(Read time: 6 minutes)
What is imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome is when a qualified individual doubts their capabilities and accomplishments and has a constant fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. Sheryl Sandberg famously talks about it in her book, Lean In.
Why do overachievers experience imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome has been experienced by many people. Many qualified people. But the question is – Why?!
I believe the majority have had, what Carol Dweck refers to as a “fixed mindset”, when experiencing symptoms of imposter syndrome.
A fixed mindset is the belief that all of your abilities, like your intelligence or talent, are carved in stone. It’s the belief that the way you perform now will tell others everything they need to know about you and your future. It creates the need in people to want to seek validation over and over. Carol Dweck explains “If you only have a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality and a certain moral character well then you better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality or character. Every situation is evaluated.”
See, the fixed mindset is more about documenting your intelligence than developing it. It’s about looking smart and not dumb. It’s about how others perceive you and so people with the fixed mindset are very cognizant of the way they are being judged. This inhibits their ability to perform because they must protect their ego or they risk being “dethrowned”.
Similarly, people experiencing imposter syndrome are concerned with the perception of their performance.
Valerie Young, author of “The Secret Thoughts of a Successful Women” explained that the following thought patterns and behavior that are popular among people with the imposter syndrome:
- Perfectionists – condemn themselves if they make a mistake. Often times even when 99 percent of their goal is achieved, if they make a mistake they will feel like a failure.
- Experts – put high expectations on themselves in which they expect themselves to know everything about a topic or role. They worry about being exposed as someone who is inexperienced or unknowledgable.
- The Natural Genius – expects everything to come easily. If they have to struggle to learn something or apply too much effort, they are discouraged because they believe this means they aren’t good enough.
- Soloists – feel they must do and accomplish everything on their own. They fear asking for help which reveals weakness in their minds.
- Superwomen and Supermen – feel they must work harder and longer than everybody else in order to measure up. The reason for this is to cover up their insecurities.
Recognize this mindset?
- Perfectionists – feel this way because they feel their abilities are fixed. When they make a mistake this threatens their belief about their competence.
- Experts – don’t believe they can grow into the role or develop their already competent abilities because of their fixed mindset. This is why experts will often shy away from applying to job postings unless they have every single skill in the job description.
- Natural Genius – believe that success is tied to talent and not effort. This is a classic trait of the fixed mindset.
- Soloists – also reveal a form of the fixed mindset as they believe asking for help uncovers weaknesses since they must not be good enough to figure things out on their own. In other words, asking for help reveals that you need to put more effort into figuring things out and you are not talented enough to do things on your own.
- Superwomen or Supermen – are overachieving because they are addicted to receiving validation. Part of the fixed mindset is wanting to prove intelligence or ability over and over again through validation.
I have the imposter syndrome, what should I do about it?
As you can see, the imposter syndrome stems from the fixed mindset. The best way to combat this mindset is to adopt a growth mindset.
According to Carol Dweck, here are a few of the pillars of the growth mindset, that combat the mind frames above:
- If you are a perfectionist, try switching your mindset from being concerned about being judged for your performance to being concerned about improvement. This takes the pressure away from making mistakes, and puts the emphasis on learning. In some environments you may feel pressure to execute flawlessly, and while this is an amazing goal, it is not realistic 100% of the time. Instead, shift your focus to learning from your mistakes.
- If you are used to being an expert and you come across a situation where you are no longer the expert, tell yourself that you are capable of learning new skills and developing your ability. No one is an expert 100% of the time. In order to become an expert we all must learn new skills. No matter how foreign or how uncomfortable something feels, remind yourself that you can learn how to do anything.
- If you are used to being a natural genius, when you find yourself out of your element, remind yourself that effort, not just talent, contribute to success. We all start at different levels, but that shouldn’t dictate where we end up. Remember, it’s not always the people who start out the strongest that end up the strongest. Instead, it’s the people who work the hardest, that get the furthest.
- If you are the soloist, remember that no one succeeds on their own. All the Greats, have had a team of people to support them. Take Thomas Edison for example – when we think about him creating different versions of the light bulb we often think of him working alone. In truth, Edison had 30 assistants that helped him with the invention!
- If you are a superwoman or superman, instead of becoming obsessed with validation, become passionate about stretching yourself. “A person’s true potential is unknown and unknowable.” No one particular success or failure should define you. You should always be seeking to improve.
Hope this helps the shift! Please comment below and share your thoughts!