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Peter Dorrington

Anthrolytics Ltd


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Personal development: how to cope with imposter syndrome during a crisis

Self-isolation exacerbates imposter syndrome for high achievers. How can we mitigate this?

Imposter syndrome affects 70% of high achievers at some point (according to Imposter phenomenon: attributes for success and failure, by Gail Matthews, 1984) and yet few people talk about it. Curiously, these same high-achievers ‘know’ that they are good at what they do, but they don’t feel as if they’ve truly earned it – they don’t feel good enough and that someday they will be found out.

Dealing with coronavirus and its aftermath is going to be a marathon, not a sprint. As time goes on, levels of stress will increase, whilst stamina and resilience diminish.

Imposter syndrome can affect an individual in a number of ways, including feelings of confusion, anxiety, stress or isolation, leading to addictions, depression or worse. For organisations this may also manifest itself in reduced performance, volatile behaviour, or burnout from some of their best people.

One well-known sufferer of imposter syndrome is the American poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou, who once said, “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out”.

Why is imposter syndrome more important now?

We are probably all feeling anxious and overwhelmed during the current crisis, and it is bringing out both the best and worst in everyone. For sufferers of imposter syndrome, the added stress of the crisis, combined with the challenges of social distancing (especially working from home) is exacerbating their condition.

Sufferers may feel compelled to be ‘always on’, leaping from one conference call to another without taking breaks and working long hours, seven days a week. Driven by their fear of being found out, they are over-compensating for shortcomings only they perceive.

Most of the time, these people feel confident and capable. It is not low self-esteem or inadequacy – they’re star players and very good at their job.

Dealing with coronavirus and its aftermath is going to be a marathon, however, not a sprint. As time goes on, their levels of stress will increase, whilst their stamina and resilience diminish. Inevitably their syndrome goes from being chronic to acute, with potentially devastating results.

At just the time when we need our high achievers the most, they are going through their own personal crises. Psychologically and physically, they are putting themselves in harm’s way.

So how can we cope with imposter syndrome, given that much of what is going on in the world is beyond our control?

  • Assess whether you are a possible sufferer – do you recognise any of the symptoms above in yourself?
  • Manage your stress – there is lots of information about how to do this, find the one(s) that work for you.
  • Reframe your beliefs – your worth is far more than your last achievement (or your next) – we are all human, we all make mistakes, we all have moments of glory – try to ‘own it!’
  • Change plan – take on one thing at a time and try to improve it. Don’t set impossible goals.

Some things for imposter syndrome sufferers to consider:

  • Nobody is perfect, and there are no perfect answers to the current crisis – all we can do is our best and rely on our friends and colleagues to help.
  • Get more support such as a coach, mentor or counsellor – impostor syndrome is triggered by a combination of high challenge and low support.
  • Some people appear better at ‘keeping calm and carrying on’, but no one has all the answers. Like a swan, they may show beauty and grace on the surface, whilst paddling like crazy underwater.
  • Don’t let working from home be an enabler for isolation, take time out of your day to ‘check in’ with friends. If you need some help, ask for it – we are all relying on each other to get through this.
  • We are all going to make mistakes over the next few months – even our leaders are not infallible. The important thing is to view our mistakes as a learning experience.

Take action

  • If you are not sure that you are suffering from imposter syndrome, you can take this confidential online quiz.
  • If you are a sufferer and would like help, we would recommend talking to a coach, mentor or counsellor because the independent and confidential support they can give helps tremendously.

Interested in this topic? Read Supporting women past impostor syndrome and into leadership.

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Peter Dorrington


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