The Imposter Syndrome – A Personal Journey

Recently, thanks to my own executive coach (because even the coach needs a coach. She’s wonderful), I’ve been reading “The Empress Has No Clothes” by Joyce Roche. It’s a wonderful book about how many times when we achieve success, we feel inadequate or like we didn’t deserve it. We feel that we aren’t deserving of such success and that we will be “found out.” I have spoken to many people and this is a phenomenon that transcends gender or race. It’s a problem not just applicable to corporate America. It’s that feeling that when we meet our graduate school classmates and one founded some billion-dollar start-up and the other rescues bald eagles on the weekends that we are the charity admissions case. I have coached more than one women entering business school with a non-traditional background, i.e. not consulting or finance, who has minimized her efforts. I have spoken to young men who feel they aren’t good enough despite evidence to the contrary.

In Joyce’s book, she talks about the syndrome as a need to work ever harder and prove your value. I have the syndrome, but in some ways I did the opposite. I knew I didn’t belong and set myself up for failure. I self-sabotaged and always waited for the other shoe to drop. I would leave assignments have finished, or procrastinate, or just do things to so that expectations would be lowered. When people spoke of my talent, I didn’t believe them. Deep down inside, I didn’t feel I deserved what I had, so externally I made myself look like what my internal felt.

I can remember very vividly when I received my last job. The EVP was extremely excited for me to join and spoke very highly of me. Yet, inside I didn’t believe that I was capable or worthy. I could name half a dozen people who would have the drive and the ability to succeed. My first thought was not “Heck yeah you want me on your team because I’m amazing,” but it was “Darn, what if I completely fail at this? I have no idea what I am doing.”

This syndrome is different than insecurity. The hard part is that we know we are talented. We just believe we aren’t “good enough” or just aren’t as talented as the next person. We believe, despite all the external evidence to the contrary, that we are fraudsters, waiting until someone calls us out for having no clothes on.

There is no singularly way to let go of the feeling. In her book, several of the essays take a multitude of approaches. Some turn to yoga, some have an epiphany, some turn to therapy. For me, here’s what work. The first step in overcoming the syndrome is to admit that you have those feelings. Share them. Find people, your alma mater, a networking group. Meet with them regularly. Discuss your feelings. Journal (blog like I am) but find a safe way to discuss it.

The second step is to figure out a plan to fight it. Every case is different, but work with someone to create a plan. Create steps that you can measure, that are small.

The third step is the hardest – list out every single accomplishment you have had over the last five, 10, lifetime. List out all of the wonderful things people have said about you. Keep it in a book. Write it down. Make it count. Realize that you did all of these things because of the talents you possess. Make a dream board.

Additionally, there are several very good articles including this wonderful list by Joyce herself –

So what about me? I wish I could say that things changed suddenly, but like everyone else it is a journey. But I can tell that they have changed and that feels better than having no clothes.

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