Have you heard of the term “impostor syndrome”? According to Wikipedia, it is “a concept describing high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’.” The term was coined in 1978 by two clinical psychologists, and as a coach to high achieving women, I see it all the time in my office. As my work relates to personal branding and visibility, every month, I meet a new woman who, despite praise, awards, and accolades cannot see the full range of her impact and as such is still working as if she has to prove herself, and prove that she deserves her seat at the table.
Not to be confused with low self-confidence, impostor syndrome can bring up many issues for women who are climbing the career ladder. It fosters unnecessary physical stress, causes them to work overtime when their regular efforts will do, and essentially robs them of the joy and sense of satisfaction they would have if they could simply embrace and enjoy the fruits of their success.
If you are a high achiever and wonder if you may be silently suffering from impostor syndrome, here are three clues.
You can’t take a compliment
When your colleagues compliment you on a job well done, you cannot receive it. Moreover, you don’t believe them when they sing your praises. You either diminish yourself – “it wasn’t that great…” or you begin to diminish the messenger – “she doesn’t have any experience judging this type of thing anyway. This is probably the first presentation on this topic that she’s ever heard! What is she even comparing it to?” Whichever the case, if people are constantly congratulating you for your accomplishments, or praising you for doing great work and their words fall on your own deaf ears, you may not be able to receive their praise because you’ve yet to accept the possibility that it could be true.
You over prepare and triple check your work
Another hallmark of impostor syndrome is an extreme attention to detail that goes too far. The presentation called for 3 slides, you prepared 10, “just in case.” Other students read one report, you read a whole book on the topic. While you may pride yourself on being thorough, your thoroughness may secretly be masking your true feelings of inadequacy. No one wants to turn in sloppy work or look unprepared when we’re put to the test, but if you routinely find yourself putting in exceedingly more preparation than others around you, impostor syndrome may be at play.
You’re often over anxious
The not so fun side of always being prepared is you end up putting undue pressure on yourself. When you should be resting, spending quality time with your friends/family, or relaxing, your mind is racing as you think of all the ways you should prepare for the next thing. You may over analyze the requirements for a task or assignment and think of 10 ways to approach it. Or you may wear yourself out in the preparation phase so much that when it’s time to actually do the work, you’re exhausted and know you won’t perform your best – which stresses you out even more. The result of normal preparation is an assured calmness that comes from knowing you know your stuff and will be able to confidently answer any question that comes at you, and handle any objections or any challenges that come your way. It’s a zen that comes from knowing that you’ve studied long and hard, you’ve accumulated years of experience, and you’ve mastered your subject matter. In essence – you’re ready! If you never reach this space of zen in your work, and you’re just as stressed out years into it as you were when you first started, impostor syndrome may be to blame.
What you can do about impostor syndrome
For episode 37 of my podcast, I interviewed therapist Dr. Reisha Moxley, a staff psychologist at Johns Hopkins University and a mental health maven for high achievers. In the episode, How to Push Past Impostor Syndrome and Claim the Full Power of Your Gift , Dr. Moxley shared a few anecdotes from her work with high achievers and offered a few strategies to help you begin to settle into yourself and own the full power of your skills, gifts and talents. If you’re tired of feeling like a fraud, listen to the episode on the Package Your Genius podcast, or share it with a friend who may also be struggling with impostor syndrome.