Sitting carefully in the formal living room, I surveyed the richly furnished surroundings. This was living room # 2, completely decorated in several variations on the color white. I was feeling like I didn’t belong.
I was at a committee meeting, one I was asked to be on, working with academics, engineers, and other highly educated people. The thoughts that were zooming around my head were deadly. “They are going to find out I’m not as smart as they think I am.” “They are sure to see how unsophisticated I am.” “ I’m just flat out unworthy to be here.” “I’m a fraud.” Truth be told? That same narrative tape begins its reel in my head every time I’m in a new situation. After working with hundreds of clients, I know that this phenomenon is just about universal. And what I also know, there is a way to make that disagreeable scenario disappear. You can stop it cold.
I recently read this story. Every year, students in the incoming class at Stanford Business School are asked, “How many of you feel that you are the one mistake that the admissions committee made?” And every year, about two-thirds of the students raise their hands.
Now this is curious, because getting into a top-notch program is not easy. A high GPA, excellent scores on the GMAT and strong letters of recommendation from prominent professors and professionals are necessary. High achievers who succeed academically on tests and grueling internships are in that classroom. Yet, despite this, the majority of students who achieve their goal of admission to this program seriously doubt they deserve to be there.
The story isn’t limited to students. Research done on every level of successful professional comes up with the same number. 70% of all high achieving people describe feeling unqualified, like a fraud, in spite of many significant achievements. This behavior has many names — fraud factor, impostor phenomenon. First described by psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, in the 1970s. Defined as “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in face of information that indicates that the opposite is true. It is experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence.” Feel familiar?
It goes something like this: “I’m here, sure, but they’re going to find out I’m (Fill in the blank)” “ I’m here just by dumb luck” “ I’m not smart, in fact, I’m really stupid. Didn’t I just do something stupid yesterday?” “ If they knew of my other imperfections, they wouldn’t have invited me here.” I could go on….
These thoughts hold you back from fully enjoying life. From completely embracing success. The impostor phenomenon appears when you are embarking on a new endeavor outside your ‘zone of comfort’. I think it is a trick from our psyche to keep us safe, in a way. A primitive warning signal that we are about to do something different and we should be wary. But this warning signal triggers shame and vulnerability too.
Take heart. There are ways to change the story going on in your head.
1. Recognize that just about everyone have these feelings. You are not alone.
2. Give yourself credit for stepping outside your comfort zone to try something new. Credit also, for all of your past achievements.
3. Allow yourself to be imperfect.
4. Understand that this is some part of your unconscious, trying to keep you safe. Acknowledge this. Then give yourself permission to go ahead anyway.
5, Another permission granted: Give yourself permission to congratulate yourself fully for growing and developing, Step into a new and more abundant reality. Because you really are wonderful, and the world needs to have that!
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