IMPOSTER Syndrome. Two words — five little syllables — we’ve been conditioned to fear, fight and do all in our power to obliterate. We blame this unseen force for so many of our perceived failings: lack of confidence, procrastination, poor cashflow, low self worth and esteem, even a dearth of clients.
There’s even a special day for it now — International Imposter Syndrome Awareness Day, held on April 13.
If you’re wondering what it is, Wikipedia gives this helpful explanation: “Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) 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’.”
In short, it’s a hairy, scary name applied to us doubting ourselves and our abilities — something pretty much all human beings experience, some more than others.
It becomes a problem when that little voice that whispers less-than-sweet-nothings starts to get its vice like grip into our unconscious and we start to blindly believe everything it says.
“You’re not good enough.”
“You’re not qualified or experienced enough for that job.”
“You’re too stupid/not worthy/insert your own demeaning statement here.”
“You cannot possibly live up to your own hype — they’re all going to see you’re nowhere near as capable as your LinkedIn bio claims.”
Etc, etc, etc.
Every time that internalised voice pops up to knock us down, we call it by the name psychologists, coaches, the media and countless books have been giving it for years: Imposter Syndrome.
Imposter Syndrome: The Origin
Before we get into why I have very real concerns about some of the throwaway, headline statements we’re applying to Imposter Syndrome today, we need to look into what it actually means and where it came from.
In the words of the TV advert: “Concentrate: here comes the science part.” 😉
The term was first coined in 1978. Well, sort of.
Technically, Drs Pauline R Clance and Suzanne A Imes referred to it as ‘Imposter Phenomenon’. Close enough… just a few too many syllables to roll off the tongue as easily.
Their article — The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention — was based on interviewing 150 high achieving women who, against all evidence, lacked the internal acknowledgement of their accomplishments.
Participants believed their success was a result of luck, and others simply overestimating their intelligence and abilities.
Clance and Imes believed that this mental framework for Impostor Phenomenon developed from factors such as: gender stereotypes, early family dynamics, culture, and attribution style, and determined that women who experienced impostor phenomenon showcased symptoms related to depression, generalised anxiety, and low self-confidence.
It didn’t stop there. In 1985, Clance designed a scale to measure Imposter Phenomenon.
The Clance Imposter Phenomenon scale (CIP) can be used to determine if characteristics of fear are present, and to what extent. The aspects of fear include: fear of evaluation, fear of not continuing success and fear of not being as capable as others.
In her paper, Clance claims Imposter Syndrome can be distinguished by the following six dimensions:
- The impostor cycle
- The need to be special or the best
- Characteristics of superman/superwoman
- Fear of failure
- Denial of ability and discounting praise
- Feeling fear and guilt about success
By this model, says Clance, at least two of these aspects have to be present for an individual to be considered to experience “impostorism”.
If you’d like to, you can read more about it here.
In 2011, Dr Valerie Young added to the information banks with her book — The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It.
Looking further into fraudulent feelings among high achievers, Young identified five subgroups:
- The perfectionist
- The superwoman/man
- The natural genius
- The soloist
- The expert
Of course, today, we know that anyone can experience Imposter Syndrome (or Imposter Phenomenon, or Imposterism), regardless of where they identify on the gender spectrum.
According to good old Wiki (again), studies suggest that more than 70% of people experience Impostor Syndrome at some point in their career (for the record, I’m convinced that figure is far higher — it’s not always connected to career!).
Of course, this is all well and good, and I don’t disagree with any of the wonderful research and information out there.
Where I take issue — and have very real concerns — is with how much ‘Imposter Syndrome’ is being commercialised and some of the clickbaity, headline statements being made which, for me, feel potentially damaging.
“We’ve started seeing ‘Imposter Syndrome’ as something separate — some kind of invading being that wants to throw us off our game and needs to be defeated.”
I worry about the kind of energy being directed at ‘Imposter Syndrome’ and how much decades of discussions and throwaway comments on social media have divorced this absolutely normal, internalised voice from ourselves.
We’ve started seeing ‘Imposter Syndrome’ as something separate — some kind of invading being that wants to throw us off our game and needs to be defeated.
This, perhaps, is why we’re seeing so many people saying they want to ‘get rid of’ , ‘kill’ or ‘obliterate’ their Imposter Syndrome.
Just as those who’ve properly researched and delved into the phenomenon have suggested, it’s not so much about trying to KILL our Imposter Syndrome as reframing it.
Change the conversation
We’ll come onto that a little later but, first, I want to touch on why I believe we need to change our entire conversation around this syndrome and, perhaps, start calling it something else entirely!
Originally, when this state of mind was first being talked about — when it was still all new, shiny and in the media spotlight — we would probably have been addressing it all in context.
Now, with so many grabbing at an opportunity to turn a very real — and über common — psychological condition into a fast bucks sales opportunity, we’re banding about Imposter and Syndrome in the same sentence without context.
We all know what happens with Chinese whispers, particularly in the fast moving social media age, and I blame this for so many not stopping to recognise that ‘Imposter’ actually refers to our own thoughts when walking into a situation and feeling out of our depth.
Instead, I’m seeing a deep level of misunderstanding in way too many people. We’re bombarded with information 24/7 and, perhaps because of this, we’ve stopped scratching the surface, often to our own detriment.
“Think about the word ‘imposter’. What does that conjure up for you?”
Case in point: think about the word ‘imposter’. What does that conjure up for you?
Chances are, we’re not going to go deep and angle our thought process towards our own lack of self belief leading to us feeling like an ‘imposter’ in a room full of people who are all (obviously) more intelligent than us, funnier than us, richer than us, better conversationists than us, fitter than us and, you can bet, having way better sex than us!
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers
Today, ‘Imposter’ takes us to a much darker place — all those scary movies about imposters trying to hurt us (sometimes even body imposters if you’re more into the sci-fi realm and changelings), horrifying, life-threatening ‘Imposters’ who need to be dealt with in the most extreme way. Nana and Pop Pop in The Visit, Ash in Alien, and let’s not even talk about classics such as The Thing or Invasion Of The Body Snatchers! Midwich Cuckoos, anyone?
“Imposter. The very word conjures up fear and a notion of kill or be killed.”
Imposter. The very word conjures up fear and a notion of kill or be killed. Merriam Webster defines it as “One that assumes false identity or title for the purpose of deception”.
Imposter Syndrome as an ally
It’s no wonder so many of us are living in fear of Imposter Syndrome, instead of recognising it as an element of our own mind/psyche/energy body that needs love, compassion, reassurance and/or some form of confidence-building to turn it into an ally.
When we ATTACK Imposter Syndrome, instead of working with it compassionately, using reframing and/or looking into why we’re reacting/being triggered and what’s needed to bring about balance, we’re actually ATTACKING ourselves.
This is why, if we can’t properly educate people and start talking about Imposter Syndrome in context, I believe we need to rename it to stop this kneejerk attack reaction.
When I’ve spoken about this before, some people have erroneously assumed that I want people to stop naming this ‘state’, full stop. That is NOT the case; naming something gives us back some of our power and at least gives us something to focus on and work with.
When I was learning about the medicine path and earth wisdom teachings, I listened intently as my teacher talked about the archetypes of the self.
Of course, archetypes are used in all kinds of teachings — they’re a beautiful way to develop self awareness and integration, instead of seeing those parts of ourselves we’re not too keen on as ‘separate’ or ‘other’.
“Working with archetypes allows us to approach situations of negative self-talk with more compassion and empathy, and to hone in on ‘training’ and supporting all those parts of the self to become allies.”
Working with archetypes allows us to approach situations of negative self-talk with more compassion and empathy, and to hone in on ‘training’ and supporting all those parts of the self to become allies, giving them each the tools they need to stay in balance.
For instance, in the teachings I carry, since learning and assisting Chris Lüttichau (a wonderful man I still count as one of my greatest teachers), I was taught about The Little Child (innocence), The Star Child (wonderment and magic), The Wounded Child (learning and growing from past hurts), The Maiden (confidence), The Mother (nurturer) and The Crone (wisdom). If we imagine all these archetypes plotted in a circle, at the centre we *should* have The Chief.
The Chief represents the self absolutely in balance and flow, never falling into negativity, always seeking the best way forward for the greater good.
As you might imagine, I’m greatly paraphrasing a deep and complex set of teachings here, though I’m sure you’ll get the gist in this context.
In essence, if one of those archetypes becomes too ‘triggered’, it can rear up, kick our Chief out of the centre and take control.
It’s our job to be self-aware enough to recognise when this has happened, find out why, work with the ‘upset’ element and get our Chief back to the centre.
In my nutshell explanation here, I’ve mentioned one of the allied forces of each archetype, though each has a shadow side as well — much like anything in life. The important part is maintaining balance.
Working in this way, it’s easy to see how any of those archetypes *could* display as Imposter Syndrome.
Our Little Child feeling out of depth, innocence distorting into negative feelings of ignorance — Imposter Syndrome.
Our Star Child getting distracted by shiny objects, not paying attention and then feeling stupid — Imposter Syndrome.
Our Wounded Child falling out of balance, going into a victim mindset or finding secondary gain from sitting in the pain, instead of learning from it and allowing those emotions to flow — Imposter Syndrome given the right circumstances, for sure.
Our Maiden feeling unheard, dismissed, or not being centre of attention — Imposter Syndrome.
Our Mother tipping into martyr syndrome, or depleting our energies by overly taking care of others to the detriment of our own wellbeing — Imposter Syndrome… it’s much easier to feel ‘less than’ and low on confidence when we’re tired and run down, right?
Our Crone feeling negated, questioning her own wisdom, rather than using the situation as an opportunity to learn — Imposter Syndrome.
Get the picture? Going back to these old teachings and using them as a basis to UNDERSTAND why the state we refer to as Imposter Syndrome is rearing up creates context.
Picture the scenario: we’re walking into a networking meeting and suddenly start to fear we’re ill-equipped, we don’t know enough and / or nobody in that room is going to like us, or take us seriously.
Maybe we know some of our perceived ‘competitors’ will be in that room, or somebody with far more qualifications and certificates than us.
The more we think about it, the more our anxiety rises up and the more we believe we’re just not good enough to be in that room.
What’s likely to create the most balanced, compassionate response? Recognising these fears are coming from our Little Child, who simply needs a quick bit of reassurance before we cross the threshold, or feeling we’re being swamped by Imposter Syndrome — that invisible force that attacks at will and is out to destroy us?
“Once we start working with these archetypes — all of which *could* be named as Imposter Syndrome at times — we can unlock all kinds of potential.”
Every time I work with someone who complains of Imposter Syndrome and we build in archetypal context, or look at where these feelings first appeared in our lives, how they served us and how we re-educate our adult selves to find a different way of working with our own unconscious mind/limiting beliefs, it creates a kinder and EASIER way to turn what we once saw as an opposing force into an ally that needs our support.
Once we start working with these archetypes — all of which *could* be named as Imposter Syndrome at times — we can unlock all kinds of potential. Sometimes we can even give them roles to fulfil, which can help us progress in all kinds of positive ways.
Watch your language
The language we use can be so, so important and, if something as simple as removing the Imposter ‘threat’ we perceive, and recognising that lack of confidence, for instance, as our own Little Child (or other archetype), I believe that is a priceless reframe.
Honestly, it doesn’t matter whether we call it Bob, Marigold, or Mini Me, so long as we’re not using words that — for you as an individual — trigger paranoia, fear or loathing.
You’re right. I agree.
So how can Imposter Syndrome actually be an ally?
Well, think of it this way… if Imposter Syndrome is usually telling us we’re not good enough, we’re ill-equipped or we’re going to fall flat on our face in front of our peers, we can work with it to build our knowledge banks.
See, another way we can deal with Imposter Syndrome is to agree with it!
What? Why would I ever do that?
Well, imagine that networking scenario again and, this time, the main belief being whispered inside our head is “They all know more than you!”
“We can argue, present all kinds of evidence and validation, for sure, OR we can shrug and ask ‘And?’”
We can argue, present all kinds of evidence and validation, for sure, OR we can shrug and ask “And?”
In that way, we might move ourselves out of that immensely pressurised state of believing we have to know EVERYTHING, and into a more balanced state of being, where we accept it’s not our job to be a walking encyclopaedia of knowledge and, instead, we can know some things, and be open to learning far more. That room becomes a potential scenario for learning, growth and sharing, instead of a threatening stage for us to fall down upon.
Once we accept that we do not know everything, we can turn up our Hungry Learner dial (that’s another set of medicine teachings for another day) and work with the allied forces of that Little Child archetype (for instance — could be any of them!) to learn more.
Maybe we could start reading up on new techniques we can use to further serve our clients, delve into some really great personal development or sign up for a training programme. We just need to make sure we keep that learning and development in balance, enjoyable and a productive and positive part of our progress.
‘Imposter Syndrome’ as an ally. See?
How else can it help us?
One of my favourite examples is ‘Imposter Syndrome’ helping us to stay humble, enabling us to hold that fine line between confidence and arrogance, and pride and ego.
That little voice that whispers about us not being good enough can actually be seen as that Jiminy Cricket character who sits on our shoulder and reminds us we still have plenty to learn and to keep our energy in check.
If one of your intentions is to grow your brand, build your following and, perhaps, to speak on bigger and bigger stages, the allied forces of what we call Imposter Syndrome can actually help us to keep our feet on the ground, keep learning and growing and never take our privileged position for granted.
“Imposter Syndrome, as an ally, can help us to continually strive to deliver our best for ourselves and our clients and prevent us from becoming an arrogant asshole!”
In short, Imposter Syndrome, as an ally, can help us to continually strive to deliver our best for ourselves and our clients and prevent us from becoming an arrogant asshole!
I think that’s probably a good place to sign off. I hope that’s helped. Right now, one of my archetypes is whispering that I might not have explained well enough, I might have rattled too many cages and be upsetting others in the coaching world I admire and respect, or that people with far more experience and qualifications than I might call me down and attempt to rubbish this article.
And you know what? That’s okay.
See? I can answer every one of those points.
I can reassure my Little Child that I can always edit the article for clarity if it comes up, and that we can be in gratitude for any questions because it gives us an opportunity to learn, grow and expand on our point if needbe.
I can reassure my Wounded Child, Maiden and Mother that it’s perfectly okay to have a difference of opinion with someone and still utterly love and respect them, that we can learn from — and celebrate — the differences and that not every discussion needs to be a debate, that varied views are all part of life’s rich tapestry.
And I can remind my Crone that if someone tries to kick dirt in my face unnecessarily, that says more about them than us, and dirt washes off with enough care and attention anyway.
We don’t all need to agree. We might assume blanket agreement would be Utopia for mankind, but what a boring, complacent world that might be.
As always, if you have any questions, comments or observations, feel free to drop me a line.
Until next time,
Taz Thornton is the author of Awesome Sauce — a free, weekly positive life and business round-up, with good news stories, positivity tips and visibility hacks for your brand. In a few minutes each week, you get a dose of optimism and some awesome advice to get seen and stay happy.
Taz is a best-selling author, inspirational business speaker and multiple TEDx speaker, consultant on confidence, personal brand and visibility, and an award-winning coach (UK’s Best Female Coach 2018 — Best Business Woman Awards, Female Professional Of The Year, Central England, 2020). She is also the creator of the #UnleashYourAwesome, #BrandMastery and #ProjectArtemis personal and business development programmes, as well as #UNLEASHED — an affordable confidence, content and cashflow building programme for coaches, healers and therapists, and #LIFEFORCE — an affordable online spiritual empowerment and coaching programme for people wanting to bring more optimism into their lives.
Taz has been featured on BBC, ITV, in HuffPost, Diva, Metro, The Daily Mail and countless other newspapers, magazines and podcasts. Taz is also a regular columnist for the America Out Loud talkshow network. In 2019, she was named as one of the most inspirational businesswomen in the UK and, in 2020, she was named as one of the world’s top 50 women in marketing to follow.