Four Tips for Thwarting Impostor Syndrome

Image credit: Gabriele Ferreira

by Naomi Watkins

“What you create doesn’t have to be perfect…Don’t let fear of failure discourage you.”

–Dieter F. Uchtdorf

At the young age of 22, I faced a room full of seniors who were in the midst of their final semester of high school. I was their student teacher charged with showing them the amazingness of Macbeth, The Count of Monte Cristo, and how to write a research paper (all super easy tasks—ha!). Any visions that I may have had of my students lauding me all Dead Poets’ Society-style quickly evaporated when I found myself wading chest deep through their seemingly incurable cases of senioritis.

I recall wondering how they would ever take me seriously. I mean, I barely took myself seriously! I felt like an impostor—that any moment my students would figure out that I had little idea what I was doing. True, I had taken the classes. I had studied and prepared. And boy did I prepare! My lesson plans were meticulous and involved. I put down on paper everything I would say and ask and have them do. Despite this preparation, I was sure I’d totally blow a lesson, that I’d ruin these students, that they would think I was ridiculous.

Since my student teaching days, I have experienced other moments of “Impostor Syndrome,” moments where I’ve been convinced that I am a fraud, waiting for someone to uncover the “true” me, and find out that I’m really less than my titles claim me to be. I recall being legitimately addressed as “Doctor” for the first time after successfully defending my dissertation and thinking, “Oh no! This person actually believes I know something!” I amazed myself when I was able to speak intelligently (and from memory) as I answered this person’s question.

The term “Impostor Phenomenon” first appeared in an article written by psychologists Drs. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978; they observed that many high-achieving females often feel that their success has been due to luck or chance rather than because of their own ability or efforts. They are also fairly certain that they will fail and that this success in not repeatable unless they go to extreme efforts. [1]

I know many women who feel this way about their success and achievements—women who I view as confident, intelligent, successful, and able. Heck, I would even use these adjectives to describe myself. One step to combating these feelings of self-doubt and anxiety is recognizing that others also feel the same way.  Research conducted in the early 1980s estimated that two out of five successful people consider themselves frauds; other studies show that 70 percent of all people have felt like impostors. [2]

Dr. Clance developed the Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale (CIPS) as a way to see how you compare to others. You can take it here. (She also has a great reading list on the Impostor Phenomenon on her web site).

So while it’s true that we all may feel like impostors from time to time, when these feelings are frequent or intense, they can definitely interfere with future success. And so, I offer some tips for combatting Impostor Syndrome.

1.     We need to recognize the difference between expertise and infallibility.

Lauren Bacon says, “We can be experts, and we can be successful, and that doesn’t mean we need to be without fault.” [3] As Mormon women, we have often been raised and taught to think that we need to be perfect and without fault. And while we may know this fairy-tale type of existence is unrealistic and impossible, we still believe that those around us have it more together than we do—others do it better, know it better, and are just plain better! However, even the top experts are not 100% correct and “the best” 100% of the time.

We also tend to think of “experts” as a very small, select group of people—people with advanced degrees and decades of experience working in their fields. Tara Sophia Mohr outlines that there are in fact four different types of experts [4]:

  • The Specialist: “In our culture, this type of authority is most validated and embraced. The specialist has formal training (degrees, certifications) or lots of work experience in the area of their project. They might also achieve their specialist knowledge by conducting extensive research on their topic.”
  • The Survivor: This type of expert has “been through something, learned a heck of a lot along the way, and now [they’re] on fire to share what [they’ve] learned.”
  • The Cross Trainer: “Cross trainers have deep expertise in field ‘x,’ and bring ways of thinking from field ‘x’ to bear as they look at field ‘y’…they make interdisciplinary connections and drive innovation… [and] see the blind spots of the conventional thinking in the field they’ve turned their attention to.”
  • The Called: “Then there are those people that dive into a project out of a sense of calling. [The Called] feel an inner, mysterious sense of ‘this work is mine to do’…They have vision and – perhaps most important – ardent dissatisfaction with the status quo where insiders may have become resigned.”

More often than not, we tend to only validate “the specialists,” believing that we can’t possibly be experts unless we have formal training or work experience or degrees to prove it. However, it’s possible that we can be different types of experts depending on the situation. We should also realize that our expertise runs along a continuum. We don’t have to know and be able to do everything at all times, but it’s important that we know and are able to do something well—and then, run with it.

Even then, our efforts don’t have to be 100% perfect. One bad day, one mess up, one backwards step does not obliterate everything you already know, do, and have achieved. And it definitely does not reflect who you are as a person.

2.     Fake it until you become it.

I was recently reminded of social psychologist Amy Cuddy’s 2012 talk at TEDGlobal where she shared the research she conducts on how body language affects not only how we view others, but how we view ourselves. (It really is worth the 20 minutes to [re]watch the video). “Standing in a posture of confidence—even when we don’t feel confident—can affect testosterone and cortisol levels in the brain.” Her research results and the anecdotal stories of those who have tried her power poses are rather compelling. So next time your doubting yourself, try one of several power poses for two minutes.

She speaks about how these power poses can help us become powerful. She distinguishes between “faking it until you become it” versus “faking it until you make it.” I don’t believe that the majority of us are running around, trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes about our abilities. We truly want to become experts, to become better people. And so, Cuddy discusses how we should not just aim to make it, but to actually rehearse what we want to be until we become it.

3.     Learn to Recognize the Source of Your Inner Critic’s Voice.

My inner voice can be downright cruel. When she is unleashed, especially after a (possibly self-perceived) failure, she can be relentless in her bullying. When she’s at her worst, she is all about the worst-case scenario, speaks in extremes and absolutes, and is impenetrable to reason or logic.

I now realize that negative self-criticism is Satan’s best and most favorite tool to use against me. If he can discourage me, prevent me from trying, and make me believe—even for just a little bit—that I am a failure or my future success is impossible, then he doesn’t have to do much more work.

True, sometimes the inner critic does provide helpful feedback. The ability to distinguish between constructive criticism and just criticism is important. Bacon shares that “helpful internal feedback points out gaps, thinks of tasks you need to do—e.g. ‘We are going to need to reach a new market with this—who is that, and how can we reach them?’ The voice is [also] creative, inquiring, curious, open.” For me, when the inner critic has shifted to bully mode, she tends to speak on a loop, over and over, the same shaming statements. Helpful internal feedback inspires me to act and often comes from the Spirit; the inner critic bully merely shuts me down and often turns me away from the Lord.

4.     Pray.

Praying can help us not only silence the inner bully, but it can instill confidence and faith.

During what would become one of my favorite sermons, “Cast Not Therefore Away Your Confidence,” Elder Jeffrey Holland discussed how “opposition…so often comes after enlightened decisions have been made, after moments of revelation and conviction have given us a peace and assurance we thought we would never lose.”

Prayer not only provides needed revelation—even, if not especially, in matters related to education and work—but it can be the tool to help us to overcome our fears: “With the spirit of revelation, dismiss your fears and wade in with both feet.” Additionally, “God will provide…the means and power to achieve that purpose…If God has told you something is right, if something is indeed true for you, He will provide the way for you to accomplish it.” [5] And even when we haven’t received specific revelation regarding what we should do, the Lord will still bless our good endeavors.

“’Fear ye not…The Lord shall fight for you.’ [6] Cast not away therefore you confidence.”

With recognition, with effort, with prayer, and with the Lord, cast away therefore that impostor. You really are that fantastic—and becoming even more so.

 

Have you experienced Impostor Syndrome? What additional tips do you have for combatting Impostor Syndrome? What works for you? 

 

Sources

[1] http://paulineroseclance.com/impostor_phenomenon

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imposter_syndrome

[3] http://www.laurenbacon.com/expert-enough-take-2/

[4] http://99u.com/articles/7277/understanding-how-to-frame-your-creative-expertise

[5] http://www.lds.org/ensign/2000/03/cast-not-away-therefore-your-confidence

[6] Exodus 14:13-14

3 Comments on “Four Tips for Thwarting Impostor Syndrome

  1. This is so beautiful, I feel like I want to comment on every single paragraph! Thanks for writing and sharing this piece!

    xox

  2. From the first paragraph my mom’s “fake it til you make it” advice was running through my head. I remember her first saying it when I was very young. I took it to mean that I should act like the person I wanted to become (meaning the best version of myself’ not someone else) until I became that person. It is a philosophy that has saved me from paralyzingly self doubt many times.

    Never was this more apparent than in my first struggling months as a missionary. Families would look to my companion and I with such respect and love that it would terrify me. And yes, indeed, those running prayers that became almost mantra-like were the only thing that saved me.

  3. Nan,

    It’s true that Impostor Syndrome seems to rear its ugly head when we’re involved in something new-to-us or having to stretch ourselves in new ways–and eventually, over time, and with effort, we become that very thing. So simple, yet sometimes so terrifying to execute.

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