What's the worst piece of Imposter Syndrome advice? Even though it's something I see recommended in articles every week? And what can we say to help people instead?
Let's imagine the scenario:
Someone goes to their boss, struggling with Imposter Syndrome. Because of the shame this triggers for so many people, that will have taken courage.
The person is running the secret fear that others may be judging them, the way they're judging themselves. They're likely to be lying awake at 3am, worrying that someone will find out they're a fraud - that they're faking it - that they aren't good enough - that a mistake was made in hiring them.
It's affecting their confidence. It's causing them to self-sabotage. They're holding back on fulfilling their potential. It's impacting their performance; their productivity; their personal life.
Then the boss gives them the well-intentioned Imposter Syndrome advice to:
"Fake it till you make it!"
The boss is hoping that pretending to be confident might give them a confidence boost. Chances are that the boss was given that advice in the past or read it in an article on the internet. It's catchy and easy to remember. So it pops up for the boss in that moment when they're grappling for something useful to say. They are doing their best.
They're hoping that if this person pretends that they believe they are good enough it will make them feel that way. They're hoping that faking having the skills and self-belief they need will give it to them.
But it doesn't work that way. In fact, this approach to Imposter Syndrome advice can make things worse.
Not only is that person already worried that they'll be found out as a fake, but they're then intentionally acting in ways that are fake, to try to cope with it. So it cranks up the fear, which increases their stress and anxiety, which damages performance. And that's supposed to boost their confidence?
What can we do instead, when someone comes to us for Imposter Syndrome advice?
There's an element of goodness in the 'fake it till you make it' advice. For example, in her 'Power Pose' work, Amy Cuddy has shared the near-magical impact of the yoga 'mountain pose'. If you stand tall and confident, it creates biochemical shifts in your body, nervous system and thoughts that can shift your emotions - making you feel more confident.
But the 'fake it till you make it' Imposter Syndrome advice goes further: it's about pretending to be someone you're not. It's about pushing down painful emotions and pretending to be positive and confident. It's about feeling that you're soooo 'not good enough' that you have to pretend to be someone you're not, to get by.
Instead, it's really important to help the person who is struggling with Imposter Syndrome to see - to feel - the evidence that they are good enough, in a particular context. Then they can start to build genuine confidence, based on what is real to them, rather than the wobbly foundations that faking it and pretending create.
For example, someone might find that pitching an idea to the leadership team has triggered Imposter Syndrome for them.
Instead of getting them to pretend they're fine with it, help them to spot specific examples of how they do have these skills. Help them to understand why they have been chosen for this. Help them to explore how they could start to see themselves as being the kind of person who does a great job of that.
There are ways to do this that are specific, so their inner critic doesn’t discount the feedback. And by helping someone to regain their perspective on this, it can mean that the changes they need to make, to allow themselves to become that new version of themselves, feel less daunting.
Instead of faking it till they make it, you're helping them to take the first steps towards rewiring their neural pathways, their body, and their beliefs to make Imposter Syndrome less of an issue for them.
It's a brilliant 'first aid' intervention.