Okay, truth talk. I’ve lived with the reality of impostor syndrome for years and years—especially early in my career, but if I’m being honest, it still creeps in. I never knew it was an actual “thing” until recently. The thought that I was “lucky” or “blessed” to be in the job that I was in, the change happening that I was invited to something and an opportunity opened up...blah blah blah.
The truth was, when I looked at that woman in the mirror, I didn’t think she deserved the level of success that was within her reach. And sometimes I didn’t let her reach for it. I held her back. I felt like the impostor.
So what is impostor syndrome and how does it impact the ability of women like you and me to achieve what we were created for?
Impostor syndrome shows up among seemingly confident, high-functioning, intelligent women (and sometimes men), manifesting as pervasive feelings of insecurity, self-doubt, and the fear of being revealed as a fraud and unmasked as incompetent. Actual competence and ability are not objective factors, acknowledged and measured by success or notable accomplishments. This fear of being found out as worthless or a hack lies quietly in wait as success builds. A promotion is earned, a book is published, a benchmark is met...and then it emerges and upends the stability that success of this level should bring.
Two researchers who have spent a great deal of time investigating impostor syndrome are Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. Pauline herself experienced symptoms of imposter syndrome in graduate school and withheld her feelings of anxiety, fear, and self-doubt from even her friends. It sparked something that has garnered a wider body of research, and she and Suzanne coined the phrase “impostor phenomenon”, describing it in their own words as affecting women with the following thought pattern:
“Even though they are often very successful by external standards, they feel their success has been due to some mysterious fluke or luck or great effort; they are afraid their achievements are due to “breaks” and not the result of their own ability and competence. They are also pretty certain that, unless they go to gargantuan efforts to do so, success can not be repeated. They are afraid that next time, I will blow it.”³
In their earliest work in this area, Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes explain the phenomenon from a clinical perspective. “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention” effectively launches a deeper dive into the topic for dozens of independent studies, and perhaps more importantly, giving validation to these feelings that so many seemingly successful women were already dealing with. Imagine getting up and going into work every day, managing a team and meeting performance expectations. You have a good job, by all accounts. A nice home. Decent nail beds. A significant project comes your way—it will be one of those stretch projects, one that requires a little more from you, but will certainly bring with it additional opportunities and recognition, and launch you and your work team into the spotlight for a job well done. You worked hard. You put in extra hours, made extra calls, and provided your team Chick-Fil-A lunches on more than one occasion, in order to bolster their confidence in the good job they are doing. In fact, you make recognition part of your management style, so those team members who are pulling extra weight are even getting appropriate kudos from you. When the project is finally completed, and you are recognized by the entire company for successful completion, you begin to sweat. A nagging question lingers in the back of your mind: “When will they discover that I am incompetent?” And when asked how you accomplished this feat in the pressed time window you were given, you respond, “I was lucky to have such a great team.” While this seems humble and very “we” not “I” oriented, it is an outward projection of some of those Impostor Phenomenon indicators that Pauline and Suzanne discovered and named. Even more disturbing is what might happen to a woman over time if this behavior and thought pattern goes on unchecked. In this benchmark paper explaining the dynamics and therapeutic interventions, they make two distinct assertions:
1: Women who experience the impostor phenomenon maintain a strong belief that they are not intelligent; in fact they are convinced that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.
2: Women who exhibit the impostor phenomenon do not fall into any one diagnostic category. The clinical symptoms most frequently reported are generalized anxiety, lack of self-confidence, depression, and frustration related to inability to meet self-imposed standards of achievement.¹
This was interesting to me as I began researching in earnest for this book. My friend had shared with me studies showing that women simply didn’t position themselves for promotions because they would look at the list of seven or eight needed competencies and see that they were missing one or two, while men at this same professional level were more likely to go after them despite having far fewer key competencies! That was amazing to me, but then I sat back and reflected on some of my own experiences and observations and understood it. Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes point out this inherent difference which shows up between women and men: men often view their own successes as resultative of qualities they have within themselves, whereas women are more likely to attribute their success elsewhere; they will “either project the cause of success outward to an external cause (luck) or to a temporary internal quality (effort) that they do not equate with inherent ability.”¹.
It seems like this impostor phenomenon, gone unchecked for too long, becomes a syndrome impacting women so significantly that a growing professional circuit of coaches, therapists, and mentors are identifying it and helping women work through it. Core to avoiding, overcoming, or recovering from the impostor syndrome that creeps in on, say about 70% of us, is truly understanding yourself, what you’re worth, and what you want most.
-This is an excerpt from “For She Who Leads: Practical Wisdom from a Woman Who Serves”. If you haven’t gotten the book yet, do yourself and your female friends a favor and get it now here. The chapters you will read will push you to define your own Brave Women Project. This is achieved best in concert with others. You may not want to write in the book itself (although you can), especially if you’re the “pass a book along” kind of friend that we all love. In that case, start up a document you can access anywhere, and start writing using the prompts. Shoot, perhaps this will result in your own book. Please, please, please send me my very own copy. I love this shit. What I love even more than that is knowing that you’re going to do something with this very lovely piece of work.