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Imposter Syndrome – what it is and how to overcome12 Nov 2019

The Imposter Syndrome

You’re about to deliver a speech. In the lead up to delivering your speech or presentation have you ever felt any of the following:-

  • What am I doing here?
  • I am way out of my depth
  • I don’t deserve to be here
  • They already know what I know; I’m going to embarrass myself
  • They’ll see through me really quickly
  • I’m a fraud

These concerns, while usually completely inaccurate, are real anxieties and can get in the way of us being able to speak up confidently and advocate for ourselves, our causes, our businesses.

It’s common knowledge that public speaking, presentation or just speaking up in meetings can be intimidating. And if you’ve had any of those negative thoughts, then chances are you’ve suffered, at least a bit, from “The Imposter Syndrome”. It’s a remarkably common psychological pattern in which an individual doubts his or her accomplishments and has a persistent internalised fear of being exposed as a “fraud”, despite logical evidence to the contrary.

It turns out, 70% of people have experienced this kind of self-destructive anxiety at some stage of their lives. It’s when we live with the fear that the “competency police” will bust in at any moment and take us away!

Many people fear that if they stick their head above the parapet, (i.e. by standing up to speak) they will be exposed as a fraud; that they are not quite good enough, that they don’t really deserve to be there and that they aren’t actually worth listening to.

Why does this happen? 

Why does the Imposter Syndrome affect so many people and particularly women, often to the extent of crippling or impairing their ability to speak?

  • Cultural Misfit

Often the Imposter Syndrome rears its ugly head when the speaker is addressing an unfamiliar or “different” audience. For women speakers, this often occurs when addressing a group different to themselves. The sense of being an outsider, in a minority makes you feel like you don’t belong there, so women in business where they are in the minority of people who are foreigners/ immigrants, people of colour in a white society etc really suffer and it’s easy to feel like an imposter then. Throughout history, for millennia in fact, men have been the leaders, the ones who speak up, debate and decide. Women’s traditional roles have been to nurture and support. Clearly that has changed and is still changing but those thousands of years of ingrained cultural context do mean that there is still a distinct societal vibe that dictates that it’s men that should speak and a woman speaking up assertively is not something normal, natural or quite right. It’s therefore very easy for women speaking up to feel that they do not “belong” or deserve to be the one speaking.

  • Anticipated Criticism

When women do speak out often, they get very harshly criticised. The criticism is not just a fair critique of their performance, which is to be expected, even welcomed. The criticism many women experience is both more vitriolic and much more personal. There is an inherent assumption that men will be right and competent (often confusing confidence with competence!) There is not that same inherent belief about women and therefore, research supports that women are challenged, interrupted and criticised much more than men. Further, the criticisms levied are often not related to the topic –
Poor male speakers rarely get criticised for the fact they’re overweight or wearing a poorly coordinating tie! Women on the other hand are routinely criticised for their appearance, their voice and their style. This is something most women are consciously or subconsciously aware of and often adds to the anxiety of speaking. To alleviate this anxiety, women often resort to the Perfection Defence.

  • Perfection Defence

Reshma Sajani wrote a book and did a TED talk titled “Brave not perfect”. Its central idea is that we raise girls to be perfect little princesses. They get praise and credit for looking beautiful, (sugar and spice and all things nice), being compliant and getting things right. And if they are perfect, the girls avoid criticism and are accepted.

What this means is that girls are trained to please and to deliver perfection. This is what the psychologist Carol Dweck describes as a “fixed mindset”. It’s not an enabling way of thinking as it traps you in a world where you have to get the right answer, you have to do the right thing, you have to be correct, and it’s better not to try than try, and have the crushing experience of failing.

Boys on the other hand, are raised to be brave little soldiers, fearless, getting into scrapes and getting out again, and lots of indulgence for getting it wrong. After all, “boys will be boys”. Boys often have more of a trial and error or “growth mindset”. It’s OK to have a go and fail, brush it off, learn from it and try again. Society allows, perhaps even encourages the growth mindset in boys and men.

Trying and learning from mistakes is a much more enabling mindset but often one that girls and women have not been raised with or received support for. In terms of speaking therefore, they need to be perfect and anything less than career perfection means you’re not that good and if you’re going to speak about anything you’ve done, if it’s not perfect, you’re a fraud! Holding yourself to these impossible standards is one reason why many women feel that they’re not quite good enough, don’t really deserve to be there.

What can you do about it?

You’ve already made the first step. Awareness is curative. Being aware of what’s going on and why, enables you to start to work on it and deal with it. Disabling or self-limiting beliefs that lurk in the dark corners of our consciousness are silent assassins. So, the simple act of recognising the fear, the Imposter Syndrome and calling it out as a legitimate BUT irrational fear is a giant leap forward in itself. Bring it out into the daylight and examine it. It won’t stand up to scrutiny and you can move on and leave it behind.

One way to counter Imposter Syndrome is to deploy facts and balance feeling and emotion. Some of these deeply held fears / beliefs are actually not at all factual they are just feelings. You could start by reviewing your CV. I bet it shows you have plenty of skills, abilities and experience. (That’s why someone asked you to speak in the first place!)  When you really reflect on the facts, your years of experience, your role, your ideas, your energy, your creativity, your achievements, whatever your particular configuration of these assets are, you’ll soon start to see that you have lots to offer. When you’re feeling “not worthy” make yourself a list of what your knowledge, skills and experience in the topic is. That will enable you to counterbalance any of the less rational, less factual fears you may be harbouring.

Then, consider is it accurate for you to feel like a misfit with your audience? Why are you there in the first place? Is it because you possess knowledge your audience wants? Do you have an expertise they would like to (or need to) learn from? Will your point of view, research findings or different way of looking at things enable your audience to progress in their thinking? Can you cause a shift or change by sharing your thoughts and ideas? What do you all share in common? In answering these questions, it’ll probably become very clear that you completely belong there.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a very useful technique that can also help with this. It says simply that thoughts lead to feelings which lead to behaviours / actions. So, disabling thoughts go like this:

  • I think I’m a fraud
  • I feel bad, I feel scared the audience will hate me and I’ll be exposed as a fraud
  • I won’t do that speech/ presentation
    or I’ll get through it as quickly and quietly as I can and hope no one really notices me.

The brilliant thing about the human brain however is that we can control our thoughts, it’s the capability that sets us apart from the animal kingdom. So how about choosing a different series of thoughts and feelings.

  • I am strong and highly competent in my field
  • I feel a nervous/ excited anticipation about sharing my thoughts and ideas with this audience
  • I embrace this speech/ presentation and will give it my best and it’ll be great.

Imposter Syndrome is a real issue for many people and particularly women. For some it just stops them wanting to speak publicly at all, whether that’s in speeches, presentations or even contributing in meetings. For others it doesn’t stop them but burdens them and causes them to carry significant anxiety around or causes them to impair their speaking capability.

The good news however is that you can tackle it and put yourself in a much more resourceful place to do the important work of articulating your views and ideas.

Women, Power, Presence and Presentation

Imposter Syndrome – what it is and how to overcome

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