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It's not uncommon for highly accomplished leaders to see themselves through a distorted mirror. This is especially true for executives who are young, female, part of a minority group or from a socioeconomic background that's different from their peers.
In the 1980s, pioneering psychologist Pauline R. Clance named this the imposter phenomenon. It's the state of feeling like a fraud, despite the fact that the person is very good at what she does. Dr. Clance found that there are certain individuals who consistently demonstrate a high level of success, yet nevertheless fail to incorporate their competency into their identity.
In other words, their mirror is distorted.
For my recent book, The Empress Has No Clothes: Conquering Self-Doubt to Embrace Success, I interviewed numerous well-known, high-level leaders in academia, corporate America, the entertainment industry, and the sports world, all of whom suffered from imposter syndrome for a time during their careers. Early in my own career, I too felt like an imposter, despite the fact that I kept getting promoted to ever-higher positions of power and responsibility, and received continual recognition from my colleagues and industry.
Imposter syndrome is surprisingly common. Many of us have to work hard to get to a place where we can evaluate our own performance, skills, and assets clearly and accurately.
Here are three ways your mirror may be distorted – and what you can do about it.
You're petrified others will discover the "truth" about you.
People with imposter syndrome spend a lot of time and energy being secretive, guarding themselves against the possibility that their colleagues will find out that they're frauds. As a result, they hide their feelings, don't talk about their education or background, and often isolate themselves from their peers.
If this describes you, resolve to share your feelings with a coach or a trusted colleague. This will give you another's perspective and help you gain some relief from all that pent-up fear. I invite you to entertain, for a moment, the possibility that the way the rest of the world sees you – as competent, knowledgeable, accomplished, and successful – is actually more accurate than the way you see yourself. After your many years of struggling with the anxiety of feeling like an imposter, I assure you that learning to see yourself clearly will bring joy and balance back into your professional life.
No matter how hard you work, it's not good enough for you.
A common theme among the stories of people who suffer from the imposter syndrome is that they tried to alleviate feelings of not being worthy by working harder and longer and more diligently than their peers. Of course, there is a limit to just how much one person can work. And ultimately, it is never enough, since the external validation we're so eager for often doesn't make our feelings of being unworthy really go away.
The way back from this fruitless pursuit is to ask yourself what it means to you to be worthy in your own eyes. This is not an easy question to answer, but it is essential to ponder as you prepare to reclaim the joy, zest, and power of your life. Channel some of your considerable energy and expertise into learning how to internalize external validation. When someone compliments you on the amazing work you're producing, resist your habitual negative response and just let the information sink in.
You lack compassion for yourself, and forget your own accomplishments.
The imposter syndrome affects our perceptions. We can readily see others' skills and talents, but not our own. We can excuse others for their mistakes, but we're incredibly hard on ourselves.
There are several ways to counter this tendency to use a double standard. One way is to consistently ask yourself the question: What did I do to get here? Another way to correct your mirror is to make a list of your accomplishments and valuable traits and read it daily. Also, practise seeing other people as they actually are. See their strengths and their weaknesses. This may allow you to see yourself in the same way, with compassion and understanding.
Bottom line: If you're a successful leader who is rising up through the ranks of your profession, yet still see yourself reflected in a distorted mirror, know that you're not alone. It takes time and focus to view yourself the way others view you. Ultimately, though, learning to do this will make you an even better leader.
Want to find out whether you have imposter syndrome? Take a free quiz here.
Joyce Roché is the author of The Empress Has No Clothes: Conquering Self-Doubt to Embrace Success (@empresnoclothes). She was the president and chief executive officer of the U.S. non-profit advocacy organization Girls Inc. until her retirement in 2010. She is a corporate director for AT&T and spent 19 years with Avon (@AvonInsider).