when you feel like an impostorYou just received a promotion. You’re ecstatic! But then a sinking feeling washes over you. What if they realize you’re really a fraud?

You get into a top graduate program. But you fear that you won’t be able to measure up. In fact, you know it. Your article gets published in a prominent publication. Clearly, that’s because you wrote about a trendy topic. They must’ve run out of their good contributors. Maybe it’s just a stroke of luck.

These are all examples of “impostor syndrome.” Clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the term in 1978. (Since then it’s been called everything from the impostor complex to fraud syndrome.)

Clance and Imes were studying a group of high-achieving women and noticed an interesting pattern: “These women dismissed any proof of their success as luck, fluke, timing or having managed to deceive others into thinking that they were smarter, more capable than they actually were,” said Tanya Geisler, CPCC, ACC, a leadership coach, who teaches women how to overcome the impostor complex in their life, work and life’s work.

The impostor complex doesn’t discriminate, she said. It can show up at any age, profession, position and area of our lives. It can show up in students, CEOs and artists. It can show up in our parenting and even spiritual practices, she said. Geisler has seen people wonder: “Am I doing enough? Am I spiritual enough?”

Geisler noted that Clance and Imes found four distinct behavioral traits in their research:

  • “Diligence”: People feel so terrified of being “found out” that they work two or three times as hard, which leads them to over-prepare and feel exhausted.
  • “Feeling of being phony”: To avoid being “found out,” people give answers that they think others are seeking. For instance, a person says they agree with taking a certain direction on a new project (even though they really disagree). This only leads “to a further entrenched sense of phoniness,” Geisler said.
  • “Use of charm”: People overly rely on their likability to get approval. But the praise feels hollow because they believe it’s due to their charm — not their skills or smarts.
  • “Avoiding display of confidence”: People worry that if they show confidence in their abilities, they’ll just get rejected. They’ll even convince themselves that they’re “less than” to avoid the rejection.

Over the years, while studying the impostor complex and coaching leaders, Geisler has identified 12 lies that the impostor complex makes us believe. These include: self-doubt is proof that we’re inadequate; successful people don’t feel like impostors; you’ll never be able to accomplish that great accomplishment ever again; and you can’t trust others’ praise and positive feedback.

The impostor complex is problematic because it paralyzes us. “It can prevent us from putting our best work out there, especially if we think it might be controversial, or that there might be potential for failure.” It stops us from pursuing opportunities and exploring new experiences, she said.

“It can contribute to absenteeism, perfectionism and burnout. In more severe cases, people can develop anxiety, depression, shame and deep self-doubt.”

Since impostor complex is so problematic, you might be wondering whether there’s a way to eliminate it. Once and for all. Unfortunately, there isn’t. According to Geisler, it’s part of us. It’s also — in some ways — served us well, she said. “[I]f you experience it, this means you are high-functioning, high-achieving with strong values of mastery and integrity.”

Geisler suggested thinking of the impostor complex as a traveling companion. “It can ride along in the vehicle you’re driving (preferably in the backseat), and point out places that there might be room for improvement. But you would never hand over the steering wheel.” Because if you let it drive, you’ll never go anywhere.

Geisler shared these three suggestions for coping with impostor complex:

  • Realize you’re not alone.
    In fact, you’re in great company. “We tend to think that people at the top of their game do not experience the impostor complex,” Geisler said. “But the truth is, the higher ‘they’ climb, the farther ‘they’ have to fall.” And all of us are afraid of falling, she said.

    Everyone from Stephen King to Sheryl Sandberg to Albert Einstein to Maya Angelou has experienced impostor complex. Angelou once said: “I have written 11 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.’”

  • Build a strong support system.
    Provide honest feedback on each other’s performance and have meaningful conversations about the impostor complex, Geisler said. For instance, a group of women who watched her TEDx talk on impostor complex were inspired to create an “Impostor Jar.” Any time someone says something like “I’m not ready to send that pitch” or “Yes, they said they liked the proposal, but they were only being nice,” they put money in their jar. Geisler has mentioned this to other groups, who are adopting it, too.
  • Create a “yum and yay folder.”
    When you start feeling the impostor complex creeping in, you can turn to your folder and be reminded of your many, many achievements. Geisler suggested gathering a list of your accomplishments, degrees, awards and experience. Include anything you’ve “launched, authored, inspired, created, sold, pulled off, nailed, delivered, given [and] done.” Include testimonials, references and any positive feedback — “every time someone says something that feels delicious or makes your heart go Yay! stick it in there.”

    Keep adding to your folder. Collecting our external acknowledgments helps us to internalize our legacy of achievements over time, Geisler said.

The impostor complex can be very convincing. The more hats we wear, the more places we’re doing meaningful work that matters, the greater the likelihood the impostor complex will appear, Geisler said. But remember that “this is your car to drive. Your road to travel.”

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