This question posed by Talking Heads in their huge hit single, ‘Once in a Lifetime’, is the same question many highly successful people ask themselves at various stages in their career, more frequently as they move towards or reach the top of their profession. For some the voice gets louder, with a heightened sense of judgement, possible disapproval, leading to feelings of self-doubt, anxiety and an overwhelming dread of ‘being found out’. This is termed ‘the Imposter Syndrome’. Far from being a realistic self-assessment, the syndrome stops people believing in themselves.
“I have written eleven books but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find me out now, I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out’” Maya Angelou
As an executive leadership coach, nearly all my clients have experienced this sense of fraud at some point in their lives. They exhibit an inability to move forward, feel blocked, stuck and, at its worst, become paralysed with fear. They may have sleepless nights, intensified stress, anxiety, depression. There is an immediate sense of relief when they learn that 70% of successful people feel this at some point in their career or at regular intervals throughout their lives. Some have this inner critic voice with them at all times and have learned how to engage with it and have found strategies that help them to function and continue to be successful. Through becoming familiar with the critical voice, they start to use this ‘checking’ system to their advantage. They recognise when the inner critic is there and have internal conversations to reflect on decisions and to develop a sense of security and assurance of their position in the world.
‘Self-doubt undermines the process of finding our gifts and sharing them with the world’ Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
For those who struggle to do this alone, the following are some of the strategies my clients and I have co-created to overcome these moments of self-doubt.
Start with acknowledging it. Recognise the disapproving voices and call them so. Consciously name or even write down the negative thoughts as they occur. “I can’t speak in public, others are far more articulate” or “I can’t work with this client, they are so much more successful than me”. Once you begin to identify the imposter, you will be ready to overcome it.
Practise positive affirmation. Here you develop mantras like “I am meant to be here”. Instead of “why me”, reframe your thinking to “why not me?”. Say these to yourself every time the negative voices crop up. Even though this may feel daunting at first, focused attention and deliberate practice can help rewire our neural pathways.
Focus on your successes and achievements. Remember, you have got to where you are because you have accomplished some amazing things in your career. You deserve to be there. Some of my clients find it easier to focus on the achievements of others in a similar role to them. This helps remind them of their own. Celebrate these as often as you can, spend 5 minutes at the end of every day focussing on the great things about your day. Who were you in those moments. In what way did you help make the moment great.
Acknowledge you are not perfect. Have the courage to lean into your imperfection and accept good enough can still be successful imperfection. Keep to your goal – make progress, not perfection.
Lastly, remember you are not alone. You are in good company. There is a large proportion of successful people out there harbouring the same feelings of ‘why me?’.
With determination and reprogramming, you can overcome your doubt and more easily celebrate your achievements. You will begin to feel liberated and an imposter no more. In the words of Talking Heads, “And you may ask yourself, Am I right? Am I wrong?” You will find the answer.