Imposter Syndrome – A Gift or a Curse?

“…But that has always been my struggle – that old familiar friend doubt. That feeling of I don’t belong here and I don’t deserve this. I don’t know why I’m so eager to undermine my own talents. I guess because it feels easier to reduce my abilities than to step into the greatness of my purpose. I know that we are supposed to be strong and powerful and audacious, and we can be all those things. But human beings are more complex than that, I’m more complex than that. A lot of the time I feel like an imposter…”

This is an excerpt from a speech by Hollywood actress Naomi Aja King on her battle with self-doubt. It is a speech I listen to regularly; I have the transcript saved on my phone and I have shared it with every female founder at every yher Africa Accelerator. For the first time, I found words that articulated exactly how this thing made me feel. This thing called Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome is defined as a “psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud.’” I define it as the exhausting feeling of never feeling enough.

For the longest time, I described myself as the poster-child for Imposter Syndrome,  because it owned me! I knew I suffered from this debilitating feeling of never feeling enough, but had never done the work as to why.

In 2017, I signed up for coaching sessions where I completed an Enneagram Test, – a system of personality typing that describes patterns in how people interpret the world and manage their emotions.

My Enneagram Test revealed that I was an Enneagram 1 – The Strict Perfectionist. In short, my core fear is being imperfect or making mistakes. With intense coaching and therapy work, I discovered that the strict perfectionist in me stemmed from my childhood.

I had an older brother who was diagnosed with Hunter’s Syndrome at the age of four. My parents found this out when they noticed that my milestones were surpassing his, even though I was two years younger than him. This observation highlighted to my parents that something was not right which led them to seek medical help that later confirmed his condition. Unconsciously, I assumed the role of the perfect-child; an unrealistic narrative I have owned for thirty-something years!

I share that brief personal history because sometimes people don’t understand the depth or the root-cause of their own Imposter Syndrome and therefore struggle with how to confront it, let alone manage it.

The Five-Types of Imposter Syndrome – Medium

An overwhelming amount of research suggests that Impostor Syndrome isn’t a gender-specific issue, although it tends to be especially prevalent among women and is exacerbated by social constructs that outline how women ‘should be.’

Research also shows that Imposter Syndrome affects minority groups disproportionately or as Valerie Young, the author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, explains, “people who have the pressure of ‘accomplishing firsts.’”

Speaking to a Funder recently, she shared that she had observed that self-doubt is one of the reasons female founders opted out of some business endeavours which resulted in missed opportunities for growth. She mentioned that female founders too often downplay their experiences, despite their traction. Psychologist, Jess Baker qualifies this further – “Entrepreneurs may be more likely to experience Imposter Syndrome because they are always stepping outside of their comfort zone, and striving for success. That is when we are most likely to question ourselves and our abilities. Men are however more likely to push through the syndrome while women tend to give in to their self-doubt.”

Experiencing how Imposter Syndrome can sabotage us and knowing that there really is no cure for this ugly monster, is our only option then to befriend our loud inner critic?

Editor-in-Chief of ELLE-UK  and author of The Discomfort Zone Farrah Storr, argues that “Imposter Syndrome is a miraculous self-checking gauge that delivers excellence” and should be every woman’s secret weapon. “Imposter Syndrome is an internal control valve which alerts us when we are in our discomfort zone. And that’s crucial, because this is the zone where accelerated growth happens. Feeling fraudulent is a sign you are being challenged. And when we’re challenged that’s when we make true breakthroughs.”

Below are more of her tips for turning Imposter Syndrome into a gift, rather than completely accepting it as a curse –

1 – SAY YES TO EVERYTHING

Imposter Syndrome makes you say no to every opportunity that comes your way, filling your head with a dozen different variations on: ‘I’m not ready/good enough/skilled enough.’ That’s why I do the very opposite and say yes to everything- immediately. That way my mind doesn’t have time to come up with an excuse. Once you’d said yes, the ball is in motion. All you have to do is prepare, prepare, prepare…

2 – DEMAND ANSWERS

Imposter Syndrome is that double-edged sword in that it wants answers but is too scared to ask them for fear of looking stupid. But in a rapidly advancing age where few of us know the direction of travel, those that ask questions are those that get ahead. So listen to the voice that needs a question answered. Tell yourself it’s not doubt or lack of knowledge that wants answers, but curiosity. Use the phrase ‘I’m curious to understand why…’ instead of ‘I don’t understand why…’ which makes asking sound more of a necessity for everyone in the room and less a conformation to others of your lack of knowledge.

3- OPEN UP THE DIALOGUE

Vulnerability is one of the most underrated values at work. It also comes hand in hand with Imposter Syndrome. But it’s no use unless you share it. Sharing fears not only bonds you with colleagues but opens up the dialogue for growth. I’ll never forget telling a senior colleague I had no idea how to figure out a finance spreadsheet. She in turn told me she had no idea how to write an article. We traded skill sets. We bonded. We both grew and no one died for admitting their weakness.

 4- LISTEN IN

And when you’ve done all of that? Listen to that internal voice. The minute you don’t hear it is the minute you’re no longer being challenged. Or worse – are caught off guard. But rather than hear: ‘I’m a fraud. I shouldn’t be here.’ Tell yourself: ‘I’m in my discomfort zone. I’m growing. This is exactly how it should feel.’

***

My personal journey with Imposter Syndrome has led me to observe that I often experience it when I insist that I need to show up perfectly in the world instead of amplifying the imperfect qualities I underestimate about myself that make me uniquely me. I am however learning that at some point, I do need to stop judging myself out of my magnificence; and as Naomi concludes in her speech;

“…In order for me to survive in this world, in order for me to thrive I have to stop believing that the root of my talent is a tree growing in someone else’s yard. As if the fruit it bears doesn’t belong to me. All the evidence of my life thus far is telling me that this is no accident. That I do deserve to be here.”

Written by Katleho Tsoku

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