The best (or worst?) kept secret of corporate life is that “imposter syndrome is everywhere”. It is a common theme in coaching conversations. That idea that you got to where you got to by mistake – that you will be found out. The inner critic rages and tells you that you aren’t good enough to be where you are. What would you say though, if I said imposter syndrome isn’t imposter syndrome? That it doesn’t exist. What would you say if I told you it is something else altogether?
Imposter syndrome is everywhere
Imposter Syndrome is everywhere. It doesn’t spare the high-achieving – indeed it is likely to be more prevalent there. It can show up in a variety of ways, including perfectionism and overworking – those with imposter syndrome set themselves high standards. Not a surprise then that high achievement and imposter syndrome show up together. It is also not a surprise that professional services firms are full of “imposters” – professionals are often described as perfectionists – they are described as hardworking too. Even if they weren’t when they started, it is drummed into them.
People will readily say that they have imposter syndrome in coaching. There is an openness to speak of it in other circles too. I am sure you will have seen discussions on LinkedIn – people saying “I suffer from this”.
The trouble with this openness is that, whilst we might see others as being wrong in their self-evaluation: “that’s silly, you are there because you deserve to be”, these confessions can actually compound our own evaluation of self:
“they are wrong, we are the real imposter here”.
There is a lot that this article raises already. That people say they “suffer” from this “syndrome”. What does that mean?
People feel like they are hiding in plain sight. What does this feel and look like?
Imposter Syndrome has been linked to numerous things. Anxiety. Burn-out. Stress. Depression. Self-doubt. It is easy to see the connection with suffering. This word syndrome perhaps denotes something that is fixed. Something that cannot be resolved.
What is the link between imposter syndrome and shame?
Shame is an emotion. It can be confused with guilt - something that we think about in the context of embarrassment. Having done something wrong and being “ashamed”. Shame is different from guilt. Guilt is an emotion that arises because of action - having done something bad. Shame is an emotion about being bad. It is central to who someone is, rather than a result of a behaviour.
A definition from the Berkley Well-Being Institute sums this up:
Shame is defined as a self-conscious emotion arising from the sense that something is fundamentally wrong about oneself. With shame, we often feel inadequate and full of self-doubt, yet these experiences may be outside of our conscious awareness.
Dr. Brene Brown speaks about shame. In a powerful TED talk, she speaks about it in the context of vulnerability. She encourages us to speak about shame – unlike imposter syndrome, there isn’t an openness. She notes that people are paralyzed by shame. It prevents vulnerability, which for her is “the birthplace of innovation, creation, and change”. Dr. Brene Brown tells us that only people with no capacity for empathy have no ability to feel shame. So you are either a sociopath or you have some shame. Openness in this context is therefore to be encouraged!
She goes on to describe shame as the inner critic who says “You are not good enough.” “I know what you have done before being here”. This voice – the inner critic – is the same voice that shows up with imposter syndrome. This voice has the same narrative.
Is imposter syndrome shame rebranded?
This leads us to the question posed at the start of this article. Is imposter syndrome shame rebranded? If the answer to this is yes, what are the consequences?
I have said that shame is an emotion, not a state or syndrome. By recognising thoughts and feelings that arise in any given moment – the emotion – we can deal with those differently than when we label them as something that is a syndrome. Emotions are transitory. Syndromes are fixed.
People often ask me “how can I get over my imposter syndrome?”. If what people are really asking is “How do I stop feeling shame?” then the reframing is profoundly different. The truth is you cannot “get over” imposter syndrome – if you can recognise it as showing up (or more accurately perhaps, recognise that you are experiencing the emotion of shame) you can work to prevent it from paralysing you. The question could be reframed. “How do I stop being paralysed by this emotion?” “How do I avoid the negative effects of this emotion?”, “How does this emotion that we all have show up with me?”.
Just knowing that this is an emotion that we all experience might be enough to create a fundamental shift. Unlike the openness of imposter syndrome where the reaction is to think “yes, but I am the real imposter here”, we observe that we all feel this emotion. We are not so much different, but the same. Much like other emotions, shame shows up differently for different people and has different consequences. There is something comforting about that.
If managing shame – not being paralysed by it – leads to increased vulnerability – then there is another benefit. We start to enter a space of enhanced creativity. Rather than responding to the emotion with increased effort or with perfectionism, we can respond with increased acceptance and a willingness to sit with it for a while. We stop being the imposter hiding in plain sight and we start to become the person with emotion. The person who uses that emotion for creativity and vulnerability.