Well, what do you expect?

MotherWhat do you expect of yourself? What do others expect of you? What do you expect of others? Through this tangle of expectations we form our view of ourselves and the world around us. And if you don’t meet these expectations? Well maybe you’re an imposter.

 

Being overpraised

Getting overpraised can lead to unrealistic expectations. For example, a child does well at school and the parents say “Oh, Johnny, well done. You’re so clever. You can achieve anything. You’ll go far”. Suddenly, the expectations on Johnny have risen. Now his one good result has turned into a lifelong expectation of doing great things—top of the class, scholarship, university medal, the Nobel Prize. And Johnny’s not so sure that he can match up to this. Inside, he knows he’s just Johnny, but somehow he’s tricked them into thinking he’s a genius. Especially as the praise has focused on an ability, i.e. cleverness, rather than his effort.

 

Low expectations

Some people have always been told that they are no good, that they will amount to nothing. People in our family, or people like us don’t get a good job, don’t get promoted, don’t go to university. So even when they do get a good job or go to university, there is the lurking fear that there is something wrong with this, that they don’t belong. Or that the success they achieved must be due to some external factor like luck, timing or patronage, because it couldn’t be due to the person themselves— because people like us don’t get a good job or go to university.

Baby“No one in my family had ever set foot on a university campus let alone gone to university. University wasn’t seen as important or relevant in any way. What was valued was getting a good safe job in a trade or in retail. So when I said I wanted to go to university to study English and philosophy, people thought I was nuts. What kind of job would I get from studying philosophy? And when I did start at uni, I was terrified. I felt completely out of place because all of the other students were from such different backgrounds to me.”
Emily, first in family to go to university

 

Fear of failure

As we’ve seen, the imposter syndrome is about the feeling of being exposed as a fraud, of failing to live up to some expectations. The idea of failing is so horrible that it is almost unbearable. For some people, failure is the ultimate shame. They do not recognise that failure is a normal part of life and that to achieve a lot you also have to have failures along the way.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter.
Try again. Fail again.
Fail better.”

Samuel Beckett, (1906-1989),
Irish author, Worstward Ho, 1983

Fear of success

For some people the fear of success leads to imposter feelings. What if I do well? The expectations will be raised the next time. They will expect this level from me all the time.

“I recently wrote this book, this memoir called “Eat, Pray, Love” which, decidedly unlike any of my previous books, went out in the world for some reason, and became this big, mega-sensation, international bestseller thing. The result of which is that everywhere I go now, people treat me like I’m doomed. Seriously— doomed, doomed! Like, they come up to me now, all worried, and they say, “Aren’t you afraid you’re never going to be able to top that? Aren’t you afraid you’re going to keep writing for your whole life and you’re never again going to create a book that anybody in the world cares about at all, ever again?”

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love. TED, 2009


These fears, of failure and success, are based around the expectations of others, about not meeting expectations and then being uncovered.

 

Perfectionism

perfectmotherOne of the characteristics of the imposter syndrome is unrealistic expectations. Some people have a tendency to set extreme expectations for themselves. For example, it’s not good enough to do well on a test, you have to do the best on the test. It’s not good enough to give a good presentation, you have to win the award for the best presentation. Many studies have found correlations between perfectionistic thinking and the imposter syndrome.

The problem with this approach is that very few things in life are perfect. This means that you are constantly falling short of this standard, and this can lead to imposter feelings. You will always be prone to being exposed as less than perfect.

 

Extract from The Imposter Syndrome, Hugh Kearns, 2015.

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The imposter syndrome at university

Claire
findafraudI can clearly remember my first day at university. It was terrifying. I was a mature student. As my kids got older I went back to high school and did well.

The teachers suggested that I should go to university to study sociology. No one in my family had ever been to university so I had no idea what to expect.

And suddenly I went from being top of the class in high school to feeling like I knew nothing.

I was surrounded by all these young kids, well they seemed like kids compared to me, who seemed really bright and confident. I wanted to walk out of that first lecture and never come back. I felt I shouldn’t be there. I was scared stiff in the tutorials that someone might ask me a question and then they’d find out what an uneducated clod I really was. I still feel like that now.”

Claire, mature-aged university student

University can make you feel stupid
You’d imagine you’d feel clever if you’d been accepted into university. However, many people’s first experience when they get there is to feel stupid. While you might have been the high achiever in your high school, you’re now surrounded by really smart people. You feel “I shouldn’t be here. Maybe I’m not that clever after all. Maybe this is where I’ve reached my limit.” And the academic culture in universities can be very critical. When you hand up a piece of work it’s likely to come back covered in red ink. There will be lots of criticism and often not much positive feedback. And of course this critical environment fosters self-doubt.

You’d assume that as you go higher, your confidence would develop and you’d lose that sense of being a fraud. After all, you have the evidence of how well you are going. But ironically it can get worse! In fact, the more you achieve the higher the standard becomes. More to prove. More to lose. You’re just one step closer to the ultimate exposure.

Even at Harvard
During a lecture I gave at Harvard University, one student described the experience of starting there. She said she and her classmates were all in the top 10% of their high schools. They were used to being told how clever they were. They were used to being top of the class. However, in their first week at Harvard, 90% of these students have to adjust to not being in the top 10% any more. That can be a very hard adjustment to make. If you’ve created your self-image as being the best, and you can no longer be the best, then this is fertile ground for developing a good imposter syndrome. Maybe you shouldn’t be there at all.

extract from The Imposter Syndrome.

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CV of Failures

CVFailures

On 23 April 2016, Johannes Haushofer, an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University in the US, used twitter to release a CV of failures. He did this because he noticed that in our CVs we highlight all the achievements and air-brush out all the jobs we didn’t get, the papers that got rejected, the projects that didn’t work out. Which means that when we look at other people’s CVs, or lives, we get a distorted view. We assume that they’ve had a perfect run, that everything has just worked out without any setbacks or failures.

And this is a problem. Because we are very aware of our own failures. They were painful and so they are etched in our memories. So we have this contrast. We see others who look as though they have achieved great success without effort or failures. And we see our own failures and mistakes writ large. Clearly if we want to appear successful we need to hide these failures. Make sure people don’t find out about them. Because if they do find out then they will realise that you are a fraud – an imposter. The imposter syndrome.

Which is why it is so helpful that Johannes Haushofer has had the courage to list his CV of failures. Here is the introduction to his CV, the link to the full CV and a discussion piece about it.

CV OF FAILURES

Most of what I try fails, but these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible. I have noticed that this sometimes gives others the impression that most things work out for me. As a result, they are more likely to attribute their own failures to themselves, rather than the fact that the world is stochastic, applications are crapshoots, and selection committees and referees have bad days. This CV of Failures is an attempt to balance the record and provide some perspective. This idea is not mine, but due to a wonderful article in Nature by Melanie I. Stefan, who is a Lecturer in the School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Edinburgh.

https://www.princeton.edu/%7Ejoha/Johannes_Haushofer_CV_of_Failures.pdf

http://dailyprincetonian.com/news/2016/05/cv-of-failures-sparks-conversation-on-academic-successes/

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Fake it til you make it. Really?

I was talking about the imposter syndrome to a group at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand recently. One of the questions that came up was should you fake it till you make it?

Now while it’s a catcFake it till you make it by Phil Kernshy phrase I’ve always had trouble with fake it til you make it. I have two problems with it.

Fake

The first is the word fake. This phrase is giving people permission to be fake. It’s saying go out there and be a fake. Pretend you are something that you are not. Surely there are enough conmen and frauds in the world without encouraging more. Do you want to go to a doctor who is faking it till she makes it? Do you want to get on a plane with a pilot who appears very confident but has no flying ability? Do you want to hire a new staff member who has faked their CV while they wait to make it? Faking has bad connotations for me and so I find it hard to use the phrase.

Til you make it

And the second issue with the phrase is til you make it. This implies that after a certain period of faking you will make it. But my experience of working with people is that you don’t make it. Once you fake your way through this challenge the bar just gets higher. You tell yourself “I fooled them this time, but now they’re going to expect me to do this well every time. Or worse, they’ll expect me to do even better the next time”. And since you’re not that sure that you can meet this standard you need to fake more. In fact it becomes a cycle, – the imposter cycle.

So if I don’t like faking it til I make it what do I offer instead. Two things:

Work to get the skills you need

If you want to be a brain surgeon or a pilot or a plumber faking it til you make it is not a great strategy. You can’t fake skills you don’t have. If the job or task you are undertaking requires specific skills then go off and learn those skills.

Be brave and take action

But what if you do have the knowledge or skills but you still doubt yourself? Well, welcome to the imposter syndrome. This is where you have evidence that you can do something but you still doubt. You feel like a fraud – a fake – but you are not. And this is where you need to push through the doubts and do it anyway. Not faking anything – but trusting yourself.

And so the phrase I like is Be brave and take action. You’re not faking it. You do have skills and abilities. Of course you will have doubts. But you don’t have to know everything. You can learn and grow. So if your doubts and worries are holding you back be brave and take action.

Origin of the Phrase

The phrase, Fake it til you make it has an interesting history. It was, and is, used by the Amway corporation. In fact, it became the title of a book written by Phil Kerns in 1982 where he described some of the techniques used in Amway.

Fake it til you make it. Phil Kerns, Victory Press; 1St Edition edition (1982).

It is also popular in Alcoholics Anonymous groups although it is not part of their official approach. And, of course, it is used endlessly in business, sales and the self-improvement industry.

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Imposters at University

The new academic year has just started in Australia and thousands of people are turning up at university for the first time. And I can guarantee many of them are having imposter feelings right now.

GlasgowUni

The beautiful buildings at the University of Glasgow where I visited recently.

You’d imagine you’d feel clever if you’d been accepted into university. However, many people’s first experience when they get there is to feel stupid. While you might have been the high achiever in your high school, you’re now surrounded by really smart people. You feel “I shouldn’t be here. Maybe I’m not that clever after all. Maybe this is where I’ve reached my limit.”

And the academic culture in universities can be very critical. When you hand up a piece of work it’s likely to come back covered in red ink. There will be lots of criticism and often not much positive feedback. And of course this critical environment fosters self-doubt. You’d assume that as you go higher, your confidence would develop and you’d lose that sense of being a fraud. After all, you have the evidence of how well you are going. But ironically it can get worse! In fact, the more you achieve the higher the standard becomes. More to prove. More to lose. You’re just one step closer to the ultimate exposure.

Here’s one person’s story, Claire, a mature-aged university student.

“I can clearly remember my first day at university. It was terrifying. I was a mature student. As my kids got older I went back to high school and did well. The teachers suggested that I should go to university to study sociology. No one in my family had ever been to university so I had no idea what to expect. And suddenly I went from being top of the class in high school to feeling like I knew nothing. I was surrounded by all these young kids, well they seemed like kids compared to me, who seemed really bright and confident. I wanted to walk out of that first lecture and never come back. I felt I shouldn’t be there. I was scared stiff in the tutorials that someone might ask me a question and then they’d find out what an uneducated clod I really was. I still feel like that now.”

 

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The imposter cycle

The diagram below shows you how a person can feel like an imposter but still be very successful. Imagine you are about to start a new project or prepare for a presentation. Start at number 1 and work your way around the cycle.

cycle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. The cycle begins—you have some imposter feelings
  2. Search for a reason—I need a qualification, more experience, more practice
  3. Work hard to achieve your goal—now you have hope
  4. Achieve your goal and momentary pleasure
  5. The feelings return
  6. Off you go again—Round 2

So no matter what evidence you gather you can still feel like an imposter. This is how people can be very successful and still feel like frauds.

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Rose of Tralee feels like an imposter

You can win awards and be very successful and still feel like an imposter. In fact the more awards and higher the praise the more intense the feeling can become. Maria Walsh, who won the Rose of Tralee competition in Ireland in 2014 and was honoured at the 2015 Irish Tatler Women of the Year Awards admits to crippling moments of insecurity.

Link to the story:
Irish Independent 10 November 2015.

 

 

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The Marathon Imposter

The Guardian 26 October 2015

Julius Njogu didn’t feel like running the whole 42 kilometers so he just joined in for the last kilometer. He came in in second place which had a prize of $7,000. Unfortunately he got found out because the officials noticed he didn’t look very tired.

This is what a real imposter looks like.

Read the whole story here.

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/26/kenya-man-cheats-nairobi-marathon-second-place

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Are you an Imposter?

How do you know if you’re an imposter or not? After all imposters do exist. We regularly read in the media about con-men who defraud people, people who impersonate doctors, students who get accepted into prestigious colleges without any qualifications. Maybe you’re one of them. Maybe you’ve just been good at fooling people.

Well it’s pretty easy to work out really. To distinguish between real imposters and people who just feel like an imposter you only have to look at the evidence.

Real Imposter:
A real imposter is a person who pretends or claims to be able to do something or have specific abilities, despite not having the skills, background or experience.

Imposter feelings:
Occasional feelings that you are an imposter or fraud despite evidence that you are not. These usually pass and don’t have much impact on what you do.

Imposter syndrome:
A person with the imposter syndrome feels like an imposter a lot of the time in spite of clear evidence that they are not. The feelings can be powerful and the person may be convinced that they are a fraud. It will affect what they think, feel and do.

The crucial feature of imposter feelings and the imposter syndrome is that there is clear evidence that you are not an imposter but you still feel like one. So if you want to know whether you are an imposter or not – look at the evidence.

But even though you have the evidence you can still feel like an imposter. And that’s quite normal. In fact up to 70% of people experience imposter feelings. And between 30-50% of people will have consistent imposter feelings that will affect what they think, feel and do – the imposter syndrome.

So are you an imposter? If you have evidence that you have the skills, the knowledge and the qualifications that you claim then you are not an imposter.

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Feel like a fraud?

What do Meryl Streep (Academy award winner), Sheryl Sandberg (Chief Operating Officer of Facebook) and Gabriel García Márquez (Nobel Prize winner) have in common? At various stages, they have all felt like frauds or imposters, that they don’t have the skills or abilities that other people think they have.

Many of us are waiting for that tap on the shoulder. Or for someone to come along and say “We need to have a chat”. If you’ve ever had that feeling, well, that’s the imposter feeling. And you’re in good company. Lots of people experience it.

 

JodieFostersmall

[I felt] like an imposter, faking it, that someday they’d find out I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t. I still don’t.

Oscar winner, Jodie Foster

 

 

 

You think, “Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?”

Meryl Streep, most Academy Awards nominated person of all time

 

chan_official_portrait

There are an awful lot of people out there who think I’m an expert. How do these people believe all this about me? I’m so much aware of all the things I don’t know.

Margaret Chan, Director General of the World Health Organisation

 

 

These are famous examples. But imposters are to be found everywhere. They could be:

  • a student wondering if they are clever enough for the exam
  • a person getting ready for a job interview
  • a new parent wondering if they are fit to be a parent
  • someone who has just been promoted to a new challenging job
  • a sportsperson wondering if they will perform well enough

In fact, most people will have imposter feelings from time to time. It’s pretty normal actually. But sometimes they can get a bit out of control. That’s when the imposter feelings develop into the imposter syndrome. It starts to affect what you do and how you think about yourself.

 

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