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3 Surprising Reasons Why Imposter Syndrome is NOT What You Think


It's the curse of even the most experienced (and seemingly) confident leaders!

Anyone who has ever suffered confidence crushing Imposter Syndrome knows that it’s not something you can ‘think your way out’ of.

No amount of telling yourself to 'Suck it up and get over it!”' and 'Fake it 'til you make it!" is ever going to work!

Believe me, as a long-time sufferer, I know. For more years than I care to remember, I tried this approach and it didn’t help one little bit.

The only consolation was knowing that I wasn’t alone. Over 15 years of professionally coaching some of the smartest, most accomplished and respected leaders across many different organisations and industries, overcoming Imposter Syndrome is THE #1 most common challenge leaders face.

While I have now figured out how to successfully manage and even overcome it, I was still curious to better understand this insidious condition that undermines the confidence and potential of otherwise amazing leaders.

Over the last 4 months I’ve buried myself in Imposter Syndrome Research – what it is; who suffers from it and why.  

And while I have loads of data (that I won’t bog you down with here), there are three findings that created surprising AHA light bulb insights for me and completely changed what I’d assumed. 

We've been looking at Imposter Syndrome All Wrong!

Many of our assumptions and beliefs are just that!  They aren’t necessarily true and it’s time to rethink Imposter Syndrome as a first step in overcoming it..

MYTH #1: Imposter Syndrome is an incurable illness

Common thinking is that Imposter Syndrome is a chronic (and at times acute), affliction for which there is no cure.  The best a sufferer can hope for and expect, is to manage and reduce the symptoms – self-doubt, anxiety, over-preparation, negating self-talk, self-sabotage etc. We resign ourselves to believing it's something we'll just have to live with forever.

RETHINK #1: Imposter Syndrome is not a ‘syndrome’ – it’s a normal pattern of healthy, high-functioning people.

We’ve inadvertently it given a clinical name that puts it in the same boat as a serious, incurable illness.

But how would it be if we removed the stigma and simply see it as a normal human condition  - an unwarranted sense of insecurity that creates self-doubt? 

Self-doubt serves to keep us safe and stops us from sticking our necks out when the stakes are high.  Unchecked, it signals and fuels the fear we need to flee certain death when our sub-conscious mind believes we’re being pursued by a saber-tooth tiger!

But for most of us, every day, our lives aren’t actually at risk. The flight/fight/flee/freeze response (courtesy of our primitive lizard brains), is completely out of proportion to the real situation or challenge you’re facing. 

Are you really going to die if you utter a few Umms... and Ahhs... as you start your next Executive or Board  presentation?

Kept in check whilst actively harnessing self-doubt's power for 'good', helps us remain curious and open to considering alternative truths and perspectives.

Top Tip: Remember... real catastrophic danger is rare and most Imposter Syndrome thoughts won’t result in death!

MYTH #2: Imposter Syndrome only attacks people who aren’t ‘good enough’

This belief also serves to keep us safe. It actively feeds the perfectionist drive of classic A-type over-achievers. 

Somehow, we fear that if we believe we are good enough, we’ll stop trying and become complacent. No perfectionist ever wants to settle  for 'good enough' and there's always more we can do to be better.  

Yet self-perpetuating Imposter Syndrome also stops us from stepping up and taking accountability for ourselves. If we'll never be 'good enough', what's the point in trying?

RETHINK #2: Imposter Syndrome only attacks those who THINK they aren’t good enough

Imposter Syndrome doesn’t build other’s confidence in you – it actually undermines it.  If you don’t believe in yourself first, no one will. 
Are you really ‘not good enough’ or is it something else…?  Besides, do you even know what 'good enough' looks and feels like?

In fact, self-doubt (dressed up as Imposter Syndrome) is experienced by many high profile, successful leaders and change makers who have proven that they are  more than good enough. If you think you’re the ‘only one’ who is experiencing it, rest assured, you are in good company.

Cue Neil Armstrong (Astronaut), Bill Gates (Microsoft), Michelle Obama (former First Lady), Richard Branson (Virgin), Brene Brown (Social Researcher) and Mike Canon-Brookes (Atlassian) – all accomplished leaders who have openly shared their guilty Imposter Syndrome Sufferer secrets!

Closer to home, if you privately asked the seemingly most self-assured and competent leaders around you if they ever experience self-doubt, those who are totally honest will say, “Heck YES!” In fact, my recent Imposter Syndrome Research showed that 35% of Advanced Leaders (those with >11 years experience) continue to suffer from it.

Rather than denying or repressing their self-doubt, successful leaders acknowledge and harness self-doubt, converting it into insatiable curiosity and a natural ability to challenge themselves and the status quo.

Top Tip: Strive for excellence rather than perfection and consciously decide what 'good enough' looks like

MYTH #3: Imposter Syndrome wards off arrogance and over-confidence

We see it as a way of protecting ourselves from the common, unlikable traits of those who appear to never doubt themselves.

“If I just keep doubting myself, I’ll always be humble and more likeable”

Arrogance is repelling and as long as we experience Imposter Syndrome, we'll never become one of 'those' people!

RETHINK #3: Those who appear arrogant often suffer far greater self-doubt and lack confidence - at a much deeper level

You know who I'm talking about - those people who stubbornly need to prove they are always right and don't hold back with promoting themselves!

As infuriating as they are, they are actually suffering way more than you realise.

They simply don’t have conscious awareness of how they are coming across and their arrogance usually masks deep-seated, ingrained insecurity. This lack of awareness often shows up as a ‘blind spot’ which has the potential to be way more damaging than healthy self-doubt.

In fact, at the extreme end, research shows that the only people who don’t suffer from Imposter Syndrome are Psychopaths, Sociopaths and Narcissists! Suffering clinically diagnose-able and serious mental illness, these people are battling much bigger demons.

Left unchecked, Imposter Syndrome puts you at risk of adopting the very behaviours you dislike as a protective defense mechanism.  Feeling like a fraud, fearing you'll one day be found out and exposed, is like pouring kerosene on your Imposter Syndrome Symptoms bonfire and it can easily become all-consuming.

Top Tip: Actively swap insecurity for authentic, confident humility

Regardless of what you believe and what you’ve been telling yourself, if you’re experiencing the symptoms of Imposter Syndrome, I challenge you to rethink the way you’re looking at it.

What if what you’ve been telling yourself all along, isn’t actually TRUE…? Imagine the relief of being free of that sleep-depriving, gut-gnawing worry.

If what you're experiencing is healthy self-doubt, what would be possible...?

Carpe diem
Caroline Cameron

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About Caroline

Caroline Cameron is an award winning, master certified executive, career and business coach, speaker and author. Caroline is on a mission to help mid-career professionals and evolving organisations harness the power of change to achieve success in business, work and life. Read More About Caroline

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