gradually and his HR department helped him slowly come back to the workplace. By using what he had learned in solution-focused thinking, he had his entire team sit down and thrash through all the problems in a much more constructive way.
Pleased at his progress, he took on more projects with the company and it really impressed the directors at his turn around. He suggested to them they form an R&D group within the company and use the solution-focused approach to all the businesses problems.