Hari Patience-Davies on how to beat back imposter syndrome.
I remember attending a management training event for my last job. One of the speakers, a fairly senior leader, stood up to talk about Imposter Syndrome and how she was amazed when a former boss of hers – a man – had admitted to feeling it during a particularly stressful all night work session.
This morning I was scrolling Tumblr and I came across a story about imposter syndrome from one of my favourite author’s Neil Gaiman.
“Some years ago, I was lucky enough [to be] invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And I felt that at any moment they would realise that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things.
“On my second or third night there, I was standing at the back of the hall, while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made such amazing things. I just went where I was sent.
“And I said, “Yes. But you were the first man of the moon. I think that counts for something.”
“And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did.”
It’s a theme I hear repeated again and again and again. A litany of “I don’t deserve to be here,” but one that is often twinned with, “but you do.” Why is it we are so keen to recognise the achievements of others and so hard to do the same for ourselves?
In her book Presence, and her incredibly popular TED talk, Amy Cuddy talks about imposter syndrome. She even interviews Neil Gaiman about it. In reading Presence a couple of things stood out at me;
- Imposter syndrome can be deepened if you experience prejudice saying “you shouldn’t be here” or “you’re not good enough” – even if you know it comes from a place of racism or sexism or some other prejudice, the micro-aggression of experiencing it adds to your own experience of feeling like an imposter.
- Being “found out” is a recurring them. Some unknown authoritative “Them” will find out that you love your job (when you shouldn’t) or that you’ve fraudulently claimed your current place in society or rung on the career ladder – even if you got there completely legitimately.
- Faking it (until you make it) totally works.
This third one ties in directly with the advice I give my students.
If you’re not feeling confident, fake confidence.
You can fake confidence with your voice – keep it engaged, a steady pace and take control of your breathing so you can consciously pause to add drama and emphasis – and with your body language – avoid “barrier” language (crossing your arms or wrapping an arm across your middle), keep your shoulders down and your chin up, make eye contact and smile (when the content supports it – don’t grin like a maniac if you’re talking about natural disasters).
To many faking this confidence feels unnatural. We think we’ll be found out! That ever-present imposter syndrome “They” will out our lack of confidence and make us look foolish!
But that doesn’t happen – not en masse certainly. The confidence mask may slip and your audience may get a glimpse of the real, more nervous you, but often that helps rather than hinders. Because pretty much everyone has, at some point in their lives, experienced stage fright and according to the research in Presence, 70% of us have suffered through imposter syndrome.
So is it possible that all those confident people we see, and compare our nervous selves to, are just faking it too?
But there’s a lot of truth in the maxim “fake it ’til you make it” because as Amy Cuddy mentions in her book, and as I, and many others have experienced in our lives – the things we have imposter syndrome about, the things we fake confidence to overcome, the more we fake that confidence, the more we overcome them.
And one day, you will wake up and whatever it was that made you feel like a fraud yesterday will have gone.
You out-faked it.
Photo by Sebastiaan Stam from Pexels