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High achiever, successful career, feeling like a fraud?

If you are a high-achiever starting a new job or if you are newly promoted, it is quite likely you will suffer from imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome is where you feel like a fraud in a role and you fear that sooner or later someone will discover that you are really not very good at the thing everyone thinks you are good at, usually your job. There is a conflict between how you see yourself and how others see you. For example, you go for an interview and get the job. That’s great, particularly as you must have felt at the time of applying that you were a suitable applicant. What happens though, is shortly after getting the job, you begin to feel inadequate. You believe you are not worth this position; you won’t be any good at it, and at some stage, your employer and work colleagues will realise this.

Nobody is born with imposter syndrome, it is not inherited, it is developed as we grow up and have experiences. Experiences create thoughts, (how we perceive the experience) and those thoughts create beliefs. For example, let’s take Joe. Normally Joe does well at school and gets high marks. His parents praise him all the time and tell him how clever he is. There is one subject though that Joe is not so good at. It’s not like he is struggling, it’s just that he tends to get a B in his work in this subject rather than the A and A+ he gets in his other subjects. His parents, well-meaning, prompt him to ‘try harder’ and tell him he must not ‘fail’ and needs to get straight A’s or he will ‘never get a successful career’. Joe works extra hard and stops going out with his friends so that he can focus 100% on his schoolwork. Finally, Joe starts getting A’s, making his parents so proud they buy him something special as a ‘reward’. According to experts, the message Joe’s subconscious is getting is that you have to get high marks in life and it is worth working hard to get them. Once his subconscious mind has this message stored, it will start looking for confirmation that this is true, known as confirmation bias. So, any time Joe fails at anything or doesn’t hit the high bar he has set himself, this then ‘proves’ he is not trying hard enough.

When Joe starts work, he realises he doesn’t know a lot about the job. That would be normal right? I mean why would he? But in Joes’ mind, he should pick things up quickly and he worries that he is not good enough. Like when he was at school, he feels he must ‘try harder’ or he will be found out. This is a constant worry for him.

I have used a male, ‘Joe’ to emphasise that men can also suffer from imposter syndrome. Whilst this is true, it does seem that it is high-achieving women that suffer more deeply. This could be that women tend to talk about it more, to friends and family, whereas men tend to worry in silence, feeling that they should just ‘wing’ it.

So, how does imposter syndrome affect people at work? Basically, in a lot of cases, it stops you from moving forward. If you don’t believe you deserve or are good enough for the role you are in, why would you apply for a promotion? Much better to keep your head down and just do the role you are now used to. The last thing you want is a new challenge, you do not want to make yourself look foolish or feel bad.

It's not just in our career, imposter syndrome can occur in any new life change. New parents can often feel like they have no idea what they are doing, and they are bringing their child up all wrong. Whereas third parties looking in can see they are great parents.

Apart from parents setting their children high expectations, other root causes of imposter syndrome could be the exact opposite, where parents set no expectations on their child at all. In this case, the child may grow up not knowing whether they are good at anything because they have never been encouraged to try.

It is important to do well in life and aim high, but when competition for grades and University places make us feel we need to constantly prove ourselves, issues like not feeling good enough can kick in and we are held back by insecurity rather than motivated to move high up the success ladder.

So, what can imposter syndrome sufferers do to help themselves? Bear in mind that this may have been building up for years, so it is not going to be removed overnight, it will take time. That said, by moving on a step-by-step method to change our mindset, we can improve.

Our reality comes from our thoughts. Experience leads to a thought, which leads to a belief about the experience. Going back to Joe:

- Experience - he has one subject that he is not a high achiever in and gets a series of B grades

- Thought – my parents are not praising me because I didn’t get straight A grades

- Belief – I am only good enough when I hit the straight A bar. Nothing less is good enough

This is the belief that Joe has embedded in his subconscious and it drives him to work hard, but also to worry that he is not working hard enough. Joe no longer has that A grade benchmark to aim for so feels unable to gauge his performance.

To unpack that, Joe will need to become aware that the limiting belief is there in the first place.

Then he needs to work on replacing that one with a more positive one and learn to control the part of himself that is mentally beating him up. There are different ways to go about this but for most people, working through it with a coach or therapist is the quickest solution. Otherwise reading books and articles on the subject is an option.

In my opinion, the key factor is to learn to accept, love, trust, and believe in ourselves just the way we are. Knowledge is power and the more we understand ourselves and in particular, the thoughts and beliefs that hold us back in life, the happier will be.

#impostersyndrome #confidence #self-confidence #limitingbeliefs

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