I began writing this piece in September 2021 and, like a number of the pieces I begin, I set it aside because I was ‘too busy’ to finish it and the voice in my head was whispering, ‘You’re not enough of an expert on this subject matter to write about it, so put it away’. And then, as often happens, I came across an article with nearly the same title and thought to myself, ‘you did it again, you had an opinion that was worth sharing and here it is’. And so, I am sharing my piece and also a link to this excellent article in the Harvard Business Review (February 11, 2021) by Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey – Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome. Reading this provided me with the push I needed to finish what I began writing and to ignore that unhelpful voice (some of you may know her?).
Over the past few years, I have heard the words ‘I have imposter syndrome’ spoken by an alarmingly large number of my clients, a majority of them women. It feels a bit like its own pandemic in the leadership space. If it is this, a pandemic of sorts, we need to find the ingredients to a vaccine that supports people to spend more time knowing and trusting their worth, their value and their absolute right to be in the positions that they hold and far less time doubting themselves and the value they add – personally and professionally. The clients that I work with would like to rest solidly in the value that they bring each and every day to their families, their communities, their organizations, and their teams so that they no longer expend unnecessary mental and physical energy questioning their belonging and right to be included. To be frank, of my clients who identify with imposter syndrome, their expertise and intelligence would be far greater utilized if their energy was no longer depleted by self-doubt and questions of belonging. These individuals are much too brilliant to be wasting their valuable time on such self-doubt.
To better understand imposter syndrome, I began, like the authors of the article that I have cited, by defining it. The full definition of imposter syndrome is “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success… imposters suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence” (Corkindale, G. Overcoming Imposter Syndrome, HBR, May 2008). This definition matches my clients who describe feeling inadequate despite a number of external signs of success.
An imposter is a person who pretends to be someone else; a person who deceives others for their own fraudulent gain. Of all of the clients that I’ve worked with, who have expressed feeling like an imposter, not one of them ever resonated with this definition nor did they exhibit any signs of pretending, deceiving, or trying to gain by fraudulent means. In fact, all of them do the opposite – they work tirelessly to prove themselves and to contribute tremendous value (often at great expense to themselves and their personal lives).
A syndrome is “a group of symptoms which consistently occur together, or a condition characterized by a set of associated symptoms”. What are the symptoms of being an imposter? In my experience of working with clients who claim this label of imposter syndrome, their symptoms include - and this is not an exhaustive list - anxiety, lack of sleep, muscle tension, rapidity of thoughts, self-doubt, exhaustion, shallow breath, unusual weight gain or weight loss, low mood, loss of motivation, and skin issues. In my experience of working with leaders, these are signs of depression or burn out. These symptoms do not show up because you are an imposter but rather because you are fighting so tirelessly to prove yourself to be valued and to belong and often feeling unrecognized, disrespected, unrewarded, and excluded. Those who feel like an imposter are often a part of a system that is failing to create an inclusive environment. I am concerned that this then is labelled, by the individual themselves or by someone else, as a syndrome that is attributed to an individual. I argue that it’s not your syndrome to be labelled with.
This is where I have serious concerns that we’ve pathologized an experience of not belonging and of not being valued. We’ve created a label for a disorder that has been placed on an individual who is already trying very hard in what is most often a system that is not doing its best to create a culture of inclusion and belonging. Adding a label to what already feels like ‘less than’ or ‘not enough’ is deepening the injury to one human being and not dealing with the root causes. Each time I hear a client say that they have imposter syndrome I feel compelled to say – you are NOT an imposter and let’s work together to build your capacity to advocate for yourself and to refuse to accept this unfair label of imposter syndrome. I acknowledge that this can be challenging, if not impossible, for some.
In Tulshyan and Burey’s 2021 article in the Harvard Business Review, they speak powerfully about the structural and systemic issues that lie at the core of imposter syndrome. They write that “biased practices across institutions routinely stymie the ability of individuals from underrepresented groups to truly thrive.” I found validation for my objection to the label or diagnosis of imposter syndrome as well as a connection to the authors as I read that, “the answer to overcoming imposter syndrome is not to fix individuals but to create an environment that fosters a variety of leadership styles and in which diverse racial, ethnic, and gender identities are seen as just as professional as the current model” and that, “Rather than focus on fixing imposter syndrome, professionals whose identities have been marginalized and discriminated against must experience a cultural shift writ large.”
The antidote to imposter syndrome is our authentic self and yet, it would be incredibly irresponsible and missing the point altogether of me to recommend that all you need to do is be your most authentic self. It is very often not safe enough to do so. And so, until we do experience a cultural shift large enough and until we have the systems and structures in place that cultivate the acceptance and celebration of our diversity, it will be wise to assess the safety of the environment. And, to remain open to what is possible when you are able to bring your full YOU.