explore, nurture

Insecurity and the imposter syndrome

One of my favourite jobs was working in a shop that sold relaxation products, self help books and beautiful jewellery. Not only did I work with wonderful women who became dear friends, I got to meet, chat with and listen to an eclectic range of people. What became clear to me over those years was that people from all walks of life experience insecurity, from famous and wealthy musicians and actors to successful business people, Arabic billionaires, men and women, adults and children.

One very famous and wealthy singer came in on a regular basis buying self-help CDs on everything from raising self-esteem and better relationships to sleeping better. At the time I found it extraordinary that someone with so much of what we strive for and measure success by in western society should have low self-esteem. I also found it reassuring how utterly human she was.

Dig around the internet for a minute and you can come up with numerous examples of famous folk who have struggled with insecurity including the late and great David Bowie who told Q magazine in 1997 that while he rose to fame in the 70s: “I had enormous self-image problems and very low self-esteem, which I hid behind obsessive writing and performing. … I was driven to get through life very quickly…I really felt so utterly inadequate. I thought the work” — songwriting, recording, performing — “was the only thing of value.”

In a 2002 interview Meryl Streep said, “I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?” While Maya Angelou once said, “I have written 11 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.”

This feeling Angelou refers to of being a fraud who will be ‘found out’, was dubbed the Imposter Syndrome In the 1970s by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes from Georgia State University, who noted it amongst intelligent and high achieving women. Imposter syndrome is common- more so among women than men. Studies show as many as 70% of people experience it at some point in their lives.

In a Harvard Business Review article Jasmine Vergauwe,  co –author of a recent paper in the Journal of Business and Psychology on the Imposter Syndrome, said impostors are often plagued with “worry, self-doubt, and anxiety” when doing an achievement focused task. “In order to deal with these feelings, they either extremely over-prepare a task or initially procrastinate and then follow that with frenzied preparation. Mostly, they succeed, and they experience temporary feelings of elation and relief.

However, as Clance writes on her website: “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.”

For women this plays out in the workplace in depressing ways. Women are less likely to ask for a raise or apply for jobs unless they are 100% sure they have all of the necessary prerequisites. Men wade in and apply with only 60% of the prerequisities.

Having said that, in New Zealand as in many western countries men are better at hiding emotions, so it may be that men just don’t admit to feeling vulnerable or insecure.

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

So how do you get over it? Options include coaching or counselling, but most importantly in a workplace, it requires a more authentic and honest work environment where leadership are open about their own insecurities and struggles. A place where people are encouraged to ask questions when in doubt, to self reflect and support one another.

A good place to find support is The Empress has no Clothes online community, which was was set up specifically for people struggling with impostor syndrome. 

Finally, it’s worth noting the beautifully ironic thing about the Imposter Syndrome. According to the Dunning-Kruger bias, if you want to be able to assess your expertise at something, you need to have the skills that create the expertise to do so. As Bertrand Russell wrote: “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt”.

image: The ugly duckling, Marco on Flickr







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