What lies behind impostor syndrome and how to overcome it
Have you ever had the feeling that everyone seems to be getting promoted and hopping up the corporate ladder but you?
Or, do you have an uneasy feeling that you’re not supposed to be here; that everyone else seems much more qualified than you are?
Both feelings stem from the same seed. The seed we call “impostor syndrome”. We all have it. Whether or not it will grow and manifest itself into self-doubt, self-blame, or self-sabotage, depends on how much we nurture it. The early development of our motivational strategies is the water and sun of our impostor syndrome. This is called the “self-determination theory”.
The self-determination theory
This theory of human motivation concerns our innate growth tendencies. It relates to the motivation behind people’s choices (made without external influences or distractions). The theory focuses on the degree to which human behaviour is self-motivated and self-determined.
There are 2 kinds of motivational strategies :
- extrinsic (external): when the behaviour is motivated by an external factor pushing you to do something in hopes of earning a reward or avoiding punishment (the carrot or the stick). Ie: take on a training to get promoted, or meet a tight deadline to avoid losing your job.
- intrinsic (internal): when the behaviour is motivated by internal desire to grow and develop ourselves. The elements of intrinsic motivation include novelty, challenges, extending and increasing capacities, exploring, learning, autonomy, and purpose. Ie: take on a training to learn new skills, meet a tight deadline to challenge yourself.
We tend to use a blend of the 2. Issues arise when our extrinsic strategies outweigh our intrinsic strategies.
Where did you learn to seek validation?
According to self-determination theory, the motivational patterns acquired from a young age are linked to the impostor syndrome developed later in life. In other words, if you learn to seek rewards from accolades, grades, titles, other people’s opinion, you are more likely to develop impostor syndrome.
There are 2 main impostor syndrome behaviours:
- The adult who will continue to seek self-worth in external factors ( work, praises, promotions etc..) : The high performer or high achiever. Hypersensitive to judgment, they will rarely step outside of their comfort zone to sidestep failure. The overachiever mantra is “stick to what you’re good at”.
- The adult who will avoid external rejection altogether: The underachiever who repeats the same patterns of self-sabotage. The underachiever mantra is “don’t try, don’t fail”.
Although the behaviours are different, the driver (fear of failure) and the feelings associated to these behaviours (self-blame, guilt, shame) are identical.
How to interrupt the pattern:
So what can you do about this? How to unblock yourself?
1/ Self Awareness: Acknowledge this part of yourself
A major part of turning your life around when stuck in this pattern is first to recognise that there is one. Awareness is key when it comes to letting go of old habits because you cannot leave a place that you haven’t visited.
Imagine that you are doing your shopping, and you have that nagging feeling that you have forgotten something. It’s only when you get home that you remember that you forgot the olives. You should be annoyed, right? (what are you going to put in your martini?) but the overwhelming feeling in that moment is: Relief. Why is that? Because not knowing whether or not you forgot something is more troublesome than knowing that you did. Because our mind doesn’t like not knowing what the problem is. Because if it knows where the problem comes from, there is hope for a resolution.
Being able to put a name on what’s been holding you back can be freeing. Not only does the “ah-ha” moment bring some relief, but the awareness also allows you to keep your impostor syndrome in check.
You are likely to have impostor syndrome if :
- You are unable to assess your competence and skills realistically.
- You are an overachiever.
- You have a tendency to self-sabotage your own successes.
- You don’t tend to try new things (new jobs, new careers).
- You’re prone to self-doubt.
- You have incredibly high standards for yourself.
- You struggle with feedback and criticisms.
- You tend to berate your performances or attribute your successes to external factors.
- You have been stuck in the same role for years and struggle to get promoted.
2/ External Awareness: Realise that we are all in this together.
Studies have shown that when given the opportunity to estimate the value of their work, women would pay themselves less than men for comparable work. Not only that, but they also believe the allocation is fair. This is called depressed entitlement and, on its own, is one explanation for the gender gap in the workplace. However, although it tends to index higher in women than men, studies have shown that the roots of the impostor syndrome go far beyond gender. One of the constants, it seems, lies in feeling a minority in the workplace. If you consider our differences; gender, race, nationality, culture, education, and background; the chance of feeling like an outsider in any organisation is high. So, as surprising as it may be, even the middle-class white male broker may feel like an outsider if he is much younger than his peers, or comes from different circumstances.
Of course the baggage that comes with each feeling of minority varies immensely from one to another, but there is some comfort in realising that we are all in this together.
3/ Shift your motivational pattern
Shifting from an extrinsic to an intrinsic motivational pattern means being motivated by curiosity, passion, and your own values. It means being willing to try, fail and try again. When in this mindset, failure is not possible, there is only feedback. There is no self-doubt, shame or guilt since every experience is an opportunity to learn and develop. When the motivation moves from external societal pressure to internal growth and development, money, prestige, and accolades become a nice added bonus. Interestingly, they usually follow quite naturally.
J was a client that came to see me because she had never had a promotion in her life. She managed to climb the corporate ladder by moving from company to company, but the progression was slow and didn’t feel right to her. She resented the companies who hired her and never promoted her, yet she constantly felt like a fraud. About 30 min into the session, J had an insight: she was in a negative feedback loop. Every time she would move to a different company, she would feel like she wasn’t worthy of the role she landed because she didn’t get it through internal promotion. She would, then, unconsciously sabotage any chance she could have to get promoted in this new company. Then she would start to resent her employers for not promoting her and would move to another job, and so on.
I asked J : “Forget about promotions, feedback, and pay rises. If you could turn your motivation from extrinsic to intrinsic, what would it look like? What do you really want for yourself?”
“ I want to feel like I am getting better, gain more skills. I feel like I currently spend a lot of my time pretending to know everything. I love to learn I am just too focused on getting things done” she said. Later she also noted that her ability to get things done was always what allowed her to get the job. But in order to get recognition from the companies she worked for, she needed to take some risks and step out of her comfort zone. Once she realised this, she started developing and challenging herself, she signed up for courses even if that meant dropping a few minor balls in her day-to-day job, she prioritised growth and learned what it was to make mistakes. Within 6 months, J got promoted to Senior account director for the advertising agency that employed her.
By internalising her focus, J chose growth over protection. This meant being open to feedback and learning, which was instantly noticed by the company that hired her.
Answer the following questions:
1/ With your career in mind, where would you like to be in 1 year from now?
2/ with this goal in mind, have a stab at answering each of the questions below : (the objective here is to highlight the intrinsic motivations of this goal)
- novelty : what is new about this goal?
- Challenges: How is this going to challenge you? How can you make it more challenging?
- Learning : If there was something you could learn or a training you could do to help you achieve this goal, what would it be?
- Extending & increasing capabilities : what capabilities and strengths do you already have and can build upon in order to achieve this goal?
- Purpose : what is the purpose of this goal (think big when answering this question)
3/ What do you need to happen in the next steps for you to take in the next 6 months to achieve this goal? (make sure the list includes only things that are within your control)
Not every company will recognise your potential, not every boss will invest in you. You cannot control these aspects of your career.
But you can shift your focus and start paying attention to what really matters to your growth and development. Because it’s when you start paying attention and nurture your own skills and abilities that they become more apparent to others.