Is impostor syndrome holding you back?

Many of us have heard of impostor syndrome: that self-doubt followed by the inner critic that tells us we shouldn't be here. But all too often it is hard to notice in ourselves when impostor syndrome is the thing holding us back. Even if we know we have experienced impostor syndrome in the past, or are currently experiencing it in one aspect of our lives, it is often difficult to figure out where else it is holding us back. Loved ones, friends, colleagues and coaches can help us with this, but sometimes they don't know either. Read on to find out some top tips for recognising impostor syndrome in new areas of your life.

Impostor syndrome hits many (possibly all of us) at some point in our career. High achievers, well educated and women are all categories who are more likely to experience it.

And even if you’ve heard of impostor syndrome before, worked through it and come out the other side full of shining confidence, it doesn’t mean it isn’t going to come back. For many of us, recognising our impostor syndrome the first time came from hearing a story similar to ours and hearing that there is a label attached to it. This can be eye-opening. But all too often, I hear people stop there, thinking that now they know it is a thing, they’ve got it under control.

But impostor syndrome keeps coming up time and time again in many if not all of us.

Recognising where impostor is impacting your confidence is the first step in addressing and controlling that negative influence in our lives. Impostor syndrome never serves us, it only holds us back from thriving and doing more.

Dr. Valerie Young, an internationally-known expert on impostor syndrome, has categorized impostor syndrome into perfectionists, superwomen/men, natural geniuses, soloists and experts. This provides a great framework for understanding what to look out for to see if your impostor is causing problems, and holding you back.

What to look out for when checking to see if you have impostor syndrome:

  1. The Perfectionist.
    Things to look out for:
    • Do you feel like you must be 100% perfect all the time (in any or every aspect of your life)? If it is in just one part of your work/life responsibilities, this can mean you have impostor syndrome just that one area.
    • Does your inner critic start flaring up when you miss unrealistic goals for yourself? Do you find yourself going over and over it for days?
    • Being a micromanager. Have you noticed this tendency in yourself? Has anyone ever accused you of micromanaging?
    • Delegation skills. Do you struggle to delegate, trust others, or feel frustrated/disappointed in other people’s results? Being disappointed once or twice may just mean you need to spend more time working to help the person and their skills. Being disappointed all the time or by everyone suggests that there is perhaps some unrealistic perfectionism in you.
  2. The Superwoman (or Superman!)
    Things to look out for:
    • Pushing yourself harder than your colleagues to counteract the feeling of being a fraud.
    • Staying later/coming in earlier than the rest of your team.
    • Answering emails/handling queries out of hours even when it is not the norm. Do you feel like this is the only way to prove your worth to your colleagues/organization?
    • Do you aim to always do more in the day than everyone else, irrespective of the personal cost to you?
    • Do you find downtime wasted and stressful?
    • Have you given up on your hobbies or your pet project in order to make sure you contribute fully at work?
    • Do you feel like your job title/salary/perks are not really justified and that you need to work longer and harder than everyone else to justify yourself to your bosses and colleagues?
  3. The Natural Genius.
    Things to look out for:
    • Have you thrived for much of your life, found things naturally easy, completing things with ease, speed and confidence? Then one day come up against something hard and find yourself lacking the push to finish and confidence?
    • Did you find school relatively easy? Did getting a ‘B’ in school feel like a failure?
    • Are you proud of the track record of no failed tests?
    • Does your confidence falter or outright take a huge fall when you struggle with something?
    • Do you avoid challenges?
  4. The Soloist.
    Things to look out for
    • Do you believe that you need to work on your own to achieve true success in your work, even when teamwork would solve something faster?
    • Do you find yourself saying ‘I don’t need help’ a lot, even when you are struggling?
    • Do you find asking for help makes you feel like a failure?
  5. The Expert.
    Things to look out for
    • Feeling that you need to know all the detail to start a project or make a decision.Not being able to move forward because you don’t have every single bit of information can feel overwhelming and constantly challenge your confidence to move forward.
    • Do you immediately look for new qualifications and training to improve your skills and assume you can’t do something without a piece of paper that says you are suitably trained/qualified?
    • Do you fail to apply for jobs because you don’t tick every box in the skills list?
    • Are you afraid of asking questions in class or at work because you might look stupid, or assume that everyone else knows the answer?
    • Are you afraid of answering questions, in case you get it wrong?
    • Do you measure your abilities on how much you can do and what you are able to do rather than your achievements?
    • Do you feel like you never know enough?

The feelings and thoughts listed above will frequently indicate some (or a lot) underlying impostor syndrome. That isn’t to say that feeling this way one time is absolutely impostor syndrome, but when they come up frequently it is time to take note. One of the hardest to recognise is something where you perceive everyone around you holding themselves to a standard which isn’t actually valid. For example, if you feel that you must take a qualification because everyone else is taking it, when actually the qualification isn’t what is needed. So if in doubt, do your homework and speak to multiple people for their input to check the validity of your assumptions.

In next week’s blog we will learn a bit more about how to tackle impostor syndrome in case this is new to you. 

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