The irony of Imposter Syndrome is that it only impacts capable, talented, skilled, motivated and ambitious people. Not the real “frauds” in the world.
We (those who experience Imposter Syndrome) feel like we are fooling everyone, like we are not worthy of our success or the praise that comes our way. We are temporarily blocked from connecting with the “reality” of our situation and our success.
To compensate, we develop “Imposter Personas” to make ourselves “look” and feel better.
These Personas act like shields or masks, allowing us to perform but also “protecting us” from anyone finding out that we are not as smart, talented, skilled or successful as they believe us to be.
These Personas come with negative and habitual behaviours that play on automatic loops in our subconscious minds – taking over our thoughts completely.
The longer we stay in a “Persona” the more we self sabotage and the further away from our Authentic selves we become.
The good news is that when you become aware of this and spend time reconnecting with your authentic self and building self worth, you’re well on your way to conquering Imposter Syndrome.
What is your Authentic Self?
Your Authentic Self is the real you. Unfiltered and unapologetically YOU.
It’s how you behave with your closest loved ones who light you up, and not how you behave around a hyper-critical family member who can never be pleased.
Your Authentic Self also lives in your values and your big goals (the secret ones that you might not have shared publicly).
To uncover your Authentic Self, you might have to look back to childhood. Think back to a time before the event that became your Imposter origin story (often this is a trauma or series of events in childhood or adolescence).
- What was your natural personality, and what were your tendencies before this event? (Confident, brave, matter-of-fact, bright, enthusiastic?)
- How do you feel and act around people who make you feel completely comfortable, loved and supported? (both in childhood and now as an adult)
- What excites you and draws your interest?
- What are you naturally good at?
- What do you love doing?
- Which achievements are you most proud of?
- What do other people say your strengths are? (Because as people who experience Imposter Syndrome, it can be hard for us to see our own strengths)
All these parts of you add up to your Authentic Self. It might be close to the surface, or it might be well hidden behind your fears.
Understanding your Authentic Self can help you to achieve your full potential. That’s because you’ll be living with less conflict with your Imposter Syndrome (which is constantly telling you that you’re not worthy of your success).
What’s your Imposter Persona?
The 5 most common Personas of Imposter Syndrome, were described by Dr Valerie Young in her book Secret Thoughts of Successful Women.
Don’t worry if you see yourself crossing a few of these or dipping in and out at various times in your life.
The aim isn’t to shoehorn people into a label, but rather to understand some of the common Persona types and consider which behaviours resonate with you.
Most importantly, when you understand where your behaviours are coming from, you can work towards change.
If you’re the Perfectionist, you might:
- Set extremely high expectations for yourself
- Feel you have to be perfect 100% of the time
- Fixate on flaws and mistakes
- Feel relief when you succeed, rather than joy
If you’re the Superwoman/man, you might:
- Feel pressured to work harder to prove you deserve to be there
- Feel unable to unwind or relax when you’re not working
- Juggle multiple roles in your life (business owner/employee, parent, partner, friend) and feel shame if you can’t handle them all perfectly
- Find it extremely difficult to say no as your ‘people pleasing habit’ takes over
If you’re the Rugged Individualist, you might:
- Believe that true success can only be achieved on your own solo merit
- Struggle to ask for help, and feel that asking for help means you’ve failed
- Panic if group work is thrust upon you and struggle to find your voice out of fear of being exposed as not knowing enough
- Find it hard to delegate or share any insights into your work
If you’re the Expert, you might:
- Expect to know everything, so a minor lack of knowledge causes you shame
- Feel you have to learn and know everything before you can start a project (which often leads to procrastination)
- Constantly take courses and certifications to improve your skills in order to succeed
- Have been doing the role for a long time, but you feel you still don’t know enough
If you’re the Natural Genius, you might:
- Find school and/or university easy and got high marks with little effort
- Need to master a new skill quickly, and if you find it difficult, you feel like a failure
- Have received excessive praise growing up and were seen as a ‘golden child’
- Struggle with hearing ‘no’ and if you do it hits your self worth hard
It’s not always clear cut. Some people identify strongly with one persona, and many people have experienced elements of several personas.
This process of exploring Persona vs Authentic self is about detecting patterns in your behaviour so you can identify the best first steps to take to intercept and redirect the behaviours into more positive and confident action.
How this plays out in practice: my Imposter Persona was Perfectionist, (and now I’m a recovered Perfectionist)
In my Cultivate and Conquer weekly community emails, I recently shared my story of childhood trauma.
In fact, it’s quite common for people who experience childhood trauma to develop Imposter Syndrome as young adults:
“Bussotti (1990) suggested that, in families in which support for the child’s feelings and individual development was lacking, the child who becomes an impostor may have… been required to develop a “false self” in order to receive validation. That false self is then likely to carry over into adulthood as insecurity about one’s true identity, often felt as impostor feelings in those who are successful achievers” [emphasis added]From J. Langford and P. R. Clance 1993 “The Impostor Phenomenon: recent research findings regarding dynamics, personality and family patterns and their implications for treatment”
Without realising what was happening, I adopted the Perfectionist persona as a way of ‘protecting myself’ so no one ‘found out’ I wasn’t really capable.
I found myself always striving for perfection and seeking external validation to make myself look and feel better. But even when I achieved a perfect score or won an award, it was never enough. My Imposter Syndrome told me I got lucky or I still wasn’t good enough. I couldn’t internalize my success. And just kept chasing more and more.
After many years of working on my Imposter Syndrome, I’ve learned to stop Perfectionist tendencies from slowing me down or sabotaging me altogether.
To understand if you’ve adopted a Persona(s) ask yourself the following:
- Do I resonate with one or more of the above Personas?
- What is a common negative thought/story I tell myself?
- What is my most frequent self sabotaging behaviour?
- When do I tend to do this behaviour most?
To connect back with your Authentic self ask yourself the following:
- What do I like or love about myself? (that is not attached to my work or my accomplishments)
- What are my values?
- What are my top 3 strengths?
- What lights me up inside? (passion, purpose or vision)
The power of Authenticity
Several women I’ve coached have shared that their boss or peers have told them to “be less authentic” because they “come across as cold” or that they’re “abrasive”.
These women are high achievers in senior roles, and people are telling them “not to be yourself” at work. Gender bias in language is a huge issue.
Telling an individual not to be themselves is incredibly damaging. And for those experiencing Imposter Syndrome it just makes us hold onto our Persona even tighter.
In order to be successful we need the right mix of Authenticity and Appropriateness. For example if we are in a business meeting with our boss or an important client we might choose more ‘professional’ language than what we’d use with a group of friends. This doesn’t mean we are not being Authentic, it just means we are also being Appropriate.
What we never want to be (or should never be told to be) is inauthentic.
“You’re too cold. You need to be more warm. And be vulnerable sometimes.”
^^^ This was a [now former] colleague telling me not to be myself 😱 ^^^
And for the record he was an awful person. A misogynist who couldn’t handle a confident and intelligent woman.
I am not afraid to speak my mind. And when I do, I remain both Authentic and Appropriate.
But I struggle with vulnerability. Due to suffering childhood trauma, I struggle to “let my guard down”.
And at times in my career when I tried to be more vulnerable, it didn’t go well.
Because I was forcing myself.
And that messed with my head, because I was being inauthentic.
Also for those of us who experience Imposter Syndrome we already feel our own sense of vulnerability and fraudulence which we desperately try to hide with our Personas.
Live in your Authentic Self to conquer Imposter Syndrome
If you can get to the point where you live in your Authentic Self instead of being ruled by your fears and Imposter Syndrome, a lot can change.
You’re more likely to be comfortable in your own skin, speak your mind, and say no to activities that don’t serve you.
You’ll also be conscious of the work and relationships that make you happiest.
And you’ll be dismantling your Imposter Syndrome.
Dig into memories.
Ponder who you are when you’re not driven by fear.
Meditate on the questions of “Who is my Authentic Self?” and see what feels right to you.
It might take a while for the truth to come out, but it’s worth the effort, because the outcome can be transformative.
You don’t need to hide behind that mask or shield anymore.
You are worthy and capable as your true self, you just need to reconnect with what truly lights you up.