Ever found yourself in the middle of a great moment —a graduation, getting a promotion, being praised by someone you respect or creating something new— and caught yourself feeling like you shouldn’t be there? Not in a nice, ‘Is this really happening?!’ kind of way. More like a, ‘I don’t deserve this, and I hope no notices I’m a fraud’ kind of way.
Ironically, it is because of your greatness that you are more likely to experience feelings of being a ‘fraud’. This is commonly referred to as the ‘impostor syndrome’. Basically, if you attribute your success to everything except the fact that you really are that good, keep on reading.
Categorized as “the domain of the high achiever”, Clance and Imes first coined the phrase after a study they did of high achieving women. They described it as feelings of, “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement”. Instead of crediting success to ability, they attributed it to circumstances or charm. If you’re not sure if this relates to you, here’s a short test you can take to get a sense of where you lie on the spectrum.
The concept really hit home for me when I read a quote by Maya Angelou. She said: “I have written eleven 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.” Listen, if Maya-Freaking- Angelou can ‘fess up to feeling what I felt and still be great, then there is a way to succeed in spite of it.
So why is impostor syndrome so harmful? There are a few ways that this subtle form of fear could be holding you back from achieving career/business greatness:
You don’t shoot your shots, and if you do they are less than they could be
In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg noted that impostor syndrome made people evaluate their qualifications lower than they should. In the long run, you end up only taking low-risk opportunities, or worse not taking them at all.
It affects how you communicate
Have you ever ended a well thought-out point with something like, “Does that make sense?” Or worse, do you find yourself apologizing all the time?
Seriously, why do you start with “Sorry…” or “I just…” when you speak in a meeting? In an attempt not to be outed as a fraud, you actually can come off sounding uncertain of yourself.
It affects your presence
In the words of Amy Cuddy, “Impostorism steals our power and suffocates our presence. If even you don’t believe you should be here, how will you convince anybody else?”
As with all questions of our ability, there’s no silver bullet to getting past it, but there are ways to not let it hold you back.
Accept that you actually are a fraud
The only reason you are so aware of how much you fall short is because you are brilliant enough to calculate how much you lack. Be aware of the deficit, but act anyway. Apply anyway, pitch anyway, write anyway.
Everyone, brilliant or not, puts their best foot forward and there is nothing wrong with faking it a little before you make it. In the words of Queen Beyonce, “I have accomplished nothing without a little taste of fear in my mouth.”
Even if you aren’t completely comfortable with feeling like a fraud, at the very least stop sounding like one. Tara Mohr, author of Playing Big says, “I keep meeting brilliant women like you, with powerful ideas to contribute, important businesses and organizations to build, provocative questions to share. But so often, the way they communicate fails to command power. They equivocate, apologize, and look away as they speak.”
Be aware of how you communicate. While there is a lot I could add, my one piece of advice would be, watch your cadence and don’t present statements as questions.
Focus on delivering value
Understand the value that you can bring to the table. We often assume that the skills we really excel at come naturally to everyone because we do them so easily. This then allows us to focus on the things that we can’t do, as we don’t see our skill set as valuable.
Keep track of your strengths using tools like LinkedIn. But if you haven’t got it together like that (no judgement, I’m with you!), listen carefully to the feedback you get from colleagues.
“I DID that”
These three magic words, when said every time you do something awesome, are certain to gain you the respect of the only critic that counts, YOU.