Perhaps you don’t logically believe it, but if you suffer from imposter syndrome, there is often a little voice whispering in your ear that no matter how competent or successful you may appear, you actually aren’t really good enough, you just got lucky, and that people are soon going to realise that you don’t deserve the praise, the job, or the money.

People sometimes talk about ‘healthy self-doubt’, but there is a world of difference between accepting the evident truth that we all have limitations and fallibilities, and being crippled by such thoughts.

Fools, fanatics, and wiser people

Ironically, it is often the most dedicated and conscientious of people who suffer the most. As Bertrand Russell famously said,

‘’The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” 

Russell’s observation is backed up by a psychological observation known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, which states that people who aren’t very good at something generally don’t have the experience or know-how to judge how good they are, and so they tend to assume that they’re brilliant, whereas those with more know-how and experience realise how much more there is to learn, and therefore doubt themselves. Often far more than is healthy.

Who experiences imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is also much more common than you might think, with one well-known study finding that 70% of people have felt it at some point. Most researchers also agree that it’s more prevalent in women than in men. One explanation for this is that it’s more likely whenever someone feels as if they are an ‘outsider’. So women working in a man’s world are more likely to suffer from it, as are other kinds of ‘outsiders’, such as those from a different class or cultural background or race to those around them. This is particularly exacerbated when the person feels that they are somehow expected to represent everyone ‘like them’ and that any failure they may have reflects on everyone they represent.

The impacts of imposter syndrome are not to be dismissed lightly. It can make you super sensitive to criticism, which in turn may lead to you avoiding taking any risks or doing anything for which you may receive criticism. Imposter syndrome can lead to over-work as you constantly try to make up for any possible inadequacies by working twice as hard as anyone else. It can cause you to procrastinate, as you worry that the piece of work is not going to be good enough. It may turn you into too much of a people pleaser, always afraid to say no, and taking on too much, in order to avoid criticism. And, at it’s worst it can lead to complete paralysis, as you fail to move forward in life, or do any of the things you really want to do.

Do you recognise yourself?

Perhaps you are recognising yourself, or your students (or both) in some of this description? It wouldn’t be unlikely. I am currently working with a small group of ELT Professionals: language trainers, teacher trainers, writers, editors, on a 12 week programme to support them through developing their business, and, while the business training in such things as what to put on your website or linked in profile, how to develop a following on social media, how to negotiate, are obviously important, the work we’re doing on mindset, and particularly imposter syndrome, is just as vital, if not even more so. Every single one of the group members admitted to having felt it.

How to overcome imposter syndrome

So, how can we beat imposter syndrome? Well, in my experience, both personal and working with others, the more you try and overcome or fight these kinds of negative thoughts and feelings, the bigger they seem to get. It isn’t about stopping the thoughts, but about learning not to take too much notice of them. They’re just thoughts, you don’t have to believe them.

Yet, we all know, thoughts can feel very real and overwhelming. Perhaps the first step is to admit these thoughts to someone you trust. You may well find that they have experienced similar feelings themselves. This in itself can be a huge relief, as so many of us have held these self-doubts within like a ‘big secret’.

Then start trying to ‘catch’ the thoughts as you have them. To give an example, someone on my group programme expressed the thought, ‘I can’t start a blog because I have nothing interesting to say.’ Then ask yourself some coaching questions (These ones are based on the work of Byron Katie). Firstly, ask yourself, ‘Is that really true?’ If you are honest with yourself, you’ll soon see that no-one would ever have a conversation with you if that were true. Then ask yourself, ‘How do I behave or react when I believe that thought?’ Write down everything from the physical sensations (maybe your jaw tightens, or your stomach clenches) to the bigger consequences (you remain stuck in a job you hate). Finally, ask yourself, ‘Who would I be without that thought?’ Allow yourself to feel the freedom and expansiveness if that thought wasn’t controlling you.

Don’t try to suppress the imposter thoughts.

You don’t have to suppress the imposter thoughts, just realise that they are really no more than faulty programming in your brain. The better you get at noticing and interrogating these thoughts, the less power they will have over you.

At first this feels hard. You’re so used to automatically believing everything your thoughts tell you. But it gets easier with practice, like developing an unused muscle. And the more you do this, the freer you are to have the confidence to share with the world all the brilliant things that you can do.

If you’re interested in finding out more about my group programme, there are more details here.

This post was originally published in the August 2020 edition of the Neurolanguage Collective Magazine.