The Truth Behind Impostor Syndrome

No one is perfect and no one should expect anyone else to be. This is a very simple statement and fact, yet it has been one of the biggest hurdles of my life.

I am the sixth of seven children and the youngest daughter. I came from a family where report cards were all A’s and a B was analyzed — never with any real disappointment or anger, but there was a definite expectation for all of us to give our best at all times. Ultimately, my parents are my heroes and their parenting is a blueprint I try to emulate as a mom of two young boys with another on the way. I think the benefits of my childhood environment far outweigh any residual effects, but as an adult I can analyze and see where the tendency for perfectionism began.

Beyond my family environment, I put extreme expectations on myself to shine from a very young age. Through the years, this tendency followed me from school and extracurricular activities through modeling and onto building a career. The ramifications of the pressure I put on myself internally were revealed through control tactics including over-exercising, issues with food, over-working, and panic attacks while sleeping. I am pretty sure I didn’t have panic attacks while awake because I wouldn’t let myself waste the time or energy on what seemed like such a weakness. When anything seemed out of control, I found something to control in another way. It’s the classic false remedy for a perfectionist.

I learned about “impostor syndrome” a few years ago and was able to use this understanding to dissect what I dealt with in my youth and young adult years.

I feel strongly about sharing this content because I believe most people have some variation of impostor syndrome. Studies suggest 70% of people experience impostor syndrome at some point in their career. It doesn’t have to be on a massive scale and it can show up at different times through different life experiences.

As I focus on content that opens the conversation around working on things from the inside-out, my aim is to encourage leaders to analyze their own personal workings to then create more holistic lives. In turn, they will approach others more holistically, lead more effectively, and build better businesses.

To help others analyze whether they also deal with some form of impostor syndrome, here are the five groups that Dr. Valerie Young, an expert on the subject, has categorized (source):

  • The Perfectionist: Perfectionism and impostor syndrome are close friends. Perfectionists can’t help but set excessive goals for themselves, and suffer from self-doubt and fear of not measuring up to an impossible standard. Perfectionists can also suffer from control-related issues in their attempt to meet their standard.
  • The Superwoman/man: The Superwoman/man often pushes themself to work harder and harder to measure up and compete with others, but this is just to cover insecurities. They create a work overload that is actually searching for validation; they become workaholics and put themselves and their relationships at risk.
  • The Natural Genius: The Natural Genius judges his/her competence based how easy and fast they can accomplish something as opposed to just their efforts. They are shamed by not getting something right the first time or taking a long time on a task.
  • The Soloist: The Soloist sees asking for help as a weakness and evidence of their phoniness.
  • The Expert: The Expert measure themselves on “what” and “how much” they know or can do. Underneath all of their knowledge is a fear of not knowing or not being the “expert” at everything. The endless seeking of knowledge can actually be a form of procrastination.

I can honestly say I have suffered from different variations of these over the years, which indicates to me that there is a common denominator underlying all of them — a fear of inadequacy or rejection.

I think it is important to mention the connection between women in the workplace and impostor syndrome because studies show that anyone who belongs to a group for whom there are stereotypes about competence, those people have more tendency to suffer with feelings of inadequacy or the need to be perfect to compete. It is also a fact that women suffer more from impostor syndrome — at least knowingly.

In the words of one of the most successful female artists in history, I believe this is a widely experienced issue among women:

I’m so sick of running as fast as I can

Wondering if I’d get there quicker if I was a man

And I’m so sick of them coming at me again

’Cause if I was a man, then I’d be the man

Taylor Swift “The Man”

Clearly sex-role stereotyping influences even the most successful women in the world. Perhaps it effects these high-achieving women most. Numerous achievements, which should provide ample evidence of superior intellect and ability do not rid them of their impostor belief.

Men tend to own success as an inherent quality, while women are more likely either to project the cause of success outward to luck or to a temporary effort that they do not equate with inherent ability.

The presence of impostor syndrome in high-achieving women leads to perpetual issues that I see over and over again among my peers. Burn-out, stress, anxiety, disease, fertility struggles and more are all so common in today’s professional world for female executives. Many don’t share these struggles due to even more fear of being found to be as the impostor they have been fighting to hide. So, they suffer alone or in the privacy of their own home, creating more issues for themselves and their loved ones.

It’s all a cyclical mess that is based on no truth. These women are far more successful and capable than most of their counterparts. The lens they are viewed through, by both themselves and their male counterparts, imposes a harsh analysis of their ability to perform, to “stay in the room” and to play in the big leagues.

Considering all of this, why do so many suffer from the same fears? Why are so many high-achievers actually motivated by a deep fear that they’re not enough? Clearly the result of all of the high-achieving has the tendency to pay off economically or in the world’s eyes of success, but at what cost?

Society has led us to believe in self-mastery as the way to success. From childhood on we learn that the key to being valued and loved is to perform, and not just to perform to our greatest capability, but beyond it. How one measures up compared to others is in the makeup of our families, our schools, and our work places. Today’s society, is centered on how we measure up in COMPARISON to one another as opposed to how we CONTRIBUTE to one another. In many Eastern societies and during the agricultural era, a member of a family and a community was valued for how they contributed to the common need and goal. Today, we are valued for how we UNIQUELY add value as individuals.

PERSPECTIVE

For me, the first step was to understand my tendency to shift my high-achieving nature into an unhealthy priority and motivation, which opens the door to impostor syndrome. By identifying the issue, I am able to recognize the underlying fears which create ramifications that I have had to overcome multiple times in my life. I detest the issues I have overcome much more than the benefits I received from my self-mastery, which makes it easier for me to step outside and analyze from a third person point-of-view.

POINT TO TRUTH

Work on obtaining a growth mindset. Look at yourself and your life as a work in progress. Don’t think you or anyone ever needs to be “perfect”. All of us are perfectly ourselves in the moment we are in. It is far more productive to look at failures, short-comings and trials as opportunities to grow.

VALIDATION

Look for validation in the right places. Train yourself to veer away from external validation. No one should have the power to make you feel good or bad about yourself. At the same time, it is a paramount life skill to learn to take constructive criticism seriously, not personally.

Personally, I believe our souls are searching for a much deeper source of validation that can only be filled by God. I have put my spiritual journey with God in the highest priority position in my internal life, which puts all of my external relationships in the proper position. This has alleviated so many of the battles in my head and heart looking for validation from the wrong sources — bosses, partners, friends, family. As a result of this shift, I am able to love others from another source and at a capacity I was never capable of when I walked through life in a self-protective manner.

COMMUNITY

Look at your environments as communities that need to work together to achieve a common goal. Identify the common goals at home, at work and in other relationships and train your mind to focus on getting everyone to that goal as opposed to getting anywhere alone. This should open doors for asking for help and relying on others when needed. View others as unique blueprints with whom you can work to learn and grow. Release the shame of not knowing and not being perfect and help others to have the same freedom.

Just like everything else, I see overcoming impostor syndrome as a journey. The key for me has been to know it has been in my operating system, which has given me the ability to learn about it, understand the underlying reasoning, and grow beyond it. Awareness has given me the ability to identify the tendencies and shift as needed. It has also given me the freedom to be open and honest with others, which is why I am even able to write such posts as this.

I believe every life is unique and can serve as a “blueprint” for others, but also as a perfect puzzle piece for those around them. I hate to see lives hindered by the paralysis of impostor syndrome, which acts as a lie against the true worth of every life. When people are free from this unnecessary bondage, they can offer everything that they truly are to the world. I believe we can work to free one another through sharing our shortcomings in order to overcome together. After all, what are we really sharing with one another if we’re not sharing life?

Alexis is an experienced executive with 15+ years of expertise in strategy, communications, branding, marketing and wellness.

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