Imposter syndrome? Change your thinking.

Many of us has experienced imposter syndrome at some point in our lives. You know, that feeling that at any moment, someone is going to sneak up behind you, tap you on the shoulder and say “I know you have no idea what you’re doing”. It’s a dreadful feeling that has no place in the mind of any tenacious, intelligent, successful, and thriving person. So why is it?

Clinical psychologists, Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes, coined the phrase imposter phenomenon in 1978. According to their seminal paper, there are three defining features. “The first is a feeling that other people have an inflated perception of your abilities. Second is a fear that your true abilities will be found out, and third is a persistent tendency to attribute successes to external factors, such as luck or disproportionate effort.”

Let’s focus specifically on their third point.

Imposter syndrome can cause stress in the minds of many highly capable people, yet it doesn’t need to do so at all.

Individuals experiencing imposter syndrome will be attributing many of the experiences in their lives, good and bad, to external factors as Clance and Imes pointed out. So when they get a promotion, their thinking will go something like this:

I got the promotion because:

  • Others were probably not interested; or
  • It was a way for my boss to move me out of his/her department; or
  • I was just lucky; or
  • The policy at work states managers need to move people around into other roles.

Rather than ....

I got the promotion because:

  • I’ve achieved tangible results in my current role so I deserve it; or
  • The additional study I’ve undertaken outside of work has paid off; or
  • I put a lot of preparation into my application for the promotion highlighting my recent achievements.

So why do some people think differently? Why do some people attribute the good/bad experiences in their lives to external factors, and others to internal factors? Their beliefs. That’s it.

Beliefs are a set of personal viewpoints. The way you think, feel, behave, and see the world is based on your beliefs.

“I believe that finance is not my strong point.”

“I believe I’m a great father.”

“I’ve always been a stressful person.”

“I’m a born worrier.”

“I’ve always been good at sport.”

“I’m good at mentoring new team members.”

“Managing people has never been my strong point.”

“I’m terrible at impromptu speeches.”

These are all beliefs. Some of the above beliefs are limiting beliefs. In other words, they are beliefs which constrain the person who holds them in some way. We all have thousands and thousands of beliefs. The way you view any new experiences, will be through your current belief system.

So back to the original question of why do some people attribute the good/bad experiences in their lives to external factors, and others to internal factors? It’s based on their beliefs. So our person with imposter syndrome is viewing their promotion through limiting beliefs they hold.

The good news is that beliefs can change. Limiting ones can be changed to positive ones. As Rob Kelly says "A belief is simply a thought you keep on thinking"