Self-doubt is an emotion all too familiar with female entrepreneurs. Known as imposter syndrome, the notion of feeling like a fraud could be having a detrimental effect on your career and home life
The franchising industry is one that is filled with entrepreneurs and self-made successes – those women who aren’t afraid to take the leap of faith to achieve their dreams. But sometimes, no matter how successful you are, you can still find yourself feeling like a fraud. The belief that you don’t deserve your success and the feeling of self-doubt that accompany it is called imposter syndrome.
Here, we delve into what causes imposter syndrome and what you can do to overcome the feeling of being a phoney.
What is imposter syndrome?
Imposter Syndrome is a classic manifestation of one of our most common belief systems: ‘I’m not good enough’. It’s a belief that, in one way or another, we’re constantly falling short, despite sometimes overwhelming evidence to the contrary. We can have a hugely successful career; be headhunted for amazing opportunities; have a family, social and career life that everyone envies, and still, despite the evidence, have the impression that somehow we’re a fraud and we’re going to get caught out.
First identified by clinical psychologist Pauline Clance in the 1970s, she referred to imposter syndrome as the internal belief that we’re ‘phonies’ – an experience that occurs as a result of us failing to ‘internalise’ or accept our successes.
While not a recognised disorder, it can have a big impact on an individual’s life, causing distress due to self-doubt and constant worry about being ‘found out’. As a result, it can take a significant emotional toll on sufferers, preventing them from enjoying their achievements and placing them at higher risk of anxiety and depression. It can even affect an individual’s behaviour, with sufferers potentially trying to compensate in unhelpful ways.
What causes it?
Like the majority of psychological phenomena, imposter syndrome can be linked to individual factors (such as personality), but also the situations we find ourselves in (ironically, events such as a promotion, new job, or acceptance to university can spark feelings of imposterism!). Being in a competitive environment where there is a lot of emphasis on credentials can also trigger imposter syndrome.
The origins of this are most often laid down very early on. It’s rare, although not impossible, for someone to develop imposter syndrome in adulthood simply because our adult mind’s ability to rationalise evidence would dismiss our fears pretty quickly. A child’s mind, on the other hand, doesn’t have this ability, and therefore most people with imposter syndrome will be able to track back the origins of their self-doubt to incidents in their childhood.
Will it have an impact upon my work?
Those who suffer from imposter phenomenon can experience a negative impact on the way they feel about their work, with a known association between imposterism and job performance, job satisfaction and burnout.
It can also lead to overwork, or procrastination, either of which can reinforce the imposter syndrome, leading to a vicious cycle. Similarly, the negative emotional impact can also cause problems in all aspects of an individual’s life, including their work.
What can I do about IP?
• Be aware of it – If you realise that it’s your brain playing tricks on you rather than an accurate reflection of reality, that can help you start to view the situation more accurately. Work on trying to view your own successes objectively.
• View failure as an opportunity, not as something negative – One of the key researchers in the field has a ‘Wall of Failure’ in order to highlight that failure is not something to be ashamed of. Here colleagues post rejection letters, failed ideas and unsuccessful experiments. Not only does this normalise things going wrong, but it’s also an excellent learning tool – allowing workers to learn from their own and others’ mistakes.
• Play it at its own game – Even if you feel that you’re not qualified to be where you are, view it as a challenge and ‘fake it ‘til you make it’. If you act as if you can cope with something, even if you’re not initially sure you can, you will come to realise that you are able to master challenges.
• Draw upon social support at work – Speak about your feelings to a trusted colleague or mentor. You’ll probably learn that they have experienced the same, and opening up about your concerns can make them less overwhelming.
• Ensure you have balance – Try to focus on non-work aspects of yourself in particular. This will help you to see yourself in other terms instead of just your work identity – drawing more from other non-work aspects of your life. This can help reduce some of the pressure on work and in turn, reduce the IP.
• Avoid passing it on to your children! – Don’t criticise them too much, but be very careful not to go too far the other way either! Too much praise – especially non-specific praise, or unrealistic messages (you’re the best at this, you are the most talented, you can do anything…) can actually backfire. A more realistic and honest discussion with your child will help to avoid IP – talk to them about what they did well, but also what they had trouble with. Show them that mistakes are ‘works in progress’, and praise effort rather than the outcome.
• Remember that a little bit of self-doubt and self-awareness is actually a good thing! - Socrates believed that true wisdom was knowing how little we truly know (also known as the Dunning-Kruger effect): where people with little knowledge or expertise tend to overestimate their knowledge and expertise whereas those with knowledge and ability tend to doubt themselves! The ability to question ourselves is a very good quality – especially in a work situation; allowing us to show that we are willing to grow, learn and improve.
• Trust that those you respect, love and/or care about are not lying to you when they tell you how good you are and that they respect, love and/or care about you. Their opinions matter and should count.
• Build your self-esteem by noticing and accepting small things you have done well or are proud of – You can build self-esteem, and therefore counteract your imposter syndrome, by paying attention and fully accepting small successes every day — a good email, a good pitch, a good contribution to a project all count — and then, as you get better at doing this, you’ll start being able to accept the bigger achievements as valid.
• Make good decisions – Don’t go too big, too hard, too soon. You’re brilliant even though you don’t accept it, but that doesn’t mean that every goal you set has to be a world beater. It’s easy to make imposter syndrome a self-fulfilling prophecy by setting goals that are way too big and then, when you fall just a little bit short, using that to beat yourself up.
• Your worth is not measured by the amount of work you do – Imposters often overcompensate and therefore become workaholics — ‘Look at me, look how busy I am; if I’m this busy I must be worthy’. Imposter syndrome, like all mental health issues, is an inside-out process. You will never scratch the itch until you deal with that part of you that doesn’t think you’re enough.
• Overall, the main thing to remember is that balance is important – As ever, nuance is key. We don’t want to be debilitated by self-doubt, but a little bit of self-awareness is also important. The key thing about IP is that we have to trust the evidence – if you’ve objectively achieved or gained something (degrees, promotions, roles, publications, clients – however, success is measured in your industry), then trust that you deserve it – you have as much right to be there as anyone else. But try also to keep that little bit of self-awareness too – because being able to accept your successes, while also learning from them (as well as your mistakes), is what will really make you successful.
Dr Kirsty Miller is a psychologist based in central Scotland. She specialises in health and social psychology and has worked with national and international media and academic institutions.
Brian Costello is a mental health expert, author and MD of mental health company HeadStrong. He is a specialist in helping people of all ages with anxiety and anxiety-related conditions.