Tackling Self Confidence - The Impostor Phenomenon

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Two weeks ago, I asked each of you to complete a poll about what topic you were most interested in for future events, worksheets, blog posts etc. The results rolled in, and the big winner is:

[polldaddy poll=9021746]

Self Confidence and Self Advocacy!

The risk of reaching out and asking for feedback, is that the one thing that you're most vulnerable about, might take the cake. And look what happened! One of the biggest things that I struggle with got 40% of the votes. Looks like it's time to take the plunge and be vulnerable.

What I'd like to talk about today is 'The Impostor Syndrome/Phenomenon'.  It's feeling like a fraud, like sooner or later people are going to 'find out' that you don't really belong in your job or graduate program or skill set. That you're only pretending to be competent, smart, or successful.

About the Impostor Phenomenon

It was first described in the 1970's by psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD. In the original paper, published in Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice Volume 15, #3, Fall 1978, they write:

The term impostor phenomenon is used to designate an internal experience of intellectual phonies, which appears to be particularly prevalent and intense among a select sample of high achieving women.* Certain early family dynamics and later introjection of societal sex-role stereotyping appear to contribute significantly to the development of the impostor phenomenon. Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the impostor phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. [my emphasis]

This phenomenon plagues successful/high achieving women, and is particularly rampant among women of color (WoC). Even Maya Angelou 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.'"

I have felt this in my professional adult life at an alarming rate. At work, when I get promotions or raises and here on A Road of Your Own. Even writing this own post I've questioned myself. Who am I to speak authoritatively on this? All my readers will recognize I'm a fraud. I literally gasped aloud when I read the following in an article published in the American Psychological Association publication "GradPSYCH Magazine" in 2013:

The impostor phenomenon and perfectionism often go hand in hand. So-called impostors think every task they tackle has to be done perfectly, and they rarely ask for help ... An impostor may procrastinate, putting off an assignment out of fear that he or she won't be able to complete it to the necessary high standards.

Whoa there inner thoughts. What are you doing standing on that page, shouting your truth?! That's one of our secrets! You climb off that webpage and sit back in my brain where you belong, right now! 

Except, it can't be a secret. Because as author Kristen Weir continues in the GradPSYCH article:

Though the impostor phenomenon isn't an official diagnosis listed in the DSM, psychologists and others acknowledge that it is a very real and specific form of intellectual self-doubt. Impostor feelings are generally accompanied by anxiety and, often, depression.

By definition, most people with impostor feelings suffer in silence, says Imes, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Georgia. "Most people don't talk about it. Part of the experience is that they're afraid they're going to be found out," she says. Yet the experience is not uncommon, she adds.

We need to raise our hands, and say "I feel like this. A lot." Because I'm sure a very large proportion of my readers do feel like this. Because silence only hurts us, and makes us believe that it's 'just me'. Because I feel like this. A lot.

My anxious face

Let me tell you a story:

Once upon a time there was a young woman who had a very important project. She was going to fix the town clock. It had so many different moving pieces and everyone used it. She had found the perfect clock makers to help, and everyone in the town was very impressed, and they gave the woman a very heavy purse of gold. But, it hadn't been very hard to find the clock makers - it felt like luck instead of work. The young woman knew how important this job was, so she scheduled the clock makers first set of visits. They came, saw the clock, talked to everyone who used the clock, and came back with a long list of what needed to change and be fixed. "Hooray!" thought the young woman, "A plan! I will prove that I deserve my gold by fixing the clock!"

But the young woman looked at the list and became afraid. "There's so much on here. How can I get all of this done? I won't be able to do this like the company needs - I won't be able to do this perfectly." She had been told over and over again that she was great. That was who she was. What if she wasn't great fixing the clock? She began to avoid the list. "I can't make this just right today. I'll try tomorrow." she would say. The days moved on, the clock was still broken, and the plan became more and more frightening. The young woman would berate herself "Everyone will find out that I haven't fixed the clock! I MUST fix the clock now!", but it did no good. She would ignore the list, pushing it further and further down her daily schedule. "I just can't make it perfect right now. Maybe tomorrow."

One day, the mayor of the town spoke to her "Young Woman! The clock is still broken! We trust you and need this clock to work. You must make the clock makers focus and help us!". She tried to pressure the clock makers, but the young woman was ashamed that the mayor thought the problem was with them and not her. "She will find out it's me, and everyone will know that I don't know how to fix clocks by myself". More days went by the and clock was a little better, but wasn't fixed all the way. There were still so many moving pieces, it was such a puzzle! The young woman still looked at the list with dread, and tried to focus on other, simpler tasks.

Finally, the mayor returned and said "Young Woman. I have realized what is happening." The young woman trembled with fear. "She will tell me that she knows I am a failure and a fraud." thought the young woman. But instead, the mayor exclaimed "I have realized that you have no help! You have tried to fix this very complicated clock all by yourself - and NO ONE could fix it all on their own! Young Woman, you have put too much pressure on yourself, let us help you." "I don't have to do this alone?" thought the young woman. "But I am In Charge of the clock! Doesn't that mean I have to do the work?" As soon as she asked herself that question, she realized the answer was no. She didn't have to fix the clock all on her own. It was ok, in fact it was expected, that other people help. So she agreed, and the mayor introduced the young woman to three helpers. They talked, shared the list, and after a few months of hard, but communal, work the clock was fixed, and the town was happy.

The end.

Obviously, this is about me. Sub the clock for the complex property management database software my company uses, and there's the situation I was in at the beginning of this year. My impostor beliefs had shackled me into thinking I was solely responsible for our system overhaul and the results, and the ensuing procrastination had slowly eroded my credibility at work. Sharing the load and letting others in helped enormously.

Much happier!

Implications/Sources

A lot of the impostor syndrome comes from family and education dynamics in the woman's childhood. As written in an article on the CalTech Counseling Center website

"Families can give their child full support to the point where the family and girl believe that she is superior or perfect.  As the girl grows up and encounters challenging tasks, she may begin to doubt her parent's perceptions and may also need to hide her difficulties in order not to disturb the family image of her.  As a result of these normal difficulties, this girl may come to believe that she is only average and even below average."

I'd also throw in Gifted & Talented programs in the mix too. Not to say that if you feel these impostor feelings, you need to go shake your finger at your folks while shouting "You ruined me!" Because another contributing factor? That nobody really knows "how to be a good adult". We're all pretty much just winging it as we go along. And the high achievers in the world are winging it even more. Which is scary as hell.

But I believe there's a more hidden reason too. It's particularly telling that women, and especially WoC, are exponentially vulnerable to the impostor phenomenon. That makes my inner alarms ring the 'Patriarchy BS is Afoot' alert like crazy. (It sounds like this fyi). Because if you live in a culture where your professional success is subtly (and not so subtly) devalued, you're going to subconsciously believe/fear that you're a fraud. That everything you've achieved is luck, instead of your own hard work. The culture that tells young girls that they are special beautiful princess snowflakes, watches them smack up against difficulties, and pats them on the head and says "Aw sweetheart, well at least you tried. There there."

Dealing with Impostor Feelings

The CalTech article has amazing suggestions on how to deal with your own impostor phenomenon.

  • Support and sharing - TALK ABOUT THESE FEELINGS. I'm not alone, and you're not alone.
  • Identify - Know when you're feeling the feelings. Point it out and say "I SEE YOU FEELINGS"
  • Be aware of and respond to your automatic thoughts - This is EXACTLY what my free self care worksheet is about. It's a spreadsheet I adapted from Feeling Good by Dr. David Burns. In the book, he calls the document a "Daily Record of Dysfunctional Thought". I talked about my first time using the approach here. Since then, I've updated the spreadsheet and used it whenever I started to feel 'off'.

Do you want that worksheet? Click below if you don't already have it!

I Want that button

Good luck out there my dears, remember - you are worth your success. It's not your charm, it's not your family, it's you (and sometimes privilege). Remember that even if something is easy, it doesn't mean it's luck. And even if something is hard, it doesn't mean you can't conquer it.

much love,

ktk

*since then, additional research has shown that men feel this too, but not at the same high rates