I’m just going to come out and say it…
I’m a fraud. Some day someone is going to find out that I have absolutely no fucking idea what I’m doing and that I’m not nearly as smart as they think I am.
If I’m honest with myself (and you), I feel like a fraud most of the time.
As a lawyer, I felt that way (even though I was good at what I did).
And there are plenty of times I feel it now (sometimes on a daily basis) as a business owner, athlete and coach.
Last year I had the opportunity to study at the Australian Institute of Sport with other up-and-coming triathlon coaches. I felt so anxious and nervous when I was packing the car, I almost cried. And then when I arrived, looked around and recognised many of the others in the room, for a moment I thought that my ability to write a great application (thanks to my legal background) had tricked them into accepting me into the program. It took me about a fully day to be able to process, rationalise and push that feeling aside before I was truly able to relax, enjoy the experience and appreciate the opportunity.
And don’t get me started on how completely and utterly under-qualified I feel I am to write a book or launch a podcast.
[Post-script from February 2017: I've finally done it. The podcast is now live!]
And after speaking to many women about it, I think most of us feel the same way.
I’ve come to realise that this sensation shows up in a number of different ways.
You know that fear you have…
…when you think it’s just a matter of time before “they” find out you have no idea what you’re doing.
..when you don’t do something (enter a race, put yourself forward for a promotion or new job) because you’re “not ready”.
..when you line up at the start of a race, look at the other women around you and think “shit, I don’t belong here”.
..when you dismiss compliments by attributing your success or good fortune to luck, a mistake or that someone overestimated your abilities.
Would you believe that fear has a name? Meet the Imposter Complex.
It was named by the authors of a research study(1) all the way back in 1978. It’s a fascinating study to read - but basically, they found this “imposter phenomenon” - feeling like a fraud, an imposter, a phoney or that you simply don’t belong - was particularly prevalent and intense among high-achieving women.
So if you experience it, congratulations - you’re a high achieving woman! 🙂
A lot has been written on it over the last 5-10 years and I’ve been diving into much of it as part of my work here at #SpartaChicks to help amazing women like you push past their fears (including their “imposter complex”) and mental roadblocks to achieve their goals.
But here is what I’ve learnt as I (try to) confront and overcome my own experiences of feeling like a fraud:
You are not the only woman who feels this way
Feeling like a fraud is such an isolating experience because you think you’re the only person who feels that way. And when you express your fear, it’s common for it to be dismissed or brushed away (don’t be ridiculous your loved ones will say).
But having coached women for 5 years, I know most women (if not all) have, or continue to, experience this fear in some part of their lives - whether at work, in your training and racing or even in your personal relationships. So don’t add fuel to your “imposter” fire by telling yourself that no-one else feels this way.
If you aren’t convinced, ask 5 of your closest girlfriends. You’ll be astonished and relieved to know you aren’t the only one.
You might always feel like a fraud (aka it will never go away)
Not entirely a bad thing; it means you’re a high achieving woman 🙂
Seriously though I don’t know if it ever disappears. I doubt it. I suspect your “imposter” will always raise her head anytime you’re stepping outside your comfort zone, trying something new or challenging your perception of yourself.
But when you can recognise that feeling or thought for what it is (hello, my imposter complex), you can talk yourself through it and keep moving forward towards your goal - in spite of it (rather than listening to her and waiting until it’s gone to do so).
It’s how I’ve been able to keep working on my book and podcast despite my “imposter” screaming loudly at me on a daily basis.
The fact you feel like a fraud doesn’t mean you are a fraud
This is a big one and it’s something I still get stuck on.
Just because you feel this way doesn’t automatically mean it’s true. In fact, this “lie” is at the heart of the “imposter complex” - you are better / more qualified / talented / funnier / smarter than you think you are. So always challenge, question and reality check your “imposter” fears because most of the time it’s all BS and lies. Truly!
It comes back to that phrase I often use around here; fears are stories you tell yourself. Sure, the origins of your “imposter complex” might be deep-seated and relate back to the way you were raised. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to power to challenge those stories. Tell yourself: I will do well at this race vs I may fail. I am ready vs I’m not ready. It’s a small yet powerful shift.
You can’t rely on external validation from other people
I’ve seen this in many women I know and have worked with over the years.
Strong capable women who are always looking for approval, confirmation or validation from other people. It might feel good momentarily but the “imposter” is never placated by it. It’s never satisfied.
Other people can’t quieten your imposter; you need to do it yourself.
You won’t believe the good things other people say about you — but you should
If someone compliments you - whether it is on your shoes or on how fit you’re looking - just say thank you.
If someone nominates you for a project at work or suggests you should do something (hello, book project) and it excites you, then say yes, put your hand up and yourself forward for the opportunity.
One of the most powerful ways to gradually quieten, and eventfully defeat, your “imposter” is to accept positive feedback and stop yourself when you’re about to deflect it.
(As an aside, the last 2 points might seem counter-intuitive yet they aren’t. The former really focuses on seeking validation; needing and gaining self-worth from the opinion of others while the latter is accepting - or at least not deflecting - any positive feedback that does comes your way).
No amount of work, preparation or perfectionism will shut your “imposter” up
She’ll keep bitching away in your ear no matter how much work you do, hours you put in or how “perfect” it is.
The only way she will STFU is if you tackle her head-on with the other tactics here.
You won’t feel like you’re ready - but you are 🙂
Nothing is perfect in life.
There will always be missed training sessions when you’re preparing for a key race. There will always be typos in important documents (trust me, I saw it all the time as a lawyer!).
There will always be situations when you look around the room and think “shit, I don’t belong here”. But you’re a smart, determined and high-achieving woman. You will always land on your feet and you’ll always figure it out. Trust yourself to do it.
So the next time the feel that sensation or being a fraud or that you don’t belong flash through your mind, recognise it for what it is, call BS on its lies and know that you are a strong, resilient, determined women who is more than capable.
Take a deep breath, trust yourself and keep chasing those dreams. And that’s what I’m going to do too 🙂
(1) For more information on this topic, the study is called "The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Invention" by Clance and Imes, Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice, Vol.15, #3, Falls 1978. See also the work of the amazing Tanya Geisler