The Best Advice – Do You Secretly Fear Failure?
“At anytime I still expect the no-talent police to come and get me” (Mike Mercer)
Abby, the CEO of a small company, was sitting in my office, shaking her head and sobbing, “How did I get to this point”? She had built a successful company over the past five years, however now she was riddled with anxiety. Abby wasn’t sleeping, had lost her appetite and was working 15 to 20 hours a day. She was struggling with a phenomenon called “The Imposter Syndrome”.
The Imposter Syndrome
Give a silent nod if you’ve ever experienced thoughts such as “my employees/employer is going to find out I do not know what I’m doing”, “I have been lucky pulling the wool over other’s eyes, but when will they see through me?”, or “what if they find out I lack knowledge of what I am doing?” Basically the imposter syndrome may be defined as feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and internal feelings of being an imposter. Underlying these feelings is a strong fear of failure.
As a psychotherapist, I have seen the imposter syndrome manifest itself in several ways. Many individuals describe themselves as feeling like a fake, that somehow others were deceived into believing they were competent. On the other hand, some believe that their successes are due to external reasons, such as luck, and not to their strengths and talents. “If I can do it, anyone can” – this attitude perpetuates the cycle. These people often fear that next time their luck will run out.
The external image these individuals portray to others is frequently one of confidence and competence. Often they are high achievers, have many successes and possess a strong work ethic. No one sees the internal angst they live with daily. Their fear of failure may drive their high achieving behaviors and perfectionist tendencies. Thoughts such as “if I fail then others will really see the fraud I am” invade their minds relentlessly pushing them to succeed and constantly do better. Their best is often not enough.
Family members and colleagues may describe people with the imposter syndrome as having high expectations of themselves and others, noticing what is going wrong versus what is good and possibly wanting everything perfect. Sometimes they overcompensate by acting superior, boasting and seem to know everything about everything. The imposter syndrome can destroy relationships with your spouse, colleagues and children.
Moreover, because they fear failure these individuals usually go for counselling or coaching only when they’re experiencing intense anxiety, depression or a personal crisis. They believe that they should be able to handle everything that life presents to them on their own. If they need assistance, it means they are weak and therefore, failing, reinforcing their worst fear. These symptoms are evolving from the self-limiting belief of being a failure or inadequate.
Why do we suffer from the imposter syndrome?
Dr. Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Woman, states that woman predominately experience the imposter syndrome. There are men who do have these tendencies however, many have confidence in their work environments and/or in their higher education endeavours.
Our family dynamics contribute to the imposter syndrome. Often children are placed in roles within the family – the intellectual one, the athlete or the musician, as a few examples. Even if the athletic child produces better grades than the labelled intellectual child, he/she may not be recognized for these achievements. This can lead to self-doubt in their intellectual capacities and/or a strong determination to get parents approval and recognition in this area. A vicious cycle develops as the parent often isn’t able to provide the approval longed for.
Another family message that occurs is when a child is given the message that they’re superior. Unfortunately, when they run into challenging tasks or life issues and experience difficulties, they may be fearful that they are not living up to their parent’s expectations and attempt to hide these perceived failures. Whenever, we’re hiding behaviors from ourselves or others, we are often in shame.
Finally, parental anger, humiliation and punishment for making an error, crying or expressing emotions creates the desire for the child to attempt to hide his/her vulnerability. You develop an inner critic who has a hay day, belittling you for making mistakes, being inadequate or not good enough. The critical voice judges and shames you and doesn’t look at the reality of the situation. This too can contribute to the development of the imposter syndrome.
Unplug the Imposter Syndrome
Can you get unstuck from the imposter syndrome? Absolutely! First you need to admit it to yourself and get out of denial. Do not be afraid to ask for assistance. This is difficult for someone suffering from the imposter syndrome. Second, learn to manage your inner critic. Whenever your anxiety or stress begins to increase, check into what your thoughts are – is it critical and blaming? If it is, ask that voice what the proof is that you’re failing, for example, and look at all the facts that prove otherwise. This will help you expand your perspective and reduce your intense feelings. Third, create a jar of successes and discipline yourself to put in at least three accomplishments daily. By the end of the month, you will have approximately 90 positive facts to counter the critical voice. Next, acknowledge your core belief is one of inadequacy, which you learned through the eyes of a child. You now have an adult brain, with a frontal cortex that can shift this false belief to ‘I am good enough and my best is also good enough’. Finally, give yourself permission to make mistakes because you’re a human being! Perhaps Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote could be your motto, “Do one thing every day that scares you”.