According to the American Psychological Association, Imposter Syndrome occurs among high achievers who struggle to accept their success, often attributing it to luck. We chat to TSBU clinical psychologist Linda Mthenjane about imposter syndrome, what it is, what triggers it, and how we can break through these shackles that so often bind us: and ultimately open ourselves to growth.
“If you’re breathing, if you’re human, you’ve probably experienced imposter syndrome at least once in your life,” says TSBU clinical psychologist Linda Mthenjane. ‘It is a lot more common than you think. Whenever we open the discussion around this topic in our TSBU workshops, all hands shoot up in affirmation. So it is definitely something we need to address; particularly for young professionals facing the unrelenting demands of the 21st century workplace.”
So what is imposter syndrome exactly?
We call it syndrome, but it isn't an official diagnosis, so it’s more accurate to call it a phenomenon. And it’s really this feeling that ‘someone is going to know you’re not good enough’. That you’re going to be found out as a fraud somehow, despite your job title, your past successes, your degrees and education, your skills and abilities.
Some people describe it as a disconnect between what they see in the people around them and what they feel inside; when it seems like everyone else is in control and together while they’re feeling messy and anxious.
But the truth is that imposter syndrome mostly affects the high achievers among us. So instead of believing that you are mediocre, insufficient, or unremarkable, I’m telling you right now that you are, in fact, remarkable.
What triggers imposter syndrome?
Any transitional period in life, particularly a career-oriented transition is a hotspot for imposter syndrome. You could be a young professional transitioning from university to your first job and establishing your place in the world, or you could be a successful 40-something actuary moving to a new company. Imposter syndrome is a recurring theme throughout our lives and the new experiences that we move through.
Another important trigger to be aware of is the workplace culture. When we applaud overwork, we’re feeding imposter syndrome. Work cultures that withhold praise compel people to chase even the smallest acknowledgement. Organisations that demand absolute perfection breed the mindset of never being good enough. Managers who constantly shift the goal posts can push you into an endless cycle of continuously trying to prove yourself.
Is imposter syndrome connected to self-esteem?
Very much so. Self-esteem is the ability to hold yourself in positive regard. So despite your complexity and fallibility, no matter where you are in your life journey, no matter what others are doing around you, you are still grounded in the inner belief that I am enough.
When we experience imposter syndrome however, our inner beliefs are devaluing who we truly are. No matter what the external evidence is, our inner dialogue becomes a stream of judgemental, diminishing, and often shaming interference in our heads. And because our inner beliefs and thoughts shape our reality, we might find ourselves holding back and playing small rather than risk the chance of being exposed as an imposter.
The good news is that our beliefs, while they may be deeply embedded, are not cast in stone. We can change them. And we do that by challenging them and harnessing positive self-talk as a daily tool.
How can we change self-talk from negative to positive?
A very powerful form of self-talk is I can do this. It’s a wonderful way to walk through life. But because so many of our core self-beliefs are formed in early childhood, some of us have to work a little harder to create the inner beliefs and positive self-talk that propel us forward.
Simply recognising our negative inner dialogue is an important first step. And when it comes to actually changing the voice in our heads, I find that reframing the idea of positive self-talk as self-compassion is particularly helpful.
Learn to take a pause and rather speak to yourself with compassion and kindness, and start adjusting your actions, even small ones, to match this new, more positive and empowering internal dialogue that you’re developing.
The energy you might spend seeking external validation is far more valuable when you place it on developing your self-esteem; moment by moment, hour by hour. The dedication it takes to wire our brains differently is worth it.
Do you think that imposter syndrome can lead to growth?
I like to think that every challenge is a possibility, and imposter syndrome opens the doors to many opportunities. The opportunity to lean into your strengths, the opportunity to become vulnerable, and the opportunity for growth.
Leaning into your strengths is a key choice that you can make when you’re challenged by imposter syndrome. Nobody knows everything. No one person is good at everything. I find that people who really overcome imposter syndrome are those who accept that they don’t have to excel at absolutely everything. They lean into their particular set of strengths while leaning into others for their strengths. And that really leads into the power of vulnerability.
To be vulnerable is to push open doors you never knew existed. In my conversation with our TSBU co-founder Andrew Le Roux about imposter syndrome, Andrew shares how being willing to have the conversation, being willing to ask the ‘stupid’ question, opened a space of authenticity between him and his colleagues. It strengthened relationships, brought him new knowledge, actually added value to the discussion, and turned out not to be such a stupid question after all! There are such riches that can come from vulnerability.
The growth comes when we turn our questions inward. It’s always a good exercise to unpack why we might be feeling like an imposter. In that ‘imposter moment’, we can choose to stay there, or we can choose to reframe what’s happening. Is there any validity to this feeling? Is there a new skill we could be learning? A new mentor we could approach? Can we open ourselves up to different ideas, different ways of doing things? What can we learn from others?
Or do we simply need to embrace that we are all a work in progress? It’s an empowering thought, because every day we have the chance to actively shape who we are.