Monday, 26 October 2020

Imposter - phantom in self or environment?

During mine and Gary's recent trip to Lakes, a conversation occurred around how different people we might be if we were raised differently to what we have been.  Obviously yes depending on the influence and experiences you have had.  Gary went on to say how I have nurtured my own personal and professional development (especially since leaving secondary school) as that's not always been offered or given easily as some might have, I fought for my education.  This led onto other conversations how people downplay themselves which links to imposter syndrome.

Firstly, I am brave in talking about this topic as to some people view it as a weak characteristic, there's no room for self doubt or you shouldn't let people know it as they may take advantage of you or limit future progression/potential.  Secondly, I'm an educator and am really open person in talking about such delicate personal development things (you'll know what I mean if you are familiar with my open reflective writing).  Everyone experiences imposter in some shape or form, whether some hide it better than others, or are too proud to admit it or think it'll ruin their reputation.  The fact is we ALL experience it - as like anxiety everyone experiences feelings of imposter in different degrees.  If someone says they don't experience this or haven't then they are fooling themselves and have truly crafted 'blagging it'.  Ignoring and recognising are two different things - ignoring is choosing not to realise and acknowledge it whilst recognising is accepting it with an attempt to control/deal with it.

In many jobs we act, perform and perhaps pretend to know what you are doing in the roles we take, the latter is fine for developing confidence and competence to a certain extent.  Well that's what we have to portray in an interview, that we're initially capable of doing the job but then surely we must be supported once in the organisation, by both people and development opportunities?  However, there is those that just want to go in to the job and require less support, i.e. to lead their agenda and use an organisation to further it and themselves.

Ok, so imposter syndrome has many aspects, but what I talk about here is around the following themes:

  • Feelings of self doubt and threatened by others intelligence/competence
  • Find it difficult to accept work-related compliments
  • Compare yourself to others 'success' and think you're lacking

So starting off with a previous blog post extract on the topic 'DarkLight Phoenix - rising to the surface':

As I am maturing in HE, my self-belief in my own confidence and abilities are growing stronger.  Recently, I was reminded by a colleague I can, do and have led well. Just before the release of my book I said to my friend "I'm not ready for it at all. I learn along the way."  My close friend Stuart Greensmith White, School Business Manager then said to me, "Well, you've coped and built on everything you've had thrown at you so far, I don't think you have much to worry about!"  It's an odd one this as I know that I am awesome 😉 and put heaps of effort into what I do.  Then at times I feel like a fake in my abilities, which is not how you should treat yourself.  However, if someone said that I was s**t at what I do, they'd be left knowing not to ask me that again that's for sure.  Maybe I have 'imposter syndrome'?  Well, I think everyone has different degrees of this within them.  I self doubt a lot and don't feel good enough - mostly when I compare stuff to others, mainly at work though not personal life.  My experience/symptoms of imposter syndrome are genuine, not modesty acting as a blanket to protect me.  Recently I said "We all feel insecure about aspects of our professionalism at some point, if not daily. Even those that appear at ease will be insecure about something. You can't be human otherwise. I often worry about how I articulate myself & dare I say it, compare myself against's the 'impostor syndrome' thing...".

We may see other people and think wow they're incredible then immediately think how you should or could be like that.  But it's important to realise that you don't know how they were inspired/became like that, maybe they were inspired just like you were seeing them.  A strong reminder though, don't try to be someone you are not, just be you as it's much harder to imitate.  A thought - perhaps imposter syndrome is about doing things that are not genuinely us.  The feelings we get from this is our soul telling us it's not right?  Well either way, a good thing in imposter syndrome is that we continuously look to improve our abilities.
...So, enough of self doubting.  With a little spur from a BBC article I read, I'll: continue to be open about my feelings of this with others; recognise my successes - it's not all just luck and effort but my abilities; continue to learn from failures as they are successes in disguise; try not to compare myself to others but where I was this time last year.

In a recent meeting I noticed I somewhat downplayed myself in my choice of language.  It made me think what triggered it, was it personal, environmental or a mix of both?  Left feeling unsettled it had happened or allowed myself for it to happen - but guess I wanted to be open too, as I usually am.  It led to me to ponder and post the following on Twitter and LinkedIn, curious of the responses I might get from the wider world:

Teams/workplaces that don't embrace a #culture of #openness in #vulnerabilities & #support & are often outweighed by individualistic tendencies. Breeds & encourages unnecessary #impostersyndrome. What top tips would you suggest for people overcoming it?


Below are the responses I got from my post, whilst not many the viewing stats were enormous, proving that people were silently interested in the topic.
Kelly Trivedy - "Open conversations with those whom you feel comfortable talking to.  Make time to process it and know that usually, you're not alone. Grab a coffee and catch up (virtual works too!)"

 Me - "Great points Kelly!  The first one can often be the biggest challenge as it depends on mutual trust.  And totally agree with not being alone, most if not all of us experience it in different ways and levels. Though some disguise/hide it better than others."

Tracey Lee - "...I'm not sure our environment can 'cause' imposter syndrome, although an unhealthy culture certainly won't help."

 Me - "It's a very interesting topic indeed Tracey, especially what triggers it!  I guess it depends on what we define as our environment and what we see as positives, negatives, empowering and disempowering within it.  It is very much a personal feeling or attitude and how we view ourselves.  But I do feel the culture and strong egos influence such behaviours in which some may compare themselves to.  On other hand you could say it depends how strong and assertive you are as a person in brushing it off?  Emptying thoughts..."

Mosaic Collaborative - "Daniel, I was thinking along the same lines of Tracey.  To create a healthy culture that recognizes and addresses #impostersyndrome, it definitely takes all leaders modelling the vulnerability of mistakes, failures, made-up stories and our individuality."

Matthew Harrington - "Total transparency and openness is an absolute godsend when it comes to tackling imposter syndrome, for me at least.  That requires an environment and mindset that is accepting of critical feedback.  How can you possibly believe that you deserve to be where you are without trustworthy external validation?  For someone lauding your efforts to feel truly genuine, you have to know that they'd also be willing to hold you accountable if you could've done something better.  I was sceptical of the concept of 'radical candor' when I first encountered it, as I am of most buzzwordy management things, but it genuinely works and helps immensely with feeling like you deserve to be where you are.  Care personally, challenge directly.

A lot of companies do this very wrong - they either crack down hard on poor performance and nothing else, ruling by fear, or they constantly blow smoke up their favoured employees until they have bloated egos, feel like imposters... or both."

Me - "Some really great points there Matthew.  The accountable bit is heartening, especially for those that find it hard to see/hear validation.

If challenging directly, hopefully this is approached as positive constructive criticism.  Not everybody/everything needs to be in agreement, but at least approached in a supportive manner."

Lou Mycroft - "Brilliant post Dan.  My views on workplace cultures have been utterly transformed by reading Brene Brown.  David Price’s new book has some stimulating case studies from Brewdog to XP School, shows what can be done - and the impact of leading with heart and values."

Me - "Thanks Lou, I've yet to digest more of Dare to Lead.  I just know I connect more to heart and values.  We're all in it together so why not be more open about our challenges?"

Bhavya Aggarwal - "Couldn't agree more Daniel, it is very hard to be vulnerable and open when the overall culture does not reflect openness.  And a lot depends on how you can create the trust and respect through conversations."

Me - "Thank you Bhavya.  There's a place for non-vulnerabilities stuff - plus its not for everyone as some may find it uncomfortable as it requires you to look inwards and 'expose' yourself to some degree, which some may view as weak.  However, I feel people would value, progress and connect more personally and professionally by being open about their challenges and struggles in order for others to visibly and better support or signpost to their needs.

And yes I agree the right safe space and place is crucial to nurturing those conversations."

Kevin Campbell-Wright - "Ain't that the truth."

I do believe hostile environments and similar tendencies in people bring out imposter more prominently.  Even if it's as simple as dealing with louder and more dominant people.  Basically, if you don't have the support and encouragement from people, then of course you will feel unsupported, unappreciated, undervalued etc.  I.e. if you're in a highly autonomous environment which lacks a true 'reaching arm of support' to other team members it becomes individualistic.  As well as seniors not challenging such behaviours in staff and being guided/influenced by such traits from their own managers.  Where's the empathy, compassion and spirit of helping others to be the best they can be?  It increasingly appears to be something that is only present in a classroom cultivated by a teacher...  Although I do realise this is the 'real world' - but should it be and do you want it to be?  It's important to remember though that this, imposter etc, is your responsibility to own and manage and not push onto others in an attempt to re-direct it.  Do own this and be your own beacon of positivity in your efforts with it.  To reinforce my point about hostile environments, ask yourself:

  1. Did you feel like this in previous organisations?
  2. What is the current attitude of the organisation/team in talking about such innate topic?
  3. Do you feel comfortable in talking about this with people/your team?
  4. Can you identify anyone in your organisation whom you trust to talk to and perhaps support you?
  5. If someone identified and approached you as a trustworthy person to speak about it, how would you respond?
  6. Do you fear any negative consequences as a result of talking about it?

To me, basically, if you can't talk about your vulnerabilities and insecurities to colleagues in an effort to be supported, then in my opinion it is not a great place to be working in.  It is a dangerous ingredient towards a toxic workplace.

Maybe you don't want to talk about it, but you should, as that helps us to be even more human and we are all vulnerable in some shape or form regardless of your title, status, upbringing etc.  Seeing each others vulnerabilities allows us to support those who we work closely with much better and know their strengths, capabilities and areas for development in much more detail and identify their future potential.  The latter, well that could be what threatens some people in which the hostile environment is created?  I remember in a team meeting once where I opened up the airwaves, in a structured way, for us to talk about any professional challenges/struggles we are/were experiencing.  To my surprise two colleagues opened up very quickly about some current feelings and it felt great (to me) that we were communicating and connecting more deeply.  Although it was well-received sadly it wasn't pursued to continue, but was revealing for us in that occasion at least.

Yes you could say there's an element of deflecting responsibility of how you feel towards others, I.e. blame.  But if the hostile environment stuff wasn't there would it still trigger such behaviour?  Its like yes you have to have presence of imposter, whatever degree, but then the environment acts as a catalyst in developing and amplifying it.

I feel imposter is situational, by that for example I mean you could experience it or not through synchronous conversations with people or asynchronous reading a post/documentation for someone.  Whatever triggers off expertise comparison of some kind.  A plus side to imposter is that if you do compare to others and one of them is someone you highly regard.  If they do something and the outcome is not what you expected of them, i.e. of falls flat or didn't work etc.  Then that can give you a sense of self-worth that even the 'mighty' don't always get it right.  Everyone has success and failures, and is not about gloating on that but recognising we are humans and we make mistakes, even if you think you're incapable of making them.

I've noticed that there's less effort in people fostering better relationships.  I realise not everyone needs/has to be best friends, but it is better to capture that conflict and turn/reframe it into creative and constructive criticism.  Perhaps this can reduce such self doubt in people?  Could it be that people are threatened by other's potential and are finding ways to inhibit them, both verbally and practically, to confine their enthusiasm and energy?  Conversely, perhaps it's not just one way, the 'victim'/recipient may be ambitious and stubborn, refusing to be beaten by others?  Additionally, maybe when you lack belief in your own knowledge and where praise, appreciation/acknowledgement and credit should be given and is not, they can also add to these inadequate feelings.  I know this helps me a lot in reaffirming my abilities.  It doesn't have to be overdone or for the sake of it, but little and often helps.

It's tough out there, so remember: keep true to who you are; everyone experiences this; some are supportive to others whilst some choose to hide it in different ways; and most importantly try to be quick in talking yourself out of the feelings.  You know you're awesome at what you do!


I found an unpublished peice for the JoyFE magazine that is relevant to this topic:

Having worked in FE for 7 years, to me, I have realised how important and vital the FE family-like relationships are to feeling a sense of belongingness, self-worth and achievement.  Sometimes in a highly autonomous individualistic work environment it can lack empowerment of others and supportive cultures, in an attempt to maintain territories.  Do not underestimate and take for granted the value of true team spirit when everyone pulls together to share hearts and minds towards common goals.  Unconditionally offering advice and support to be gratefully received. Priceless qualities that are uniquely observed in FE, which I have again experienced in a recent kick-off meeting for Advanced Practitioners Year 3 programme via touchconsulting Ltd – everyone was open and willing to collaborate, learn from one another and support each other.

The following are post-reflections I've had as sometimes reflecting over a longer period of time allows for deeper insights.

Another angle of a trigger, if someone contributes something that I have not thought of or could phrase/articulate better.  I start to feel that I am incapable of thinking and doing such things.  But I need to remember that I am a reflector and Slow learner?  I mention somewhere in this whole blog site that my thoughts are more powerful than my words.

Perhaps my character/personality, pragmatism and reflective nature is not best suited to specific workplaces than working with dominating/egotistic peers.  Good for career development, however perhaps as a result I have put myself in a position of continuous comparison?  In my other roles, there was only one of me - king of my context.  In my current role there's more of us and I'm perhaps unconsciously comparing myself.  However, that is my own responsibility to recognise (not easy) and manage but not others attitudes.  Maybe there is links to to conflicts in personality that are a catalyst in this, i.e. others feeling threatened by others success and achievements.  Causing them to compete with them, but if the other person has the attitude of refusing to be beaten, then it's going to create an ongoing hostile atmosphere.

There's also the openness and willingness to being challenged intellectually.  Whilst this is good to challenge your own assumptions it can sometimes often leave you feeling like have I got it right, do I know as much as I thought I did?  Debate and critique are fine, however, how you are approached/challenged is what matters in this situation.  An experienced teacher or empathetic person for example would know how to approach this in a non-d**kish way.

To help frame a imposter threat, i.e. comparing against others, this analogy might help.  When I think about teaching a topic and the level of it.  What level would I choose and why?  I would be inclined to choose a much lower level than I am qualified up to.  A reason, I'd like to feel in a position that I know more, not for power, but feeling confident that I would be able to answer and share a wealth of experience and knowledge and it be welcomed.  And feeling a sense of worth and value as a result.  However, this also depends on the topic/course and age of learners, i.e. young or adult.

On 3 February 2021, I shared this across my social medias (LinkedIn and Twitter):

"Recently visited by my unwelcome imposter syndrome/anxiety. Yesterday I did something out of my ordinary. As corny as you might view it, I took a deep breath and put my hand on my heart and said I love you. The warm feel-good energy and relief it gave me was liberating! We tend say this to others often but not to ourselves, despite our efforts educating and subscribing to self-love. By no means does it show weakness, but strength in responding to your inner needs. As a teacher, I'll continue to look inwards and use my vulnerabilities as a source of wisdom and to inspire and encourage others.

...While I remember, this is the practice that inspired me a few days before"

Early in April 2021 whilst watching RuPaul's Drag Race, a contestant made a fleeting comment about how there's no need for comparing when we are all on our own individual journeys.  That struck me hard as we need to remind ourselves that we indeed have different destiny's.  The paths we take towards it will be different from one and another's.

On 23 April 2021, I shared this on my social medias (LinkedIn and Twitter):

There are those that inhibit your potential because they feel threatened. Likewise #impostersyndrome can limit your greatness. The message is they can both be defeated. If you know the narrative of the scenes, you know. 😉