Have you ever felt like the odd one out? That your friends, colleagues and boss are going to come to a sudden realisation that you’re a fraud and that you don’t deserve the EA role you scored 6 months ago or the ‘well done’ bundle for smashing your targets for the quarter?
If so, you’re not alone. More commonly known as imposter syndrome, according to studies conducted by the International Journal of Behavioural Science, an estimated 70% of the population experience the exact same feelings at some point in their lives and guess what? The support industry is one of the most affected. With consistent feedback during salary review periods of Personal and Executive Assistants not feeling worthy enough to ask for a pay rise, imposter syndrome is a global industry epidemic. Even when working uncontracted hours, managing a seriously ‘un-pc’ boss and fulfilling requests that fall way outside of the normal remit, the justification still doesn’t seem strong enough for many to follow through with the expectation of being rewarded accordingly.
What is impostor syndrome?
First identified by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978, they defined imposter syndrome as the idea that you stumble upon your personal success by accident with women being affected more so than men.
Further research has shown that imposter syndrome is not limited to certain individuals and regardless of your background, impostor syndrome can affect anyone “who isn’t able to internalize and own their successes,” says psychologist Audrey Ervin.
Impostor syndrome expert Dr. Valerie Young has also found patterns in people who experience impostor feelings which includes:
Are you an assistant that sets extremely high standards and expectations for yourself on a daily basis? Do you plunge into self-criticism and negativity even if you meet 99% of your goals, always thinking that you could have done better? Does any mistake regardless of how big or small fill you with self-doubt and make you question your own competence as a professional regardless of the positive feedback you receive?
Do you feel the need to know the ins and outs of every detail of every task on your to-do list before you start working through it? Do you have a constant need to look for new ways to justify your abilities through relentless praise from your boss and co-workers? Are you the kind of person who won’t apply for a job because you don’t tick every single box or won’t raise your hand when you question something in fear of looking incapable or stepping outside of your ‘box’?
Are you naturally gifted with the ability to grasp most new concepts almost immediately yet find yourself struggling with the more complex work (that everyone struggles with)? Do you end up beating yourself up over the tasks you need an IQ of 132 to complete with the genuine feeling that you just aren’t good enough? If you’re used to things coming easily, your brain will automatically switch into imposter mode as soon as you have to start putting in effort that you wouldn’t normally have to focus on.
The role of the assistant is largely singular with a level of confidentiality requiring a sheltered approach to your work. Do you feel as though you have to accomplish tasks completely by yourself to the point that you refrain from asking for help when you really need it in fear of being seen as a failure, incapable in your role as a PA or a fraud?
SUPERMEN or SUPERWOMEN
Do you push yourself to work harder than everyone around you? Do you run yourself into the ground and feel that you need to ‘prove yourself’ to be seen as successful in all aspects of life, at work, as a friend, as a parent and in your relationship? Do you find yourself feeling like a failure when you realise you can’t juggle every ball, it’s likely that your red cape starts to become unhinged from your daily ensemble?
Why do people experience impostor syndrome?
Unfortunately, the reality is that there are endless causes of imposter syndrome meaning that there is no one single answer which can rid you of your self-provoked fakery issues. Those who suffer could relay their imposter like thoughts to several past events throughout life. Some experts believe that the occurrence of this mental health condition can relate to certain personality traits including anxiety or neuroticism while others focus on family or behavioural causes. The origins of imposter syndrome can date as far back as childhood with memories of not feeling that your exam results were good enough or that your siblings hand the upper hand in certain areas. “People often internalise these ideas: that in order to be loved or be lovable, ‘I need to achieve,’” says Psychologist Audrey Ervin. “It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.”
Imposter syndrome can also be strongly linked to external factors such as a person’s environment or institutional prejudice or discrimination with the sense of belonging naturally breeding the feeling of confidence. “The more people who look or sound like you, the more confident you feel. And conversely, the fewer people who look or sound like you, it can and does for many people impact their confidence.” says Dr. Valerie Young.
Young adds that “whenever you belong to a group for whom there are stereotypes about competence,” including racial or ethnic minorities, imposter syndrome can strike hard and fast making an everlasting impact on generations to come.
How to deal with impostor syndrome
Overcoming impostor syndrome starts with the ability to acknowledge the tell-tale signs and put them into perspective. Dr. Valerie Young advises following the below steps to overcome imposter syndrome:
- Break the silence. Shame keeps a lot of people from “fessing up” about their fraudulent feelings. Knowing there’s a name for these feelings and that you are not alone can be tremendously freeing.
- Separate feelings from fact. There are times you’ll feel stupid. It happens to everyone from time to time. Realise that just because you may feel stupid, doesn’t mean you are.
- Recognise when you should feel fraudulent. If you’re one of the first or the few women or a minority in your field or workplace, it’s only natural you’d sometimes feel like you don’t totally fit in. Instead of taking your self-doubt as a sign of your ineptness, recognise that it might be a normal response to be an outsider.
- Accentuate the positive. Perfectionism can indicate a healthy drive to excel. The trick is to not obsess over everything being just so. Do a great job when it matters most, without persevering over routine tasks. Forgive yourself when the inevitable mistake happens.
- Develop a new response to failure and mistake making. Henry Ford once said, “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.” Instead of beating yourself up for being human and blowing the big project, do what professional athletes do and glean the learning value from the mistake and move on.
- Right the rules. If you’ve been operating under misguided rules like, “I should always know the answer,” or “Never ask for help” start asserting your rights. Recognise that you have just as much right as the next person to be wrong, have an off-day, or ask for assistance.
- Develop a new script. Your script is that automatic mental tapes that starts playing in situations that trigger your Impostor feelings. When you start a new job or project instead of thinking for example, “Wait till they find out I have no idea what I’m doing,” try thinking, “Everyone who starts something new feels off-base in the beginning. I may not know all the answers but I’m smart enough to find them out.”
- Visualise success. Do what professional athletes do. Spend time beforehand picturing yourself making a successful presentation or calmly posing your question in class. It sure beats picturing impending disaster and will help with performance-related stress.
- Reward yourself. Break the cycle of continually seeking X and then dismissing X amount of validation outside of yourself by learning to pat yourself on the back.
- Fake it ‘til you make it. Now and then we all have to fly by the seat of our pants. Instead of considering “winging it” as proof of your ineptness, learn to do what many high achievers do and view it as a skill. The point of the worn-out phrase, fake it til you make it, still stands: Don’t wait until you feel confident to start putting yourself out there. Courage comes from taking risks. Change your behaviour first and allow your confidence to build.