I had imposter syndrome at work today… Brilliant!
Almost two years ago, I co-founded a coaching company and, as a non-coach, I felt a huge amount of self-doubt along with that. Thinking back to those first couple of months, whenever I was asked what I did for work, I would give my answer, caveated by the fact that I was giving it a month before starting to look for another, “real” job.
Everyone I spoke to was thinking how stupid I was for believing I could do it. They were thinking that I was too young, too inexperienced, incapable of running a business in an industry I knew little about. I felt red-hot shame in conveying even a morsel of self-belief because everybody else knew I would fail… or so I thought. I was suffering from imposter syndrome.
Imposter syndrome is being spoken about more and more, and on one hand this feels like a helpful thing - the recognition and normalisation of something so many of us experience - yet I can’t help but notice how unhelpful I find the narrative that surrounds it. “How to cure imposter syndrome”. “Is imposter syndrome destorying your career”. “5 types of imposter syndrome and how to stop it”.
Imposter syndrome can sound like an illness with which we’ve been infected; something unpleasant, dangerous, and damaging. Yet, when I think about the times in my life that I’ve experienced imposter syndrome (read: often), it’s always been related to a situation which was challenging, stretching, and a period of personal growth – something I believe to be inherently positive, albeit uncomfortable.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the trigger is a big life event, in fact imposter feelings are often present in the smaller, less obvious moments – when pressing ‘reply all’ to an email, saying hello to a senior colleague in the morning or hearing someone use a word you don’t recognise.
Are imposter feelings something to be celebrated?
What I saw then, and continue to build upon now, is that those feelings were only present because of the challenge I was facing. I was doing something really quite difficult and it was therefore entirely appropriate to have some feelings of apprehension. Building a business, rapidly learning new skills, googling new words whilst in meetings…. Those things are genuinely scary and thus my imposter feelings were, and continue to be, a sign of personal growth.
So, what do we mean by imposter syndrome? It’s the discomforting feeling that we’re out of our depth, the feeling that we’re imminently about to be exposed as not good enough, the feeling that we will inevitably fail in a catastrophic manner. It is something that grabs us again and again throughout our lives. Research shows that over 70% of us suffer these feelings at times (and I suspect that is an underestimate).
Despite the despondent picture this description paints, I wouldn’t want to be without this form of anxiety. The idea of never having imposter feelings again fills me with more dread than the feelings themselves. It would be a dull life indeed to never feel the discomfort of the unknown, the apprehension of a new job, a different pastime, a transformation in a key relationship, the stretch out of our comfort zone.
Is imposter syndrome an illness we need to cure?
Perhaps the very concept of imposter syndrome and the hypotheses about its causes are distinctly unhelpful. The word ‘syndrome’ inherently connotes an illness, something bad that must be cured. It pathologises what could otherwise be regarded as a transient feeling like any other. When we have a headache, we don’t perceive it as a condition, but merely a symptom of something, be it tension, dehydration, physical trauma, eyesight problems, a hangover, or something more serious. Maybe imposter syndrome should be thought of in a similar way, as a symptom from a wide range of sources, some good, some bad.
Replacing the word ‘syndrome’ with ‘feelings’, feels like a first and powerful step in reframing how we interpret those times in which we feel like an imposter. Rather than a syndrome to overcome, feelings are something to notice. Recognising them as, most often, an entirely appropriate response to challenge, is really helpful.
Instead of trying to overcome, the conversation then becomes about how to embrace and accept but also manage those feelings. Things such as breathwork, yoga, coaching, and other tools to activate the parasympathetic nervous system can be enormously helpful here.
I feel it’s important to note that imposter feelings can, of course, also be negative. They can be intrusive and unhelpful. As part of a vicious cycle, imposters can feel more prone to failure, may become less productive, and can be characterized by insecurity and procrastination. In those times, the ability to notice the feelings, and spot the patterns that can trigger them, becomes all the more important as this awareness enables choice around how we can manage them.
Where do imposter feelings come from?
The root cause of imposter syndrome is complex and to a great extent, unclear. In my case, is it because my parents divorced at a young age and I therefore felt the pressure to make it better, by being “perfect”? Probably. Is it because I work with my Dad and will always feel little compared to him? Almost certainly. Are there innumerous other reasons, most of which I will never be consciously aware of? Definitely. I’d go as far as to say that knowing the root cause of our imposter feelings doesn’t actually matter. That curiosity and self-enquiry is enough, without ever reaching a definitive answer.
So what? What can we take from this? Well, for one, I would encourage you, the next time you’re experiencing imposter feelings, to notice what they might be a symptom of, and over time, whether any patterns emerge. That data can be enormously helpful in separating us from the spiral of emotion and helping us to see the wood from the trees so to speak, in realising that imposter feelings are a healthy and normal response to transformation and challenge. Will this awareness make imposter feelings go away for good? Almost certainly not, but I challenge you to stop seeking their removal, and instead recognise that they may well be a sign of something really positive.
I had imposter feelings at work today... Brilliant!