The Imposter Syndrome
Updated: May 19, 2020
Let’s talk about head trash.
You know. The voice inside that challenges our success, questions our motives, and diminishes our achievements. The nasty voice that doubts we can really rise to the challenges (and Lord knows, there are so many challenges…). What are some of the nasty things this voice is shrieking? Write those nasty statements down, and let’s decommission them together.
(From For She Who Leads)
This phenomenon shows up in some strangely unremarkable ways, and sadly, it is largely unreported, undiscovered, and unacknowledged by women until they hear someone else talking about it. Someone they admire, trust, respect, or know to be authentically talented. Let me be clear here: I’m not putting myself on a pedestal, but I am shouting, LOUD AND CLEAR, that I can relate to these and have battled with more than one of them. So this is your group session. I am speaking out. If you battle this venomous, nasty little voice, then let’s fight her together.
The four fears, as I have discovered, related to impostor syndrome, and what the implications are:
Fear of being discovered as less intelligent or talented than she really is, resulting in an endless (and thankless) cycle of hard work and overcompensation. The harder she works, the more success she experiences, and the more she fears being discovered as a talentless hack. So she works harder, harbors resentment, and teeters on burnout.
Fear of being discovered as more intelligent or talented than everyone else, resulting in intellectual inauthenticity as she is not speaking up and often allowing others to take credit for her contributions. She persists in this space, placing others in the spotlight and working harder and harder to advance quietly, so that she is undiscovered. She doesn’t take the risk, she steps aside, out of the line.
Fear of being ordinary and using perceptiveness (and manipulation) to place herself outside the pack by winning the attention and approval of the key decision maker or power player in a dynamic, resulting in a version of phoniness that is imperceptible to her and caustic to others. Unfortunately, if she is good at obtaining this external validation, she doubts it and moves on to a new target. She’s never satisfied with her own success.
Fear of succeeding and being set apart by her own abilities. Which is the saddest one, I think. As Pauline Rose Clance succinctly offers, “To maintain a sense of herself as being an intellectual phony may allow a high achieving woman to live out her achievement orientation to a large degree and at the same time allay some of her fears about the negative consequences of being a successful woman in our society.”¹
I recently read an article² that helped me understand how widespread impostor syndrome really is. Virtually every person who experiences success in some way also experiences impostor syndrome. But because we are all so different, the way that a person is affected by it looks different. A team of researchers went after this in a university setting (because you know, college students are willing subjects and highly accessible—but why researchers have to mess with them in their frequently emotionally unstable state I do not know...). These scientists took hundreds of undergrads and worked to make sure that the students were having a seriously miserable failure of a day. They framed it as a GRE exam, and for half of the students, gave them fake feedback that created a deeper sense of failure. The pressure grew among the group and the games continued. The students responded differently based on gender; male students tended to crumble under the weight of failure and chose not to invest their time in the test, succumbing to the feedback as a self-actualizing prophecy. The female students, on the other hand, increased their efforts and showed superior performance. They had the same feelings of disappointment and dread, but they were able to overcome them. This research study blew my mind. As if dealing with menstruation and childbearing weren’t impressive enough, coupled with the amazing way that even our FACES learn ways to grow hair after a certain age, women are incredible. We can receive poor feedback, be actively made miserable with a shit day, and still kick ass on a task? Yes. Yes we can. And for she who leads, this must be remembered. Impostor syndrome is a product of all the external factors and cannot limit you if you do not allow it to. But you have to spend time getting to know who you are and what you are capable of before stepping on that lie.
For She Who Leads, everything matters. Decommission those lies, fears, and challenges that are taking up space. For more on this, grab a copy of For She Who Leads—or set up a 1 to1 sessions with me at www.winnerpartners.net/coaching.