CASE STUDY > Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents, or accomplishments and has a persistent internalised fear of being exposed as a "fraud". 

(source: Wikipedia)

Luke's story:

 

Luke had worked at his company for over 10 years, and on the surface, was flying high. But he'd wake up every Monday and feel that familiar dread of "I just need to get through the day". He was a top performer, but felt compelled to constantly prove just how good he was.  He was hypervigilent and had become obsessive about constructing perfect emails,  beginning to miss deadlines and rush from meeting to meeting as he over-prepared and double-checked everything.

Insecurity and self-doubt - being showing up as 'a fraud'

Luke regularly woke up at night replaying scenes in his mind from recent meetings or conversations, fixating on letting himself down, and showing himself up. 


He knew something had to change and had made valiant efforts to improve his confidence and "live up to their expectations" by psyching himself up beforehand.  He gave himself "a stiff talking-to about being a loser".  HR had set up a meeting with him, and he was consumed with anxiety. He remembered the last meeting when he'd not heard a question as he was re-reading his notes, and his boss had to respond. Maybe that was it and they were going to fire or demote him?

Luke was exhausted managing his external performance at work which he felt was always under scrutiny. The HR meeting was the crunch point when he knew he had to seek outside help. 

The fear of failure

Luke was effectively being his own worse boss and task master. He was fair and understanding to his team, and was regularly sought out to run workshops on team management, becoming known for his relationship skills and putting employees first. 

 

And yet he didn't apply this same psychological safety to himself. When asked why he didn't allow himself to make mistakes, he was unable to vocalise his thoughts.  He was caught up completely in his internalised, false belief that  anything less than perfect revealed him as not up to the job.  He knew he couldn't accept critiscism, but wasn't aware that he couldn't accept praise either. 

 

Challenging his imposter & self-beliefs

He began a programme to treat himself in a more balanced way, with the same degree of fairness or suport of someone he line-managed. To encourage rather than constantly push himself harder and harder. He slowly began to understand how his false beliefs that had built up over the years worked to sabotage his success.   In his case it was a sense of pride at working to provide for his family "whatever the sacrifice".  Whilst he knew the cost was his own sanity, he couldn't shift into different patterns of behaviour.  It was ingrained to say yes to more projects, to constantly prove himself, to be the 'last survivor' to show his worth. 

Luke worked through recognising and challenging his imposter syndrome step by step.  As he looked at his efforts with a fresh perspective he saw how he was responsible for his acheivements as well as some failures along the way.  He built up a profile of his strengths, his skills and looked at his success objectively.  He also learnt how he could distribute his energy better towards other areas of his life.  To feel valued for he was. His real identity and character, flaws and imperfections too. This was a huge moment for Luke, when he relaxed into being who he was, rather than acting an expert and perfectionist role he unconsciously thought he was expected to fulfil. 

Finding work enjoyable again

Luke started to enjoy work more, and to enjoy playing to his strengths again. His imposter would still try to take over, but he could now see the signs and put some strategies in place to reduce any imposter performance.  Identifying his imposter syndrome as perfectionsim in the first place had been his first step to challenging it. Being honest with himself and seeing himself as a fallable human being, rather than superhuman, was the next.    

Am I suffering from imposter syndrome?

You, or someone you care about could be experiencing:

  • Self-doubt or or anxiety

  • An inability to realistically assess your competence and skills

  • Setting very challenging goals and feeling disappointed when you fall short

  • Attributing your success to external factors or luck

  • Believing that "I can't afford to make any mistake in my job" but others can

  • Focusing only the negative parts of your performance

  • Fear that you won't live up to expectations 

  • Ashamed when people point out a mistake

  • Overachieving but feeling underfulfilled 

  • Sabotaging your own success

  • Belief that you will get 'found out'

  • Irritability with people who manage work effortlessly

Luke's Testimonial:

Something you said that really hit home actually, about that feeling of utter dread and constant fear I'm going to get exposed or fired.  

Irrespective of whether it's my perception, or work itself,

I still need to address it" 

Try this at home:

  1.  Do you dismiss the 99% great job you did and obsess on the thing you could have done better?

  2. Are you constantly training and getting certificates as you feel you're "not quite there yet"?

  3. Do you talk about how "the project" needs support rather than you?

  4. Do you avoid new challenges because you hate being "rubbish at something " at the start?

  5. Get stressed when you're not working and see spare time as wasting time?

Answers!

Perfectionist: Learn to appreciate your successes, and accept that you've done your best to avoid burnout.

Expert: Know when enough is ok, to feel secure in your identity at work.   Mentoring others can really boost your self-esteem.

Soloist: There is no shame in asking for help. Admitting you don't know something is a great way to collaborate at work.

Natural Genius: Accept that you can learn how to get better at something rather than avoid it totally, and see yourself as a work-in-progress rather than fixed as 'not good at xyz'.

 

Superhero: Learn to feel good about yourself intrinsically, for yourself, rather than proving your worth to others by superhuman efforts at work.

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