My husband and I were out on a walk recently and he asked what was on my mind. I’ve recently become self-employed and at the beginning I was buzzing but, as a little time has passed, I’ve become more introspective. I started talking then he interrupted and said “It’s self-doubt talking, you think you aren’t good enough, you shouldn’t be doing it, people are going to think you’ve made a mistake, Impostor Syndrome. I know. I’ve been there”.
What is Impostor Syndrome?
Back in 1978, the same year that ‘Superman: The movie’ and ‘Grease’ were released, (a couple of random facts for you there!), a journal article called “The impostor phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention” was published. In it, two psychologists Pauline Clance & Suzanne Imes claimed that: -
‘Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the impostor phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.’
This concept has morphed over the years and is more frequently referred to as Impostor Syndrome with common language referring to someone’s inner fear of being exposed as a "fraud".
Impostor Syndrome can impact anyone
My observation, and I know I am not alone, would be that Impostor Syndrome is a term that still tends to more frequently be used when talking about women, usually female leaders, or other female high achievers. It is much less frequently referenced in conversation or in the media in connection with men. This maybe because of the original study sample, but regardless of the reason, it remains the perception. This is despite more recent studies (Badawy et al 2018 and Josa 2019) and anecdotal feedback which clearly show that it can also affect men. I can’t think of many famous men who have spoken about the challenges they have faced in their life as a result of Imposter Syndrome, although I’m sure there are some, yet there are many famous women who have spoken about their experiences.
Intuitively this has never sat comfortably with me and, if I’m honest, it annoys me. I think this does a disservice to both men and women. For women it’s often referenced in various gender debates to explain away equal pay issues or lack of female senior management representation, and for men it’s much harder to openly identify with this phenomenon when it’s informally labelled as a female ‘issue’.
Despite this, I have begun to see a growing number of ‘normal’ (i.e. not famous) men speak out on LinkedIn and in other media regarding Impostor Syndrome challenges they have faced, whilst navigating the impact of the current pandemic. The general theme is ‘I’m not good enough, I don’t know if I can do this’. In every case where I’ve seen this, I’ve spotted surprise, from people who know them, that someone so capable and successful would be feeling this. I’ve also witnessed, without exception, high levels of support, positive reinforcement, including talent recognition, and other men acknowledging similar thoughts and feelings.
I conducted my own little study, asking some of the men I work with and know whether they believed men could be impacted by Impostor Syndrome. The responses were overwhelmingly ‘yes’, in fact, there was surprise by one person that anyone would think it wasn’t the case. Some of the comments: -
“It definitely affects men as well as women. I often worry about whether I’m doing the right thing although I wouldn’t ordinarily share this with others.”
“I’m worried about whether I’ll live up to the expectations people have of me.”
“I’ve struggled to fall at sleep at night as I keep playing on repeat conversations I’ve had, thinking that I could have handled them better and worrying about what people will be thinking about me.”
“It’s good to talk”
In conversations with these men I was reminded once again of the power of understanding ourselves and the impact our thoughts have on our lives; often this understanding comes from sharing our experiences and thoughts, and realising we aren’t alone.
Many women more naturally discuss thoughts and feelings whereas men don’t tend to share their innermost thoughts that easily, in fact sharing anything which they believe others may consider a sign of weakness or vulnerability can take some building up to. This is a grand generalisation I realise but there is some truth here. Whilst it can be helpful to have a specific term to relate to and explain how you are thinking, I worry that with Impostor Syndrome being connected more frequently with women it makes it even harder for men experiencing the same thoughts and feelings to speak up. This is made even harder if Impostor Syndrome has been positioned as a ‘weakness’, rather than something which, if you are conscious of and work with, enables you to get to whole new levels of self-awareness and growth.
So, whilst we can worry that by opening up we are exposing ourselves and will suffer as a result, I would suggest that in fact doing this provides the opportunity to truly test, and then adapt, any unhelpful internal monologues which might be holding you back. A real gift to yourself. By not doing so we also miss out on the ability to inspire others and role model behaviours that can challenge the internal fraudster that hides within many of us. It takes courage to open up in this way but it’s worth remembering, to quote Brené Brown, “vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage”.
So, I challenge you, men, and women, acknowledge and then embrace your Impostor Syndrome. You might find it makes you an even better leader, parent, partner, consultant, teacher, friend...
Oh… and for those interested, in the rest of the conversation my husband shared more about his experience and then did a great job of reminding me about the importance of opening up and challenging my own inner monologue. Turns out he’s not as stupid as he looks. I think I’ll keep him around for a bit longer.
By Davina Houlton, Coach & HR Consultant
When she’s not out walking with her dog, or her husband, Davina helps people and teams achieve their goals, by providing a safe space for them to explore and address issues.
Davina has a background in HR and over the last 20 years has worked across a range of industries and organisations, leading her own teams through significant change projects and coaching managers on a variety of issues.
She is passionate about great coaching conversations and the value these bring to individuals and organisations. She is supportive yet challenging as she believes both are needed for people to grow.