A Hidden Side of Success: Impostor Syndrome

The list of successful business leaders who recognize the impact of Impostor Syndrome is distinguished. Mike Cannon-Brookes, co-founder of software company Atlassian spoke candidly in 2018 on how rapid business growth left him feeling inexperienced and consequently unworthy. Sheryl Sandberg became COO at Facebook in 2018, becoming the company’s second-highest ranking official, claimed every time she took a test she was sure it had gone badly.

Positive side of Impostor Syndrome

Success is not the only common denominator we see with Impostor Syndrome. It causes people to be:
• Self-reflective
• Warm
• Emotionally intelligent
• Obsessively driven to prove they are worthy
• Well respected and a great asset to any business

The inner voice of those same successful business leaders has a different vibe:

“I feel like a fraud.”
“I feel like I am about to get found out.”
“They’re going to realize I don’t belong here.”
“It was just luck.”
“You might have done it this time, but will you get away with it next time.”
“You got close, but you still screwed it up.”
“You don’t deserve to be here.”
“These people are all really smart.”

As a leadership consultant, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard these statements. Maybe you’ve heard them too, from people close to you, or perhaps you are the one having these very same thoughts.

Impostor Syndrome is more common than we think

Either way, it’s important to understand that Impostor Syndrome is common. Researchers have estimated that 70 percent[1] of the general population have experienced the impostor phenomenon at some point in their lives.

What exactly is Impostor Syndrome?

But before we dive into what causes us to feel like frauds, let’s start by defining what we mean by Impostor Syndrome.
You might be systematically doubting your achievements, questioning your abilities in areas where you’ve proven yourself time and time again. It’s the feeling that you don’t deserve your success and the underlying message is that you are not enough, or you can do better.

Who does it impact?

Individuals who are prone to experiencing Impostor Syndrome will often find themselves:

  • Feeling drained from perfectionism
  • Trying to prove their worth, avoiding vulnerability
  • Pretending to be fine when they are not
  • Procrastinating
  • Holding back from showing up from fear of being found out

Some people share that they’ve struggled with Impostor Syndrome their whole career, sometimes due to an overly critical upbringing and trying to gain their parents approval and love. In contrast, others will find themselves triggered by a stretch assignment or a significant promotion, passing up opportunities for fear of being unable to perform at the same level, albeit temporarily. The latter stay in roles they are overqualified for and eventually feel bored or restless.

Whatever the reason, the cost of Impostor Syndrome is very real, be it in your health, career, or relationships.

What is the cost of Impostor Syndrome?

The perfectionist tendencies of people who don’t feel like they deserve to be where they are usually has two responses. They either fall into procrastination, trying to postpone a task that they fear will highlight their so-called incompetence, or they overprepare. When the outcome of said efforts is positive, they write it off as luck.

This exhausting cycle contributes to increased levels of stress and anxiety, constantly trying to overproduce. It also leads to conditional self-worth. Relationships can also suffer from it when an individual is so focused on proving their competence at work that their personal lies sometimes end up in burnout.

How to overcome it

One of the first things to do when trying to break the cycle is to deal with the shame by speaking up about your experience.

1. Speak openly about it
Choose someone you trust, who you know to be empathetic, such as a friend, a sibling, or even a coach. As Doctor Brené Brown explains, “If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.”

2. Keep a success log
Another thing you can do is to carry out an inventory of your achievements. I often tell my clients to create an achievement file to help them retrain their minds to pick up on their accomplishments and build a connection between their success and their merit.

3. Watch your self-talk
Last but not least, it’s of paramount importance to watch your self-talk. Sometimes that negative voice will sound like someone you know who always used to criticize you; other times, it will just be your autopilot thinking, looking for and highlighting shortcomings at every corner. Start by identifying when the negative mental chatter takes hold of you and, over time, gently challenge it with examples that disprove it.

[1] https://www.theopennotebook.com/2016/11/15/feeling-like-a-fraud-the-impostor-phenomenon-in-science-writing/

Unlock the greatest version of yourself and your organization