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As you may know, I have started a PhD focussing on the Imposter Syndrome.  While reading academic research, blog posts and press articles it struck me that there are a number of inaccuracies in the way the Imposter Syndrome is portrayed.  Here are five myths I would like to bust – the first being that it should be called the Impostor Phenomenon, not syndrome! Here’s why…

Myth #1:  It’s a syndrome and therefore a mental health condition

Wrong!  While the popular press are terming the experience of feeling like a fraud as the “imposter syndrome”, technically it is a phenomenon not a syndrome. A syndrome is typically used to refer to a medical condition, and one that is pervasive. The imposter thoughts and feelings people experience occur in certain situations, and are not present all of the time.

For example, some people find they feel like a fraud at work wondering when someone will spot that they really aren’t up to the job, or worry that they got the promotion on false pretences, when actually they truly are capable, and really did deserve that promotion. Others are fine at work, but may experience the imposter feelings at home, perhaps as a parent – are they a good enough father/mother, when will people realise they are just winging it and don’t know what they are doing? For others it may feel as if they are not as good as their friends, and they spend time wondering why people would want to be friends with them (clue; it’s because you are a good friend to them).

So, it really is a phenomenon; something which occurs at times and is situational.

 

Myth #2:  If you have self-doubt it means you have Imposter Syndrome

Self-doubt is not the same as having imposter feelings. While blog posts and articles will often confuse the two, one doesn’t necessarily mean you have the other. Self-doubt is normal when you are doing something for the first time. It is quite natural, and I would suggest healthy, to wonder whether you are able to do the task. That natural self-doubt may persist for the next few times you do the same, or similar, task.

The self-doubt which is an indicator of the Imposter Phenomenon is persistent, even when you have completed several successful tasks and have lots of external evidence as to your abilities. In fact, success is one of the fuels for the imposter-style self-doubt and can make the imposter feelings more pervasive and the sufferer more anxious as a result.

But don’t confuse the two!

 

Myth #3:  It only affects women

No, no and no again.  Back in 1978 when the Impostor Phenomenon was first identified Clance & Imes suggested that it was more prevalent in women. However, subsequent research shows that it affects both men and women about equally.

In my experience of talking to hundreds of people about the phenomenon, men and women both recognise it, but react differently. While women will tend to say, “oh, that’s so me!” men tend to say, “doesn’t everyone get that?”

It’s definitely not a “woman thing”, and women don’t need fixing.

 

Myth #4: It keeps you humble

Often people will express a desire to keep their imposter feelings as a way of ensuring they don’t become arrogant. While I have no desire to promote arrogance, I would really encourage you to be able to say, “I did that” or “yes, thank you, I’m glad my skills were useful”. Being able to acknowledge your own knowledge, skills and experience is not the same as boasting about them!

C S Lewis Humility Quote

Humility Quote

Arrogance tends to occur where there is no consideration for others. If you have had imposter feelings it is unlikely you will ever become arrogant. In the words of C S Lewis “True humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less”, and wouldn’t it be refreshing to have both humility and courage without the anxiety that the imposter feelings can bring?

 

Myth #5:  It’s incurable

If you have had imposter feelings you are likely to notice that they come and go.  They may be present at work, but perhaps not when you are down the gym (or vice versa). There is nothing to be “cured” from.  A blog I read on a training company’s website referred to the Imposter Syndrome as being incurable, and someone once told me her mum had been “diagnosed” with the imposter syndrome.  What awful, incorrect messages to give people. They are feelings, irrational maybe, but simply feelings triggered by thoughts. As mentioned in Myth #1 it is not a mental health condition and it is inappropriate and unhelpful to ‘medicalise’ it.

 

However, it would be nice to get rid of those feelings wouldn’t it?

 

Here are five quick tips on how to lessen imposter feelings

  1. Confide in someone you trust who can help you become objective.
  2. Know and use your strengths, either take an online strengths profile or ask people what you are good at.
  3. Accept positive feedback; don’t “yes but…” it, say “yes and…” – at least inside your head.
  4. Objectively observe your thoughts and challenge them with external evidence.
  5. Stop striving for perfection, it isn’t attainable. In the words of the author and lecturer, Tal Ben-Shahar, “go for optimal”, not perfection.

While weeding at the allotment the other evening I spotted a lovely black and red moth… it turns out to be a Cinnabar Moth. Its main food is ragwort and to my knowledge there isn’t any ragwort at the allotment, so what is the moth doing there?

Sometimes we too are out of place. It is at those moments that imposter feelings can strike. Feeling inadequate, wondering whether we will be found out to be a fraud, or whether we are good enough to be in the position we find ourselves in. Reactions to those feelings vary; some people (often men) tell me that they think everyone feels like that, so they just “get on with it”. Others worry about their situation, and for some this worry can turn into extreme forms of anxiety. If this is you, the charity Anxiety UK can be of great help, see: www.anxietyuk.org.uk.  While for others it can result in perfectionist tendencies, and/or periods of procrastination.

But when do we learn the imposter patterns of behaviour and thinking?

For some it can be as a child, having an over-critical parent (whose best intentions is to encourage their child, but the feeling of nothing being quite good enough can be the result). Or it might be a parent who tells the child they are perfect, just as they are, and that no matter what, they cannot fail. Which when the real adult world hits, can be detrimental as the child in question may not have built up any resilience to experiencing failure, so when it happens it is put down to an internal failing, rather than external circumstances.

Other times, it can be from the school system. I was recently invited to be a speaker on the imposter syndrome at the Cambridgeshire Festival of Education. During one of my workshops we had a good discussion about giving feedback. The structure of “what went well; even better if” seems to be a great structure, something positive to use while always giving some encouragement to improve. But therein lies the problem. If this structure is used ALL of the time, when is good enough, going to be good enough? When will the child’s best effort be ok?  If this structure if isn’t sometimes balanced with “good job, well done” or “great work on the way you presented XYZ” it can have the same effect as the hypercritical parent. Nothing is ever quite good enough, ergo the child isn’t quite good enough either. (I know it is illogical thinking, but imposter  feelings are not about logic!).

So if you are giving feedback, whether to an adult or a child, let them know when good enough is good enough. Perfection is unattainable, but being good enough is — and that’s no bad thing. We can still strive for more, but if we don’t achieve it, please give us some encouragement, or reassurance that we are ok as we are, and don’t have to be perfect!

What has a swan rescue got to do with finding your strengths?

 

Research in the field of Positive Psychology indicates that using your strengths at work increases your engagement at work. But how do you know what your strengths are?

 

Strength Profiles

One way of identifying your strengths is to take one of a  number of online strengths profiles that will produce a list of your strengths.  One free profile is the VIA Character Strengths that lists 24 value-based strengths and has been well validated.  Another well-researched profile, and one of the most detailed, is the aptly named Strengths Profile that provides a report of your strengths categorised into four areas:  realised strengths (good at, do often & enjoy), unrealised strengths (good at, enjoy, but don’t do often), learned behaviours (good at, do often but don’t enjoy) and weaknesses (not good at) – which at £30+VAT is good value (if you are interested in a strength-based workshop, or a team profile do get in touch).

I particularly like the nuance in the Strength Profile of things you are good at, do often but don’t enjoy – these can be things you have enjoyed in the past but fallen out of love with as you have done them too often; or if you’re like me, things you need to do, such as the accounts and paperwork where the attention for detail is necessary, but they don’t fire you up.

 

Strength Spotting and Swans

If you don’t want to take a “test” then you can simply ask someone, or a few people, who know you well, what they see as your strengths.  Or keep an eye out yourself on what you do well, and enjoy doing.

Sometimes strengths come to the fore in adversity or they may be something that you were good at as a child, but had forgotten about. Or something you never realised you were good at until a certain event occurs.

 

Swan rescue

Taking a firm hold! (click to play video)

Last Tuesday was such an occasion.  I had just finished a meeting in Cambridge and exited onto Mill Lane,  one of the streets that leads down to the river.  As I walked towards where I had left my bicycle, I noticed a number of passers-by had stopped and were photographing a swan which was sitting forlornly in the middle of the road.  Some of the Scudamores punting staff were there too, wondering what on earth to do with the swan – was it hurt? lost? confused?  As traffic started to build up, it was obvious something had to be done.  Shoo-ing the swan had had no effect except to make the swan even more confused.

By now a van was  blocking the swan’s path back to the river.  So I took off my coat and gave it to one of the Scudamores’ staff with instructions to throw it over the swan’s back while I took hold of the swan.  As he was somewhat astonished at my instructions I explained that it was to stop the swan flapping its wings, and that I would gather up the swan and take it back to the river.  So I swiftly picked up the swan, and ignoring her hiss of protest, carried her back to the river where, with a quick shake of her tail feathers, she happily swam away.

 

Teenage Kate with geese she reared (not a swan!)

Teenage Kate with geese

This short video was taken by another member of Scudamores’ staff.

 

By the way, did I mention that I used to rear geese as a teenager?

 

PS: don’t try this at home!  Not all swans are as docile!

 

What does psychology have to say about leadership?

I recently spoke on Positive Leadership to a group of professionals in Cambridge and asked them whether the would like to be a more positive leader.  90% said yes!  I wonder about the few who didn’t… perhaps their reluctance to answer yes was because they didn’t see themselves as leaders, or perhaps they knew something else.

But when I asked a follow up question, “would you like a leader who is positive?”  the answer was surprising!

Check out this video following my recent workshop to find out more…

 

For further details about workshops or keynote talks on Positive Leadership, the Imposter Syndrome and other topics covered by Kate Atkin, please do get in touch.

Anxiety and the Impostor

Many people will experience levels of anxiety, some more so than others, and for some people the levels are so stressful they impair their ability to function well, both at work and at home. October 10th is World Mental Health day, with mental health at work being the key focus for 2017.

World Mental Health day

This September 2017 saw the start of my 18th year in business I have decided to formalise my fundraising efforts. Some of you reading this will be aware of my husband’s 2,500 mile walk around England in 2011-2012, with our springer spaniel Poppy, and his subsequent walk along the Welsh Coastal Path in 2013, both raising awareness of mental health and some valuable funds for two charities SANE and Anxiety UK. during my business year from September 2017-September 2018 I will be fundraising for Anxiety UK – a small national charity that provides much needed support for people who experience anxiety, be it phobias, work-related stress, or other causes.

The Impostor Syndrome

I am now also researching and giving talks on the Impostor Syndrome, which for some people also causes high levels of anxiety.   Called, “Behind the Mask” these talks uncover some of the causes and effects of the impostor syndrome and also provide some strategies to help people cope, or strategies to help people manage and support others, who experience impostor feelings.

Anxiety? Or is it imposter syndrome?

During the course of the next five years I will be working towards a PhD, focussing on the impostor feelings in the work place — so will have much more to share through these pages and also through my irregular newsletter (you can sign up on the right, or via the home page). If you would like to support me in my charity endeavours you can donate below, and do get in touch if you would like me to speak to your group, organisation or at your conference. kate@kateatkin.com or call me on 07779 646 976

Kate’s Fundraising Page for Anxiety UK:

Donate to Anxiety UK

 

 

Photo credit: Helena G Anderson

Impostor syndrome

Who is the fraud?

Who am I to write a guest blog for the Oxford English Dictionary on the Impostor Syndrome?

I have now given several talks on the subject of the Impostor Syndrome – more correctly termed Impostor Phenomenon – chaired a panel discussion for the General Assembly on the subject, been interviewed by the Telegraph and Cambridge TV on it, as well as receiving a distinction for my research into it when doing my Masters Degree a couple of years ago.  So why did I still think, “what me?  Really? can I do this?” when contacted by the Oxford English Dictionary to be a guest blogger on their new entry “Impostor Syndrome“.

The answer, as you may have guessed, is that I am one of the 70% who experience ‘imposter’ feelings.

Of course I said yes, and then set about controlling my internal chatter to be able to write a comprehensive piece.  The resulting OED Blog post is here

Then I spot a completely incorrect use of the term in the Times today.  A fraudster does NOT experience the impostor syndrome or phenomenon.  Those who set out to deliberately deceive others are actual impostors, as defined by the OED.

Please, it’s hard enough to experience the feelings without being confused with with real fraudsters.  So, a plea to all journalists, please don’t muddle the use of impostor syndrome with real impostors.