• Nic Venter

Impostor Syndrome - Self Doubt and Lies

Have you ever felt that you’re way out of your depth, unsure how you got to where you are and that at any stage someone is going to expose that you’re a fraud?


What is the Impostor Syndrome?

Maya Angelou, one of the world’s most famous authors, famously said after her 11th book that she feels this is the one where they will find out now.

If you’ve ever experienced the thoughts similar to the above, chances are you have suffered from Impostor syndrome. Regardless of what line of work, sport or position you’re in, Impostor syndrome can have a detrimental effect on your performance and success. I have come across many sports people going through this experience and so I thought I’d jot down some ideas on how to deal with it.


According to research, almost everybody has experienced a case of Impostor syndrome at some stage in their life. A new CEO may feel that the board or his subordinates will see right through him and realize that he is not as great as he seems. Similarly, a physiotherapist starting with a professional team may feel that these pro payers will suspect that they are quite average at their job. Maya Angelou, one of the world’s most famous authors, famously said after her 11th book that she feels this is the one where they will find out now. Where they will call her out. In my experience I have seen the Impostor syndrome in almost all levels of skill and all age groups. Part of the Impostor syndrome is that you really cannot accept praise very well. In fact, you completely disagree with praise as you tend to think that you don’t deserve it, or that the person praising doesn’t know what they are talking about. “If only they really knew,” is often a thought.


Impostor syndrome is either a crippling case leading to withdrawal from the current position, or a driving motivation to always be better. It can either be extremely toxic to self-esteem and performance or an asset that can be used to your advantage. In my own experience and that of many experts in the field, it seems to be that it’s not so much what you can do about it. The solutions seem to be what you can do with it. The Impostor is almost like a best friend in your head that always says the most horrible things about you. That friend needs to know their place, and it’s your job to put them in their place.


Where does it come from?

We seem to have a belief that those that talk well and talk often must be the experts

Impostor syndrome may be due to belief systems formed as young children regarding success, ability and performance. We may have achieved something without working as hard as it seems that we should or been given a position without feeling we deserve it. At a golf tournament or cricket trials, may be convinced that we’re the only ones that feel this way. Everyone has this set of skills and ability, and you are very limited in what you can do. A fighter may sit on stage during a media event and think, “all these guys are so much better than me.” I like to call this the myth of the genius. Where we are convinced that we are surrounded by geniuses in the trade, and you are far behind.


One of the reasons we always feel that the others know more than us or are better than us, is because of the way they talk. We seem to have a belief that those that talk well and talk often must be the experts. We believe that talkers run the world and the rest of us are still learning. We may even feel that one day we will be able to talk like that person. Have you ever seen the guy at rugby trials that seems to know everyone? He seems to talk to all the coaches, selectors, and other players? Here’s the truth: Talkers, more often than not, are those that have fixated in life. The talkers are the ones who are happy with their skill level or knowledge. Chances are they too experience the Impostor syndrome and are simply trying to run away from it. This is obviously not always the case and it may be the talker simply likes to talk, so hold up on your judgement.


When I come across an athlete or client that suffers with the Impostor syndrome, it is almost always the athlete that works the hardest. This is because the Impostor syndrome can lead to a painful level of perfectionism, where the athlete is continuously trying to reach their perceived level of success needed to fit into the position they find themselves in. Of course, they never quite reach this level of satisfaction, as the Impostor’s perceptions are almost never true or logical. If we dig into the minds of the best people in their field around the world, we may very well find that the obsession to be the best is at least partly driven by an inherent fear of being exposed as a fraud. This perfectionist or obsessive behaviour is often couple with emotions of anxiety and doubt. Tom Hanks once said: "No matter what we've done, there comes a point where you think, 'How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?'” .


How do we get rid of it?

research has shown between 70% and 90% of people have experienced it. The other 10%-30% probably didn’t understand the survey.

The Impostor syndrome doesn’t ever fully go away. The good news is that you can do something about it, and even use it to your advantage. I like to tell my athletes and clients that the Impostor syndrome simply means that you’re aware of your limitations and that it should be seen as a form of intellectual humility. Michelle Obama says she learnt to overcome the Impostor syndrome when she realized that powerful people sitting at a round table aren’t always smart. This applies to every profession, and the first step in dealing with Impostor syndrome is by reminding yourself that the stories you are telling yourself are not true. These other people are not so much smarter and better than you.


The next step in this process is to assume that every single other person around is probably feeling the same thing. This will almost always be the case, given that research has shown between 70% and 90% of people have experienced it. The other 10%-30% probably didn’t understand the survey. Once you realize that the Impostor syndrome is not a YOU problem but a universal problem, you will immediately start to ease up in your critical thoughts. We often have this illogical fear due to our skewed perception that being vulnerable is a weakness. So every time we feel vulnerable, we think it’s because we shouldn’t be where we are. Instead, vulnerability only shows up in moments where we can grow and be exposed to the required levels of skill and knowledge. Lou Solomon beautifully states that once we are exposed to how good we should be, we can accordingly help ourselves reach the levels we want to be at. Hence, we can use the Impostor syndrome to check ourselves and adapt accordingly.


Impostor syndrome is often due to how we perceive and value external reward and feedback. The problem here is that we almost never know what people are thinking about us (if they are even thinking about us at all). So chances are that what we perceive to be the external viewpoint of us is almost always wrong. Therefore, the next step in this process would be to call out the lies and the limiting beliefs that this Impostor is telling you. The Impostor is a little mental monster, and what you need is a mental superhero who doesn’t let the monster get away with his games. None of these steps can work effectively if we do not make a fundamental change in our approach to success. The worst cases of Impostor syndrome always occur in people who use the external world, fellow workers, teammates, opponents and colleagues as a measurement of their success. This is both an inaccurate and irrelevant measurement scale. Step 5 would therefore be to set up a consistent measuring tool for ourselves. Turn our focus inward and use our targeted goals, previous performances, and self-evaluation to measure where we are at and how we are improving.


Final Thoughts


I am still of the opinion that the Impostor syndrome plays an important role in our mental software. It keeps us honest and working hard. Although it can get out of hand in extreme cases, don’t be afraid of it when it comes. One of my mentors recently told me that as soon as you start to think you are an expert, is when you have fixated and will start making mistakes. So next time you feel it approaching, just give your best. Then, go home and keep ensuring that your best is getting better.


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