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The Imposter Syndrome - Syndrome or Mindset?

27/05/2016 11:23 | Updated 27 May 2016

One of the greatest author and poet of our time, Maya Angelou wrote eleven acclaimed books in her lifetime. Yet, she once admitted 'I have written eleven books, but each time I think, "Uh oh, they're going to find out now. I've run a game on everybody, and they're going to find me out.'

It might be hard to believe that such an extraordinarily talented woman would have thoughts filled with such self-doubt. Yet I happen to know that many of you reading this will relate to her words.

This, after all is the imposter syndrome that is blighting the mindsets of people all over the world.

Imposter syndrome is not a recognised medical condition, but it is a global phenomenon that has men and women (although mostly women) in its grasp. The term itself dates back to 1978 when a pair of psychologists identified "the impostor phenomenon in high-achieving women." Those of us who suffer with this confidence-zapping mindset believe that those around us have over-estimated our abilities and that our peers, colleagues and loved ones will, at any moment, realise that we are complete frauds.

The very nature of this affliction is that the dizzier the heights, the more incredible the achievement, the greater the challenge or potential, the higher the expectations and the worse the syndrome becomes.

As it happens, this 'syndrome' is effecting women all over the world and in every field; from CEOs to nurses, university students to celebrities.

Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, says that countless millions of people don't experience a truly authentic sense of competence or self-belief.

"Despite often overwhelming evidence of their abilities, impostors dismiss them as merely a matter of luck, timing, outside help, charm - even computer error. Because people who have the impostor syndrome feel that they've somehow managed to slip through the system undetected, in their mind it's just a matter of time before they're found out.'

The idea is often that the more you have fought to earn your place in an environment; the harder it is to accept that your place is valid these feelings of inadequacy deepen.

The big issue with imposter syndrome is that it doesn't allow us the space to process the reality of the dynamics around us; it skews our perspectives and we get gaslighted into thinking that we are the cause of every problem.

Minorities in university settings often cannot internalise their outstanding accomplishments, despite being high-achievers. It is also cited as the problem facing women in STEM and tech (both male dominated industry's) as the biggest obstacle to their success.

I'm here to tell you something important. Imposter syndrome is not a syndrome. I believe it is a frame of mind that can be beaten with major doses of self-belief.

There are those who argue that these feelings are more of a help than a hindrance. Denzel Washington once famously confessed to having imposter syndrome and later said; 'That last five minutes before you go on that first preview, if you don't have that 'what the hell am I doing here?' feeling; if you don't have that then they say it's time to quit.'

I agree to an extent. Arrogance is never truly productive (or likeable) because it usually reflects an enlarged ego and an inflated sense of superiority. Humility and a drop of reluctance (even some mild anxiety) goes a long way in keeping our feet firmly on the ground and an incredible motivator. It is when these feelings burgeon uncontrollably and become toxic that they hold you back from reaching your fullest potential and truly living. As I recently said to my friend 'That, is not ok.'

Author Cate Huston elaborated on the connection between imposter syndrome and minority groups:

'What we call imposter syndrome often reflects the reality of an environment that tells marginalized groups that we shouldn't be confident, that our skills aren't enough, that we won't succeed--and when we do, our accomplishments won't even be attributed to us.'

Cate believes that imposter syndrome is too often viewed as a personal problem to be overcome, rather than 'a realistic reflection of the hostility, discrimination, and stereotyping that pervades tech culture.' I understand this entirely. Given the messages of inadequacy that women, those with disabilities and ethnic minorities have heard and internalised from as early on as at school, it's hardly surprising. If we lived in a truly equal society where all opportunities were open to all, then I'm sure these feelings would be much less prevalent.

It is my belief, however, that we've been talking about imposter syndrome, and its consequences, for a while.

For my part, I have managed to reach a point where I can now cope with adversity by staying focused on reaching that point of personal achievement, when my self-belief shines brightly. However, my own experience with Domestic Violence knocked my confidence. For years I suffered with feeling that I was a fraud. How could I be a successful business woman and psychologist and a victim of Domestic Violence? What if people found out that I was weak? Of course this is irrational but I was overwhelmed with feelings of imposter syndrome.

I can proudly say now that with lots of work and reflection I have overcome these feelings. I endeavour to instil self-belief in my own children so that they won't grow up to believe they are imposters in any environment.

'Impossible is not a fact. It's an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It's a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.' Muhammad Ali

One of my tips is rather than seeing images of super-successful and happy women and feeling inadequate; we must celebrate other women. If we allow ourselves to be plagued by self-doubt, the chances are we will one day end up envious and jaded. I believe this is, at least, a start.

If you feel like a fraud, you're not alone. But, you can change. The only imposter is the voice in your mind telling you that you are the imposter.

Take the steps necessary to galvanise your sense of self-worth, be it therapy, an empowering women's event or a brilliant book and start to believe in yourself and your potential.

'I've come to believe that the energy and thoughts we put out into the world can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Love yourself, be proud of all you have achieved and face each day with the confidence to believe you are worthy.'

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