With thirty-five years of experience between us, and thousands of hours spent working with senior leaders, the most common theme that rears its head time and again is imposter syndrome, or some version of it. We find even those at the very top battle regularly with feelings of not being up to the job. Blessed with this unique insight into the experience of so many leaders, we feel it is time to address the issue head-on, to attempt to untangle its knotty roots and to bring to light some of the techniques we use in helping our clients to move on from this at-times debilitating state of mind.
Two psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, first coined the concept of imposter syndrome in the late 1970s, and identified three key themes felt by sufferers:
1. Not believing you deserve the success you’ve achieved
2. A feeling of fraudulence about that success
3. A feeling of dread that you will be found out
We believe that what this really boils down to are the feelings of shame and doubt that so often accompany success and can really hold us back.
Unveiling a hidden truth
What makes imposter syndrome all the more complicated – which is also why it feels so important to shine a light on it – is the idea that we doubt ourselves privately, believing that we are the only people with these feelings and, as a result, we don’t talk about them for fear of being found out. Psychologist Elizabeth Cox coined this unhelpful characteristic “pluralistic ignorance”. But the truth is that it is an incredibly common feeling. On a continuum where 0 represents the most intense feelings of fraudulence and self-doubt and 10 is over-confidence and self-assuredness (one could argue narcissism, but this is for another article), we estimate four out of five leaders mark themselves below 5 on any given day. And if that wasn’t reassurance enough, Sheryl Sandberg admitted in her book,
“There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud – I’m not sure I should be where I am’’.
Even Albert Einstein confessed to self-doubts, ‘I’m an involuntary swindler and my accomplishments don’t deserve the attention they’ve received’. So clearly achieving success doesn’t make this go away – in fact, we believe successful people are more likely to experience these feelings. So where do these feelings come from, why do some people have them and others don’t and how can we keep them in check?
Psychoanalytic theories like Attachment Theory (John Bowlby) and Transactional Analysis (Eric Berne) suggest that the seeds are sown in childhood. Bowlby put our early relationship with our care-givers, usually our family, at the heart of his work. He described how we internalize key messages from our early child-caregiver relationships to form “internal working models”, emotional maps – secure or insecure - which help us predict other people’s responses to us and enable us to develop a picture of how our relationships are likely to go, which includes of course, those in our working lives. Understanding how our early patterns were formed during our formative years, and getting to the root of who we are and why we respond to things in the way we do, is the first step to being able to change our responses to the world for the better.
Who suffers and why?
There are four main experiences we find in an individual’s susceptibility to imposter syndrome:
1. First, is critical parenting. Think of a child who gets 90 percent in a test and who, instead of being met with a congratulatory hug, is asked my Mum or Dad, “what did you get wrong, who came top?” It is often a well-intended question designed to motivate, and indeed for many children it works, but some children are left feeling that whatever they do, they are not good enough.
2. Then we come to siblings - it doesn’t matter where you are in the birth order, having siblings can be complicated! First borns can be burdened with a higher pressure to do well but filled with an inner doubt about their true abilities, whilst the ‘golden sibling’ can wrestle with feelings of guilt, shame and fraudulence about their apex position.
3. Success itself can be difficult in some families. We have a client who, when she started to earn more than her father ever did, was met with icy disapproval from both parents. In fact, ambivalence around success links us quickly to these wider issues around gender, race, class, and sexual orientation. It can feel socially unacceptable for some of our clients to move into positions of power and complex feelings of ambivalence can form around their accomplishments.
4. Lastly, there are those challenging life events, e.g. failing exams, not completing a degree, that can lead people to feeling fraudulent because they don’t have the ‘right’ qualifications or aren’t worthy of their success.
“Neurons that fire together, wire together.”
— Donald Hebb.
Neuropsychologist Donald Hebb first used this phrase in 1949 to describe how pathways in the brain are formed and reinforced through repetition.
Equally important to how our life experiences have shaped us, are three key personality traits that make us more vulnerable to self-criticism and self-doubt. These personality traits in moderation can be the drivers of great success, but when they are over-amplified in high-pressure work environments they can hinder not help us. Simply put, these are: Anxiety (overthinking, worry, fear of failure, workaholism, irritability, catastrophizing). Perfectionism (striving for flawless performance, being over-critical of people or of others, failure intolerance, high need for control) and the need to please (focussing on what others think of us, rather than an ability to evaluate who we are through our own eyes, mind reading, taking things personally).
Own the change
So, what can we do to keep these very real feelings under control so they don’t undermine us? Firstly, we must make some mind space for reflection. We need to understand what the source of our own feelings is – everyone’s story is different and it’s important to find our own narrative for why we suffer from imposter syndrome.
There are some important self-evaluation steps to work through. Critical thoughts tend to be on repeat. Ask yourself – what does your critical voice say? It is very likely that you will have internalised someone else’s ‘voice’ or, in dealing with difficult experiences, learnt certain narratives. Whose voice is that? What was your family dynamic? Has it left you with certain messages about who you are? What was your role in the family? Mediator? Performer? Can you unpick those and see patterns emerging?
Lastly, we need to face down our inner critic, however loud, and recognise it as the imposter, that the feelings are most definitely real but that they may be (most likely are) very different to the actual truth. Do some reality testing, how would your colleagues or friends describe you? The great news is that Human beings are blessed with brain plasticity and an extraordinary ability to build new neural pathways. By repeatedly addressing and talking about psychological issues as they arise, we can abandon the feelings associated with imposter syndrome and truly believe in ourselves. There is an old saying in neuroscience that “neurons that fire together wire together”. In other words, the more you run a neural-circuit in your brain, the stronger that circuit becomes. You are a successful person in your own right! Repeat! Louder! Anchor yourself in that version of you, not in the insecure version that you have built. •
Nell Montgomery, Co-Founder at Aesara Partners, Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist (UKCP), and Executive Coach
Dr Susan Mistler, Managing Director at Aesara Partners Americas, Clinical Psychologist, and Executive Coach