Imposter Syndrome: Time To Rename It or Reclaim It? [Episode 039]

Imposter Syndrome: would a rose by any other name smell as stinky?

Should we be renaming Imposter Syndrome? Or should we be loud and proud about it? What are the risks and benefits of the name? And if we don't call it Imposter Syndrome, what should it be instead?

Here's What We're Talking About Today

  • Where did the term "Imposter Syndrome" come from?
  • How does it impact those who experience self-doubt
  • How does taking on 'labels' keep us stuck, without realising
  • The secret CEO fear that gets raised nearly every time I do a keynote talk on this
  • The broken leg paradox
  • The enormous benefits of ditching the taboo, whatever we call it
  • Strategies for overcoming Imposter Syndrome and self-doubt, and building confidence, regardless of the name we give it

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Note: this is an AI-generated transcript, so please forgive typos.

Welcome to Episode 39 of the Ditching Imposter Syndrome podcast with me, Clare Josa. And today, we're talking about imposter syndrome. Time to rename it or reclaim it. Does imposter syndrome become a badge of honour? Is there a danger that having imposter syndrome as a commonplace term encourages victim mentality, as opposed to promoting a more positive approach to fear and challenge, and how these can support our growth. We're going to talk about all of this and more in today's episode. So whenever I do a keynote on imposter syndrome, one of the things I love to do to get the audience really engaged and starting to think about this and make progress on ditching imposter syndrome even before the big day is to get them to do my scorecard. This is based on my five year international research study and my 20 years of studying and specialising in this field. It's quiz style and it gives you your imposter syndrome score and which of the three main categories is your biggest driver, plus a personalised action plan. If you want that, by the way, the link is in the keynotes. Make sure you go and take the scorecard.

My gift to you, get your personalised action plan. One of the things people can do before a keynote as well is they can actually ask me a question as part of taking the scorecard. And wherever possible, I build in answering that question to the keynote, so I know it's really relevant to the audience and it's really going to help them. But one of the questions I get asked quite regularly that sometimes I find hard to build in the answer to is, what happens when you've got the name imposter syndrome? Does it become a badge of honour? Does, in fact, the existence of the name cause problems in itself? What can we be doing? Should we change its name? Should we stop talking about it? And then it will go away. And it's a really interesting question. So what I want to talk about in today's episode is the origins of the term imposter syndrome, the negative impact of the term on those who experience self doubt, how the stigma surrounding imposter syndrome prevents people seeking help, how the language we use to talk about ourselves affects our self perception and our actions. Beware the labels, okay?

The secret CEO fear that gets raised nearly every time I do a keynote talk on this, looking at whether we should rename imposter syndrome, including the argument I often see on social media, which gets me really soapbox. The broken leg paradox, alternative names or phrases, the enormous benefits of ditching the taboo, and then strategies for overcoming imposter syndrome, self doubt and building your confidence, regardless of the name we give it. So imposter syndrome was first really talked about by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Eames, who published a research study in 1978. But they didn't call it imposter syndrome, they called it the imposter phenomenon. Now, I don't know about you, but phenomenon, I still have all my teeth and I find that really hard to say, but they talked about it being a phenomenon. And technically, that is correct. It is not a syndrome. Technically, a syndrome is something that's diagnosable. It'll be diagnosable by a doctor, psychiatrist, somebody like that, imposter syndrome doesn't fall under that category. It is actually the imposter phenomenon. But that's not quite so catchy. And somehow, over the intervening 40 or 50 years, the phrase imposter syndrome has become common usage.

And I know that there are people out there in this field who are absolutely keen for us to reclaim imposter phenomenon and ditch the syndrome, but I don't think that fits the problem with the phrase. What I'm seeing is a bigger issue is people hearing the phrase imposter syndrome and then making it part of their identity. One of the things I'm really passionate about is that we don't pick up labels. Gosh, I'm about to be a little bit controversial here. I'm actually really not a fan of things like personality profiling tests. The thing where you sit there and say, Hey, I am an ENTJ, or I am a generator, or I am a generator innovator, or I am a blue. And suddenly, what happens when we take on those labels and we use I am, that identity level phrase in front of them, is it's like we put on a whole new wardrobe that changes our behaviour. We might have had massive behavioural flexibility before, and suddenly I see people conforming to tally with the framework and the label that they've been given. I've got a whole article on this. I'm not going to soapbox you today on this.

It's in the show notes. Are you falling into the leadership label trap? Where I discuss this in more detail. Now, there is a problem with this in the context of imposter syndrome. I hear people talking about my imposter syndrome as though it's a belonging, as though it's a part of them. Whenever we say I, my, me, we're talking about who we are. It's my imposter syndrome. Can you feel the energy behind that mind? I can almost hear Gollum, my precious imposter syndrome. It's like we're holding it to us, clinging to it. It's part of who we are. That is a really tough way to ditch it, because to let go of it means we're losing part of our identity. The language we use to talk to ourselves affects the way we see ourselves. If we're using phrases like, it's my imposter syndrome, then we see ourselves as this is part of me. And who wants to let go of part of them? So this is why I talk about running imposter syndrome as though it's a maladaptive script or programme in our heads and bodies, which is one of my secrets here, in your body as well, as though it's a maladaptive script that we can rewrite, that we can change, that we actually have control over, rather than it having control over us.

And then the term imposter syndrome can have quite a negative impact on people who are experiencing self doubt. There is a bit of a bandwagon at the moment where everybody thinks that everybody has to have imposter syndrome. Whereas actually they're just doubting themselves a bit. In the work I've done over the last 20 years and my research studies, we found there is a difference between self doubt and confidence and imposter syndrome. Self doubt is about what we can and can't do. Imposter syndrome is about who we think we are. Self doubt can be fixed by pep talks and mentoring and being sent on skills and knowledge related training or work shadowing. But imposter syndrome is at a much deeper level. And while that mentoring or those courses might help, that secret 3am self talk of what if today is the day they find out I'm not good enough? That deep fear of others judging us the way we're secretly judging ourselves is running at a whole different level. So when people are running self doubt, which is relatively easily dealt with, I know it might not feel like that if it's plaguing you right now, but that might mean that you're actually running imposter syndrome, not self doubt.

It needs a different toolkit, which is why I run my Imposter Syndrome Master Coach certification program, because classic coaching, sorry, doesn't really hit it. If someone running self doubt decides to pick up, consciously or unconsciously, decides to pick up the label of my imposter syndrome, I have imposter syndrome, I suffer with imposter syndrome, I struggle with imposter syndrome, it can actually keep them stuck. Because the way we talk to ourselves, the language we use, the content of that language, the structure of the language, impacts our self perception. Those labels become a self fulfilling prophecy, a box within which we live. So what can happen there is somebody might have a little smidgen of imposter syndrome and suddenly they're really talking themselves into it being a big deal. So it can keep them stuck. But for those who are experiencing imposter syndrome, who are running it, the stigma and the taboo surrounding it prevents them from seeking help. So in that way, the name actually holds them back for asking for the support that they need. And it can put their line manager into project paralysis, if you're familiar with my four P's of imposter syndrome, where they're not sure how to handle it.

What do I do? We don't have any imposter syndrome policies. We don't have imposter syndrome trainers, we don't have anybody in house who's actually skilled in helping people with this level of work. So in that way, the name can actually hold people back from asking for help. But in a forward thinking, open minded organisation where there is no taboo, that's my big mission, remove the taboo around imposter syndrome, where asking for help with imposter syndrome is as acceptable as asking someone to explain excel macros to you. Then having a term to hook the help that you need onto can actually become a shortcut, fast tracking you to getting the support and the solutions that you need. Then let's come to the secret CEO fear that gets raised nearly every time I do a keynote on this. Sometimes when I'm booked to do a keynote, one meeting, everything booked, everyone happy. I can always tell when a corporation has had a bad experience with an external keynote speaker before because a whole committee will show up to the very first meeting. Then the second meeting that has to happen has another committee even bigger. Then there has to be a third meeting with somebody who's close to C-suite level who will make the final decision about a one hour talk.

They need the reassurance that it's going to be brilliant this time. But what often happens in that third meeting is the CEO or the person who's close to or at C-suite level will drop the bombshell if, Well, Clare, I'm not even sure we should be covering this topic in a keynote or a training session because surely it just means everybody's going to turn into a victim using imposter syndrome as a badge of honour and an excuse for poor performance. I get their concern, really I do. But here's the thing. Anyone who then uses imposter syndrome as an excuse for poor performance has probably used 200 other things as an excuse for poor performance already. The issue is them, not the name imposter syndrome. And then we get to what I call the broken leg paradox. If we didn't have a word in the English language or other languages for broken leg, it wouldn't heal the bone. It wouldn't stop the pain. It wouldn't enable that person to run a marathon. The fact that we have a name for imposter syndrome doesn't cause it. The fact that we have a name for it means that people have a way of saying, This is what I'm experiencing.

Here is a name for that experience that is now common language to all of us that's a shortcut so I don't have to spend and a half an hour describing the emotions, the thoughts, the physical body sensations, and the self sabotage behaviours that are built into this. So whilst I do understand and appreciate the C-suite bot's worries, I can actually see and evidence the two of them through our research studies, the enormous harm it's causing to people, productivity, to performance, and to profits by not having open discussions about imposter syndrome and people having to do what they naturally do with imposter syndrome, which is work incredibly hard to hide it, pretending they're not experiencing it, which our research has shown leads to burnout, anxiety, toxic resilience, rising stars quitting, lost innovation and creativity, and so much more. The risk of one or two people in a whole organisation deciding it's their badge of honour and they want to use it as an excuse is far outweighed by the 62% is the current level, who are currently experiencing imposter syndrome daily or regularly to a level that will be affecting their performance and their wellbeing. So it's a really, really tiny risk for a massive win.

The benefits of ditching the taboo around imposter syndrome should not be underestimated. When somebody is running imposter syndrome, they will be feeling shame, guilt, beating themselves up, judging themselves, many times a day. My data shows they'll be holding back on stretching comfort zones, not wanting to be visible, not speaking up with their brilliant ideas, not speaking up when they can see something is really wrong and they've got a better solution, leading to groupthink and people heading down blind alleys, which can cost months and millions of pounds. People quit jobs and careers they love to escape imposter syndrome. I know this is true because in 2001, that is exactly what I did. Because there was no way, I didn't even know there was this thing called imposter syndrome. And even if I had known, it would have been career suicide to go and talk to my boss saying, Hey, could I have some coaching or training course on this, please? So one of the things that I get really excited about is our imposter syndrome first aid work. This is a three-month training course that certifies people in organisations to be the first point of call for anyone who's running imposter syndrome because realistically, most people are not going to go to their line manager about this because they think it will be career limiting, and often it is.

These people are trained at a foundation level to help people both in the moment to prevent self sabotage and with the early stages of the preventative techniques. They are then eligible to get qualified as imposter syndrome master coaches who can actually do the really deep dive root cause work to help set somebody free from it once and for all. But for the majority of people, at least 90 % of those experiencing imposter syndrome, working with a first aid is all they need. It creates incredible changes. If I look at the scorecard I told you about earlier, remember, links in the keynotes, go and do it. It's keynotes, show notes. It's yours as my gift. We found that working with somebody who's been trained and certified at that level can take somebody's imposter syndrome score from about 80%, which is really severe, down to 40% in just eight weeks. Can you imagine that? And then if they work with a master coach, it can take them down to 10, 20%. That's best for somebody who's maybe in a leadership role or more visible where imposter syndrome coping strategies just don't work anymore. So there are enormous benefits of ditching the taboo.

As long as you've then got the next step available. That's why everything we do when we work with organisations is scalable. My dream is to make myself redundant because companies don't need me anymore because they've got the resources and training they need in house. But what about the people who say that a person only experiences imposter syndrome because it's got a name? I'm seeing a lot of high profile coaches, gurus, general influencers on social media putting this to thought as a theory is the reason somebody feels like a fraud and is terrified every single night that others are judging them the way they're judging themselves is because the name imposter syndrome exists. So then I come back to the broken leg. If it didn't have a name, it would still hurt. You would still have a broken bone. You would still not be able to walk on it. You would still have 6 to 12 weeks in plaster on crutches, having to rebuild the strength in that leg. It is not the name imposter syndrome that causes the problem. It simply gives us a shorthand to talk about it. I'm curious, do you have suggestions for alternative names for imposter syndrome or the imposter phenomenon?

We're going to be talking about this over on Instagram and LinkedIn, and you can find the links to those discussions in the show notes for this episode. Let's go and have a chat about this. I'd really love to hear your thoughts. When it comes to strategies for overcoming imposter syndrome, self doubt and building your confidence, regardless of the name we give it. If you've been hanging around with me for a while, you know, in true Blue Peter style, for those in the UK, here is one I prepared earlier. You've got my book, Ditching Imposter Syndrome. There are people who've read that book, who have found it changed their life forever. It's got thousands of readers in over 50 countries. And it's now there as an audiobook. If you want to do the training to learn how to support others with this, the foundation level, which is a prerequisite for my Master Coach program, the First-Aid program. There's a link in the show notes to let you know how you can go and grab your place. Once a year, it runs as public access where you can just have just you, or for a group of at least 20, I can come and run it in house for you.

And that then comes with other research and work where we can help you actually on a consulting basis to really deal with what's causing imposter syndrome, burnout and toxic resilience. So I hope that's been interesting today. That's my tuppence worth. I'd love to see you over on the LinkedIn or Instagram discussions. I'll be back next week. We're going to be talking about a topic I think is absolutely brilliant. It's a question I was asked recently in the run up to a keynote is, surely everybody should have imposter syndrome? Because if you don't, it means you're not pushing yourself hard enough. I hope you have a fantastic week.

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About the author

Clare Josa

Clare is considered a global authority in the fields of Imposter Syndrome, burnout and toxic resilience, and has been an international keynote speaker for over 20 years.

The author of 8 books, a reformed engineer and the former Head of Market Research for one of the world's most disruptive brands, she blends research-backed practical inspiration with demystified ancient wisdom, to help you create breakthroughs in ways that are fast, fun and forever.

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