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Simplifying Imposter Syndrome: Imposter is that You or Me?

Until I heard the term, I had no idea I was battling Imposter Syndrome. But as I listened to one of the speakers at a Speakers Convention I attended 5 years ago, the speaker was describing my experience almost word-for-word. I have enjoyed a degree of rapid success in various industries I have been in. When I was in high-school, I was a deputy-head boy, the chairman of Student

council, Chairman of athletics team, captain of soccer team, debate champion, even became Mr Lindley High School with even more academic accolades than I can remember, and yet I was overwhelmed with feeling that I wasn’t good enough.

I don’t know if it was because of poverty, or having no present parents, or the colourism issue that was part of my upbringing or just being a black person born in a country that didn’t see me as being fully worthy, all I know is that I couldn’t remember a time where I felt I was enough or that I deserve even the recognition is was getting due to my proficiencies and excellence at work. I would start at a company, get promoted in less than the required 6 months minimum period and rise some more. Then, I would feel an inexplicable urge to leave the company, in case they find out that I am not as good as they say I am. I did this at 3 different companies. I would work hard and excel to the top, but I would freeze because I didn’t know how to be at the top. Put me at the bottom and tell me I would fail, I would fight to prove that I wasn’t and rise above limitation set on me. Interestingly, those voices of descent would catch up with me at the top. I would feel like an imposter, diminish my success and brilliance by dismissing compliments and pointing to others who should get the recognition. Then start feeling like I don’t belong at the top.

When I heard about it and it all made perfect sense, Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome is a phenomenon that plagues many individuals, it turned out. One is left feeling like a fraudulent imposter despite their actual competence and accomplishments. This psychological condition can manifest in various ways, often undermining self-esteem and hindering personal growth. It is intricate to have these feelings of inadequacy when there is so much evidence and acknowledgment that proves to the contrary. Recently I shared a small snippet from a talk I did on the topic and the response was overwhelming, lots of people said what U felt when I first heard of it, “You’re describing me, I just didn’t know who to explain it.”

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter Syndrome, first coined by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978, refers to a persistent feeling of self-doubt and the belief that one's success is merely due to luck or external factors rather than one's skills or abilities. Those experiencing Imposter Syndrome often believe that they will be exposed as frauds at any moment.

How Does It Manifest Itself?

Imposter Syndrome manifests in various ways, including:

Ÿ Perfectionism: Setting unrealistically high standards and fearing failure. Many psychologist agree that perfectionism is a manifestation of being insecure about one's competencies and fearing failure. What is

perfectionism is actually fear of imperfection and the negative perception that may stem from delivering work that may be seen as inferior.

Ÿ Overworking: Compensating for perceived inadequacy by working excessively.

Ÿ Self-Sabotage: Undermining one's own achievements or hesitating to take on new challenges on fear of failure.

Ÿ Discounting Success: Attributing successes to external factors and not personal competence. Minimizing one's brilliance by saying things like: "Oh its nothing really", even though the person needs that validation.

Ÿ Comparing to Others: Constantly comparing oneself unfavourably to peers. Often perceiving other people's work as being better than yours, even when evidence presents otherwise.

What Are the Causes of Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter Syndrome can arise from multiple sources:

Ÿ Early Childhood Experiences: Upbringing that emphasizes the importance of achievement can instill a fear of failure.

Ÿ Personality Traits: Perfectionists and high-achievers are often more prone to Imposter syndrome. High-

achievers often fear not being able to sustain the high level of performance.

Ÿ Workplace Environment: A highly competitive or critical workplace can exacerbate feelings of inadequacy. More so if the workplace has a tendency to punish mistakes and poorly reward excellence.

Ÿ Cultural Factors: Societal pressure and stereotypes can lead individuals to doubt their abilities. In a country like South Africa, historically certain people groups were viewed as inferior and incapable. Such negative views are harmful to esteem, subsequently creating a Mindset of inferiority fuelling our inherent vulnerability to poor self-esteem.

Ÿ Major Life Transitions: Career changes, promotions, or new responsibilities can trigger Imposter Syndrome. When we get promoted, we have to grow into who we need to be to reach the level of proficiency that only comes with time and experience. During that process, we are prone to feeling unfit and unqualified for the position thus fuelling our Imposter Syndrome.

How Can You Overcome Imposter Syndrome?

Ÿ Acknowledge Feelings: Recognize and accept that you are experiencing Imposter Syndrome. Identify it, Understand it, manage it and take charge of it. One cannot overcome what they won’t acknowledge.

Ÿ Talk About It: Share your feelings with a trusted friend, mentor, or therapist. Preferably do not discuss this with someone at work. Create safe ecosystems outside of your professional environment to discuss this confidentially.

Ÿ Reframe Thoughts: Challenge negative self-talk by focusing on your accomplishments. Talk to yourself based on what you have achieved not what you fear. For example say: "I have done this before and I can do it again. In fact I am more experienced now and I will do better than before."

Ÿ Set Realistic Goals: Avoid perfectionism and set achievable, incremental goals. Goals should be challenging but anxiety triggers. Know your own process of excellence so that you can repeat your success more consistently. Have an excellentist mindset, not a perfectionist mindset. Excellence is about your best every time, not the best of everyone.

Ÿ Track Achievements: Keep a record of your successes to remind yourself of your abilities. You are competing with your potential, not others. The objective should be to reach your optimal self so that you can achieve the best life you can based on the best version of you.

Ÿ Embrace Failure: Understand that failure is part of growth and learning. Don't label failure as proof of incompetence if it is merely an indication of growth gaps. Accept that when you begin anything, you need to learn, grow and become proficient and that includes potential failures as you learn.

Ÿ Seek Support: Surround yourself with supportive individuals who believe in your capabilities. To the best of ability, avoid and minimize engagement with people who criticize you habitually. Be in an ecosystem that gives constructive feedback and encourage you to go after what you want and succeed.

Examples of Successful People Who Have Overcome Imposter Syndrome

Ÿ Trevor Noah: Recently in an interview at Talk Radio 702, Trevor admitted to struggling with imposter syndrome.

Ÿ Maya Angelou: The acclaimed writer and poet admitted to feeling like a fraud despite her literary success. She overcame it by focusing on her passion for writing and the impact it had on others.

Ÿ Tom Hanks: The renowned actor has spoken about his self-doubt despite his numerous awards. He attributed his success to hard work and perseverance.

Ÿ Sheryl Sandberg: The Facebook COO and author of "Lean In" has openly discussed her battles with Imposter Syndrome and the importance of believing in oneself.

In conclusion, Imposter Syndrome is a widespread challenge that affects many individuals across various fields. Recognizing its presence and understanding its manifestations and causes are crucial steps toward conquering it. By implementing strategies for self-affirmation and learning from successful figures who have faced similar struggles, one can overcome Imposter Syndrome and embrace their true capabilities. Remember, you are not alone in this battle, and your accomplishments are a testament to your competence and hard work.

Companies need to be aware of this phenomenon and build cultures that are inclusive, encourage individualism, have a fair reward system and encourage leaders to build collaborative and focus on growth mindset rather being fixed in their ways.

About the Author

Jabu Zwane is a Mindset Development Specialist and Founder of The Mindset Development Institute and Success Mindset Summit. He is the Vice-president of the Professional Speakers Association of Southern Africa ( PSASA). He is a host of a Motivational segment of INX Prime TV every Monday, titled, Monday Motivation. He is a contributor to several publications on various topics and has been featured on, GQ magazine, Newsroom Africa, Power FM, Talk Radio 702, SABC Radio and many more.

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