Many high performing, very successful and hugely competent, talented people feel like frauds. They feel unworthy of being in the roles they are in.
They’re imposters, they know it, and they fear others will discover it too.
This feeling is certainly not unique to the workplace. It affects mums and dads too.
What are the common characteristics?
Imposters push to one side all the evidence of their capabilities and achievements. Denial of their talents is their most powerful defence.
When praise comes their way they feel (but don’t reveal) a momentary sense of deep pride and validation, but rapidly they divert attention elsewhere.
They’re great at acknowledging and promoting the talents and inputs of team members and others who’ve supported them. “It’s not me, it’s someone or something else”
They will often be very self critical, and inevitably critical of others too. Nothing is quite good enough, and that’s the telling phrase.
One thing most common amongst imposters is raw talent. They usually have an undeniable and widely acknowledged talent, or may have many.
One of the greatest fears of imposters is being found out, being unmasked.
Lastly, they share their syndrome with a guy called Albert Einstein. He was very much an imposter with his radical ideas.
What’s behind it?
Believing they are not food enough is likely to be at the root of their identity. It’s an icky feeling which has been around so long in them they’ve adapted it as a natural behaviour.
It’s like an ill fitting suit. But it’s the only one they have and it’s uncomfortably familiar. John Bradshaw (2006) calls it Toxic Shame.
Feeling like an imposter often takes its toll in other aspects of life They may have a propensity to over do other things, such as health and fitness. Be obsessive about cleanliness or appearance. Never stop, never sit down. Never being (feeling) good enough.
The imposters greatest fear is being found out or unmasked, someone noticing the suit does fit, it’s their unnameable dread and goes right to their core.
So, there are several repeating patterns for the imposter to adopt, including
A natural raw talent which is amplified, and often becomes an excellence. They may have specific weaknesses and vulnerabilities. So, they amplify their strengths several fold, and it hides the vulnerability.
The necessity to avoid “being noticed” whilst at the same time craving acceptance. They can adopt social anxiety or be introverted.
A deeply held belief that they are not good enough so they adopt a behaviour of perpetual improvement.
A fear of unmasking and the whole house of cards folding in on them. They adopt a behaviour of momentum, to keep on moving on.
They can be very critical of self and others. They may also strive for perfection, and to be the very best.
Imposter syndrome is a made up psychological condition. It’s another label which incorporates a number of repeating pattern of behaviour.
Do they need more praise and acknowledgement? Yes, but in many cases this also raises the stakes for failure. It means they’ve to do even better next time. And they’ll reject the praise anyhow.
What imposters really need is emotional validation, or re-validation. They may well have been brought up to believe high levels of performance is paramount, and may be better served by adapting their beliefs so as to see themselves as worthy and good enough, irrespective of any external measures they conjure up.
Most of all they need acceptance. Self acceptance. Needless to say a professional therapist will quickly and effectively help with this.