Systemic Coach Zita Tulyahikayo and Barrister and NLP Master Practitioner James Pereira QC explore a common phenomenon among many high performing professionals – so-called “Imposter Syndrome”.
Eight years ago Sylvie graduated from a prestigious law school and landed a great job at a high profile global law firm. She has far exceeded her male colleague counterparts academically and in her training. The firm hired Sylvie because she was, in their eyes, very talented and had consistently displayed growth and potential during the recruitment process.
Despite all this, Sylvie held firm the belief that she was not good enough and that it was only a matter of time before someone found out and she would be exposed for the imposter she really was – or rather, that she thought she was. For the last eight years she has been continuously haunted by this belief, a belief that bares no relation to fact.
The paradox of Sylvie’s situation is that she is naturally a very high achiever and so seeks to put herself in situations that will exacerbate her belief. Each time she pushes the bar a little higher and accomplishes her goal, she asks herself why she keeps doing this to herself. The firm she works for is benefiting financially from this situation because they continue to pay her less than her male counterparts, thus reinforcing her belief that she is an imposter who does not belong, that she is as a woman not worthy of being paid the same as a man less capable than her. And so she pushes herself to work harder, put in more hours, and excel.
Sylvie is someone who identifies herself as having imposter syndrome and acknowledges the contribution it makes to her insecurity and low sense of self worth. There are lots of people who can identify with having imposter syndrome, not just women. It is prevalent among men too. Everyone tries to fake it to override the feeling that they are frauds, imposters who will be busted one day.
Imposter Syndrome has become a highly popularised concept. Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg talked about Imposter Syndrome in her bestselling book “Lean In”, thus drawing a mainstream cultural spotlight on the phrase. In 2012, a Ted Talk given by social psychologist Amy Cuddy gathered momentum and went viral – 36 million views and counting. Clearly more people are interested in Imposter Syndrome than those with imposter syndrome would dare to imagine shared their plight. And therein lies the rub.
What is Imposter Syndrome and who really has it?
To start with, we really need to examine what Imposter Syndrome actually means.
First, it is not correct to refer to it as a syndrome. In a clinical sense this is inaccurate; there is no disorder, no diagnosis, no cure. It would be more appropriate to refer to it as a phenomenon. Imposter Phenomenon, or IP, was the term used by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Irmes, psychologists of the 1970’s who conducted a study of 150 highly accomplished women. In this study it came to light that these women frequently talked about feeling unworthy, unintelligent, undeserving of their success, regardless that the evidence of their accomplishments clearly indicated the contrary.
Imposter Phenomenon takes in the normal type of insecurity that impairs most people, coupled with a tendency to dwell on the negative aspects of life. These two elements combine to create fear as an irrational belief that at any given moment someone of significance will discover that they are indeed intellectual imposters.
Fortunately, research also shows us that feeling like a fraud it is not a fixed continuum throughout the course of your life. It is more likely to rise and fall throughout your life, influenced by the external stressors of advancement and success.
Significant life changes can be a trigger. Acceptance and graduation from a prestigious university, entering the professional arena, promotion, getting married, having your first child, getting a pay rise, making partner, taking silk, getting divorced, or losing a job.
The successes are deemed to be things that have happened by chance, luck, good connections, the grace of someone else or any other factor that has absolutely nothing to do with ability.
The rejections are deemed to be proof positive that someone has uncovered the truth. For those who identify as imposters, compliments are difficult to acknowledge, achievements feel unearned, criticism cuts deeply and failures linger.
Imposter Phenomenon is also notable by its toxic effects, most notably its debilitating impact. The hum of persistent fear and self-doubt will invariably take its toll. This can present as problem drinking, depression, and anxiety.
Furthermore, IP affects not only the sufferer: it also takes a toll on those who have to support someone convinced they are a charlatan. For the loved ones – children, family and friends – the burden can be heavy and demanding.
Where does Imposter Phenomenon come from?
As we view the IP from this vantage point of understanding and ask: who has it? The answer is: everyone. Ask what does it do? The answer is: nothing useful. A more helpful question is: where does it come from?
What is clear is that it is more prevalent in some professions than others, in particular where competition and the stakes are believed to be high. From the perspective of personality, it affects almost all those people who lack self – efficacy, followed by maladaptive perfectionism and neuroticism. People with low self – efficacy doubt their own abilities.
Maladaptive Perfectionism is when one seeks to adhere to a very high standard, with the bar raised so high it becomes increasingly difficult to feel any sense of accomplishment, even when the standard has been met or surpassed. Neuroticism is characterised by a high level of anxiety, worry and insecurity. Intelligence plays a part in self – ascribed IP, because it is intelligent people who are more inclined to doubt their competency. Intelligent people are more inclined to spend time with other intelligent people, which leads to a distorted perception of the norm.
While personality and intelligence are factors in which IP may be rooted, it needs a certain type of environment to grow. Coaches and therapists frequently support high achieving clients with aspects of IP and find a common element amongst their clients: background and upbringing.
Children raised in an environment where the parents placed a disproportionately high emphasis on academic achievement are far more likely to develop a fear of not being good enough, and that as a result they may be abandoned in some way by a family that wants a more successful child.
As such, their ambition is driven by a desire to avoid shame, and to find assured belonging. Their belief is simple: if I work harder, bill more hours, stay on top of everything and do whatever needs to be done to fit in, the firm will love me and keep me. My belonging will be assured. Sadly, this is an assurance that can only truly be realised once we realise that we always belonged to our family of origin. You are enough just the way you are.
It is without doubt that the legal profession is teaming with Imposters from top to bottom. It is a fertile breeding ground for Imposters and Frauds. In this highly competitive arena where transparent discussion of confidence or identity issues is discouraged, Imposters and Frauds can thrive under a veil of pretence held in place by fear, secrecy and shame.
Law is a profession that attracts and is attractive to people with IP. Law is a profession that exacerbates IP.
What can you do about Imposter Phenomenon?
Identify the feelings.
Self – awareness is the key to bringing about change in the way you think and act. The moment you know and state your feelings, the moment you create alternative possibilities for handling them.
Talk about it.
If you work in the legal profession, it is likely that everyone you meet within that profession is experiencing IP or has experienced it. Knowing that you are not alone makes the fear far more bearable. Seek support from those who identify with your belief and have effectively overcome it. Talking about what it feels like to be an imposter gives us a deeper understanding of what constitutes success.
Rethink your perception of failure.
It is OK to be wrong. It is OK to make mistakes. It is OK to fail and it is definitely OK to not know everything! Quite often even the best legal team or firm lose a case. Evaluate the impact of what could go wrong. Try asking yourself, ‘what is the worst that could happen?’ This will help to reframe the fear. As you learn to overcome your fears, you will find that your reasoning skills are vastly improved.
Reaffirm your self worth.
Accept your success and be kind to yourself. Claim your success, accept compliments graciously. When you feel undeserving, go back and review previous accomplishments or positive feedback. Recount the people for whom you have made a difference. This will help to assure you that nobody belongs here more than you. Understandably it is a part of British culture to play down success and achievements. This false-modesty is dishonest and displays a lack of personal integrity. You do not have to be ostentatious, but not telling the truth helps no one.
Comparison is lethal, aside from the fact that it makes no sense at all. People who are ahead of you often began their journey at a different time where circumstances were entirely different. Others are on a different path and their future is unknown. Learn to value your own accomplishments and strengths. Once you start respecting your own potential you will soon realise that you have a great deal to offer.
Pursue your goal relentlessly, regardless of what you feel.
The best way to overcome IP is to continue taking action. If necessary engage the services of coach who can stand on the side-lines and cheer you on as and when you need a boost, a reminder of who you really are and what you are really capable of. Do it anyway because risk brings rewards, even if you fail or lose you will gain in knowledge, understanding and wisdom and that is priceless.
It takes great courage to pursue challenges to be your best self, but you will never know how much you can accomplish if you do not try.
Engage with your personal power
Engage with your personal power. Although fear may have inspired and motivated many of your achievements, at some point it becomes a habitual pattern. Habitual patterns generally have an expiry date for use. Reframing your thoughts is useful, particularly as the higher you go, the more debilitating IP thoughts will be.
To succeed you have to be engaged with your personal power, harness the strengths of both left and right brain to support you to be well rounded and comfortably confident in your ability to create and achieve fantastic things. A coach will encourage and support you to relinquish your attachment to the narrative of failure, of believing that you are not enough. The line between self – confidence and competence will become distinct and discernible.
The authors welcome feedback from anyone concerned with the issues raised in their writing, and are also interested in hearing from anyone with suggestions for future articles. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @LifeTherapyZita and at james.pereiraQC@ftbchambers.co.uk and on Twitter @JamesPereiraQC.
The full Loving Legal Life series can be found here.