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Blog – Success: what lies behind the mask? An exploration of the ‘Imposter Syndrome’

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 By Dr Michèle Routley

Even the title was a fraud. Not a real imposter and not a syndrome – it turns out.

As the kick-off to the Navigating Workplace Dynamics CamAWiSE series, Kate Atkin, inspirational speaker, facilitator, and consultant advised us to jot down ideas in quadrants labelled ‘stop’, ‘start’, ‘think about’, and ‘carry on’. We started with Kate’s personal journey – from childhood labels to the fourth year of her PhD research investigating imposter phenomenon feelings in the workplace. In an open and engaging session Kate explained what imposter phenomenon is, where it may originate, and what we might do about it.

Kate Atkin - Imposter Syndrome - zoom imageKate made it quite clear from the start that imposter syndrome might be easier to say, but to be correct, we should be referring to imposter ‘phenomenon’. A syndrome would imply a mental health condition or diagnosable illness which people suffer from. Whereas it relates to feelings experienced at certain points in time. And while an imposter sets out to defraud, imposter phenomenon is “an internal feeling of intellectual phoniness *despite successes*”. Therefore, you think you are an imposter – but you are not. ‘Imposter chatter’ is when you think you can’t, but you can.

While self-doubt is normal, and even appropriate when starting in a new area or doing something for the first time, to avoid overconfidence, imposter phenomenon is an ability to shift the evidence that we are successful. This can result in people not putting themselves forward for promotion or even contributing to a meeting, something potentially exacerbated by online meetings. It can create high levels of stress, anxiety, and even depression.

From a short poll of the group present, 100% attested to having experienced imposter phenomenon, with 19% saying it hadn’t held them back and 81% saying that it had. In smaller breakout groups we were able to share our own experiences and learned that there was a lot of commonality to the underlying experiences, even with significant difference in the detail of the stories.

While it is often, it is thought imposter phenomenon is more prevalent in women, research has shown that men also experience imposter phenomenon. Men tend to deal with it slightly differently – they assume that everyone has it. Women tend to think they are the only one. Men typically push through – until breaking point, whereas women tend to talk about it more, and recent research has shown that talking about it can help. Kate Atkin - Imposter Syndrome - slide

Imposter phenomenon can come from a range of sources. Childhood messages, or particular parenting styles – hypercritical or hyper-supportive, can wittingly or unwittingly contribute. Messages from society, or cultural messages can trigger feelings of ‘otherness’. It can also be difficult to have identifiable role models, as when we do not know people’s back stories, we may have a false impression of the success shared on the outside.

Indeed, comparing ourselves to others is not necessarily a useful comparison, as we are comparing our insides to their outsides. Kate advised “comparing yourself to yourself” – looking back to who you were 18 months ago, where you were and what you have learned. Even considering what you have learned in the past week. Kate encouraged those present to challenge internal mindsets and grow into who you are now. To support others there is a need to listen and not judge.

Stop telling people how amazing they are!

Kate-Atkin-Logo_fullcolour-croppedKate also advised that if someone has feelings of imposter phenomenon, it is unhelpful to tell them that they are amazing. Instead, she recommended that we provide specific feedback, perhaps highlighting particular strengths that a person has. Successes are not down to luck and hard work; knowledge, skills, and abilities are also required. Keeping a copy of positive feedback and reviewing it regularly to use external evidence to challenge our internal perceptions. This can help us to identify our strengths and then we can make use of them.

Research has shown that finding an external mentor – someone you view as unbiased – is helpful. There’s also a need to look at optimal functioning and let go of perfection. Kate has researched entrepreneurs and found that when things did not go as planned, while many of us interpret this as ‘we are a failure’, entrepreneurs understand that there were things that didn’t work – and they move on. We tend to internalise the failures and externalise the successes. Kate encouraged us to switch that around.

Luck and hard work are the seasoning, rather than the ingredients.”

While Kate read Virginia Satir’s poem ‘I am me’, the group individually reflected on the ideas jotted down in their quadrants for key takeaways.

CamAWiSE would like to thank Kate for an enlightening and inspiring workshop.

For more details on Kate, her work and research, visit https://www.kateatkin.com/

Recommended reading:

Mindset: changing the way you think to fulfil your potential – Carol Dweck

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse – Charlie Mackesy

The Pursuit of Perfect – Tal Ben-Shahar

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