by Jim Bruce
There is nothing particularly special about hearing negative voices in your head. I suspect that most of us have, at one time or another. Some of us may even hear these voices frequently. And, some of these voices may be so strident as to lead one to disbelieve the credibility of any successes that she or he has experienced. It may surprise you that research suggests that some 70% of adults hear these strident voices at one time or another, and sometimes frequently.
This phenomenon was named the “imposter phenomenon” (or syndrome) by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in 1978. Kirsten Weir, in her American Psychological Association essay “Feel like a fraud?,”1 notes that this phenomenon often “occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept success.” These individuals “often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud.”
Stephanie Vozza,2 referencing Aaron Nurick, professor of management and psychology at Bentley University, also notes that the imposter phenomenon “is fueled by two very powerful and interconnected human emotions: anxiety and shame. The anxiety usually comes from perfectionism, and the associated stress can distort one’s perspective. The key is understanding the internal messages delivered from these feelings and then taking steps to change the narrative.”
Many very notable individuals have included themselves among those that have had this experience. Here are just three examples:
• Albert Einstein” “[T]he exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.”
• Sheryl Sandberg: “There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud.”
• Maya Angelou: “I have written 11 books, about 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’.”
If you have, as I have, experienced this phenomenon, you know that you feel anxious, stressed, have low self-confidence and self-esteem, you may second-guess yourself and doubt your capabilities. You dwell on your mistakes, failures, and any corrective feedback you have received, and all this increases your fear of failure. As a result, you may be reluctant to try new things, take on new responsibilities, learn a new difficult skill, etc. You will be less likely to experience the phenomenon if you are of a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset.
So, the question: What can you do if you experience the imposter phenomenon, either on occasion or frequently?
Start with the brain. When we think of our brain, we immediately turn to its role in our intelligence and the fact that it’s where we do our thinking and where our memories are stored.
However, as behavioral psychologist Marcia Reynolds writes in her book Outsmart Your Brain: How to Master Your Mind When Emotions Take the Wheel,3 “Your brain’s primary purpose is to protect you.” According to Lisa Evans,4 “The first thing your brain says to you when faced with a situation where there’s any doubt is ‘don’t do that’,” “you’ll be humiliated,” “you’ll be hurt.” Evans continues: “From an evolutionary perspective, the brain’s reason for existence is not to be creative and brilliant, but to prevent you from being in harmful situations. That doesn’t bode well if you want to take risks and create new things. Reynolds says in order to get over the brain’s instinct to protect you, you need to say, ‘thank you brain, but I really don’t need that message right now’.” Once you recognize that your brain is acting to protect you, you can step back and work to shift your thoughts.
Write the negative thought down and look for specific evidence to the contrary. Exactly what is being said to you? “You can’t possibly succeed in leading that project!” “You’re not ready to make a major presentation on the new strategy!” “You’re not ready for that promotion.” Etc. Write it down and then look for specific evidence that refutes the thought. Think about your past work that was similar. How did it come out? If you were to do it again, what would you do differently that would make it even better. Consider working with a mentor who might help you explore your thought patterns and your strengths, and learn from what the “imposter” is saying to you.
Change your mental model. As just noted, too often, we start with the negative and get stuck there, never getting to what worked, what was successful, what can you build upon. As you do this, understand the assumptions you make. For example, Professor Nurick (quoted in the Vozza essay2) suggests that you take apart any “should” statements – e.g., I should be the smartest person on the team to be the team lead, I should not make mistakes, etc. – so that you can identify why you feel the way you do and what would happen if you didn’t live up to the bar you set for yourself.
Doing this will enable you to begin to build a new practice: Once you have acknowledged the intrusion, written the thought down, and understood your assumptions, shift your focus to the positive. Think about the successes you have had. (If you don’t have a journal that tracks your successes, your accomplishments, your achievements, you may want to start one now. Such a journal is really helpful to have around to provide specific examples of your achievements when the imposter voice shows up.)
What did you learn on your last assignment? What would you have done differently given what you learned? What new skills do you need to develop to continue growing and successfully taking on new, more advanced projects? In other words, once you have examined the negative thought, gotten from it everything you might learn, move to a deliberate positive focus on the future. And, when your brain tries to take you back to the negative thought (as it most certainly will), simply tell it that you’ve considered that thought and that you are moving forward. Be determined.
Your new mental model also calls upon you to specifically recognize that you don’t know everything, that you are always learning, that what you are learning will prepare for the next opportunities you have or that you create for yourself.
Take a risk.5 “What would you do if you weren’t afraid? Write it down, tell someone, and do it. The worst that can happen is that it doesn’t work.” And, if that happens, make the necessary course corrections and continue ahead. Don’t let your imposter phenomenon derail you.
You are not the first person to have encountered the imposter phenomenon. No one of us has all the answers to do the task we are working on no matter what our credentials are. We all need more information, help in moving forward. The key is to know how to communicate your need for more information. You do it by being curious and by asking thoughtful questions.
As you go through your week take note of the presence of your “imposter” and try these four suggestions. And, let me know if they are a help.
Make it a great week for you and your team. . . . jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates. He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.