A successful Silicon Valley businessman was contacted by a foreign intelligence officer, and I interviewed him about the relationship.
He was cooperative, and we started to meet on a regular basis. He mentioned that he was involved in an angel investor group and thought they would like to hear a short briefing from an FBI counterintelligence agent on emerging threats from around the world. Would I agree to speak to the group?
It sounded harmless, so I agreed. When I arrived, I found a room of about 50 people with pens and notebooks in hand to take copious notes. I took the businessman who had invited me at his word when he used the words “short” and “brief” in the same sentence. I had no more than a few standard comments regarding countries of primary interest to the FBI. It was clear that the group expected more.
A lot more.
I stood there, red-faced, and struggled to add a few pithy comments on the state of world affairs, but when they listened to me, all they heard was an empty suit who sounded as though she was in over her head. Yep, they were disappointed in me but not nearly as disappointed as I was in me.
I felt like a fraud. Was this the best the FBI could come up with? The imposter syndrome hit me hard, and it still smarts when I think about it today. It reminded me of all the times I felt inadequate as a child.
Most of us put pressure on ourselves to perform because we fear that any mistake will reveal that we aren’t good or smart enough for the job — and that it’s only a matter of time before we’re found out!
To fight the imposter syndrome, we need mental toughness.
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Research has suggested that about 70% of adults experience imposter syndrome at some point in their life. Psychologists agree that people struggle with imposter syndrome when they believe they are undeserving of their achievements.
The obvious reason many of us experience imposter syndrome is that we lack confidence in our abilities. We see ourselves as phony.
Sure, we can remind ourselves of our achievements to push back against feeling like a fraud, but that is a Band-Aid on what really ails us. Buckets of positive self-talk don’t address the reason behind our lack of confidence and our fear of failure.
The real question is this: what causes imposter syndrome?
Like most things in life, it all goes back to our childhood and the way we coped with the world around us as we grew up. In addition, much of our personality is ingrained in us from the moment we’re born.
The combination of those two factors — childhood experiences and innate personality traits — drive imposter syndrome. To gain more clarity on how our personality contributes to why we feel like a fraud, let’s dig deeper into the different types of imposters.
Here are five ridiculous reasons you feel like an imposter at work:
1. The perfectionist
This is the person who feels pressure to be perfect in all that they do. They often assumed adult responsibilities at an early age. They can be overly concerned about details—in short, they take great pains and then give them to others.
The need to appear perfect can be a tremendous burden. When perfectionists perceive that their performance is less than stellar, their inner critic can be nasty and judgmental. They feel like a fraud because they feel they’ve let down both themselves and others.
What is ridiculous? Thinking things need to be perfect before you can make a good decision.
How to make it work for you: Strive for excellence rather than perfection. You will always have high standards and be a person of integrity. But rather than judge your performance as less than perfect, look for ways you can channel your vision into imagination and innovation.
Focus on asking yourself this question: “What if?” Doing so allows you to focus more on the future and opens up a wider variety of possibilities for you.
2. The hero
As children, we learn that heroes are the people who put the needs of others before themselves. We also see that we must give to others in order to get.
Parents and teachers were cheerleaders who encouraged and rewarded us when we helped others. As adults, we continue to nurture relationships and assume that our path to success will continue to be filled with adoring people who will cheer us on.
But life is hard. Pain is inevitable. Growth, however, is optional. When we don’t receive the appreciation or enthusiastic acknowledgment from others that we’ve been conditioned to expect since childhood, our confidence takes a beating.
We ask these questions: What did I do wrong? Why weren’t my efforts appreciated? Am I a fraud?
What is ridiculous? Thinking that people need you and couldn’t do it without you.
How to make it work for you: Stop caring what others think of you! The hero’s ego is fed by continual enthusiastic and positive feedback from other people. Instead, show yourself compassion and be content with doing the best you can.
3. The overachiever
As children, overachievers are valued for doing things very well and being the type of person who looks at life as a game they can win. They get validation of their worth through achievement and performance. They are afraid of being worthless unless they perform.
Alas, this is the childhood thinking that I fell into growing up on a cattle ranch in Wyoming. It was the primary reason I felt like a fraud when I spoke in front of the 50 investors. I didn’t “wow” them with my acute insight and impress them with my suggestions. As they say, nothing succeeds like the appearance of success. For an overachiever, our basic commodity is ourselves because we strive to be slick and professional.
For folks like me, good is never good enough. We beat ourselves up when things are not perfect — not because we’re perfectionists, but because we always want to be the best and get first prize!
What is ridiculous? Thinking you can do this better than anyone else.
How to make it work for you: Recognize when you’re “turning it on” to get attention or to be the best. Get a grip on your insatiable need to compete in everything you do. Instead, find an area where you be of service as part of a team without being the head of the team.
4. The expert
This was the kid who only felt they could perform best if they knew more about the project than anyone else. They loved to observe and learn, and in doing so, become the expert that everyone else turned to when something needed to be done.
They often consider books more important than people so they’re always the ones to get the least invitations to parties. That’s OK for the expert, though, because they’re usually described as a “whiz kid” and “smart guy.” Since experts crave predictability, they feel the imposter syndrome anytime they’re unable to use the information to solve their problem.
What is ridiculous? Thinking you need all the information before you can make a good decision.
How to make it work for you: Your favorite question is: “Why?” You often have an internal conversation going on all the time, especially when you feel like a fraud. Funnel your curiosity into worthwhile projects and engage with other people who are able to take their lumps without feeling like a failure.
5. The boss
These kids are usually first diagnosed by parents during the “terrible twos.” They’re the ones who do not want to be controlled or allow others to have power over them. They get the idea that it’s not safe to be gentle and giving.
You might have heard them shout something like, “To hell with you. No one tells me what to do!” These top dogs want to be independent and don’t like to be indebted to anyone.
They see themselves in charge of their own destiny, but when life throws them a curveball, they can no longer depend on sheer willpower to propel them forward. This is when they begin to doubt their abilities and feel like a fraud. When a project falls to pieces, their first response is to dig down and consolidate plans so they can strategize how to regain their power.
What is ridiculous? Thinking that you alone are in control of your fate.
How to make it work for you: Resist the urge to retreat into a cave to tend to your wounds. You are at your best when you use your powerful personality and charisma in the service of others. Stop walking over others just because you can. Champion the people around you and become a servant leader. Focus on someone besides yourself.
LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the US government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty and deception. Get Quy’s new book, “Secrets of a Strong Mind (second edition): How To Build Inner Strength To Overcome Life’s Obstacles” as well as “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths.” Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.