I'm an impostor. How to face the impostor phenomenon. A WING University workshop sponsored by the Geothermal Institute and created by Irene @ Cubic Earth.

There’s a well-guarded secret plaguing many professionals and academics.

It explains why bright people see themselves as imposters, frauds, or not worthy of their place in a room of high achievers, and all despite consistent and impressive evidence to the contrary.

On 24 November 2016, I presented a workshop that reviewed the science underlying this secret, talked about how it's relevant to gender equality in the workplace, and proposed ways of dealing with it as individuals and a community.

That day we threw a pebble into the pond...

I'm giving you my slides to help the ripple spread.

Impostorism is a form of intellectual self-doubt.

People whose work is under constant review are most likely to feel like impostors.

It’s amplified when we feel most venerable at work: like during performance evaluations, when submitting work for review, attending an important meeting, or giving a presentation.

Impostors typically struggle to recognise their own success, and will often feel crushed by even minor failure or negative feedback.

Impostors often attribute success to external and transient factors, like luck or hard work, rather than internal factors such as being capable or smart.

Impostors tend to over-think and second-guess.

It makes us fixate on how we think others are judging us.

Many impostors are perfectionists who hold themselves to unobtainable standards.

We don’t tell anyone how we feel out of fear that they'll agree. This isolates us and leads to thinking that we're the only one who feels this way.

When first identified by psychologists in the 70's, it was thought only women felt this way.

Later work showed that both men and women feel like impostors, and US-based studies indicate that as much as 70% of the population is affected.

It's possible that New Zealanders are more likely to feel like impostors because being self-effacing is part of our culture.

During the workshop we did an exercise that explored the kinds of things that we say to ourselves, and then revealed that many others in the room feel the same way.

Take a moment to reflect on your internal dialogue.

Critically assess it. Is it true or is it the impostor within?

I'm sure there will be many others whose internal dialogue is the same or very similar. You could share this experience with a trusted friend.

Discussing impostorism within the context of gender equality—in particular how we are going to address the low numbers of women entering into and advancing though the ranks of the geothermal industry—does not belittle the challenges faced by male impostors.

This section is simply about recognising three phenomena that add to the negative impact imposterism can have on a woman's career.

1) Being a minority

As is the case in many industries, women in geothermal commonly find themselves in forums where they are the only one of their gender.

If you are a gender, ethnic, sexual orientation or religious minority, its likely that you already feel like an outsider.

Feeling like an outsider amplifies the feeling of being an impostor.

A further compounding factor is that many women who in this situation will feel like they're representing their gender: "If I fail, they'll think that women aren't good at this". This pressure often leads to anxiety about performance that can result in over-preparation and a fear of making mistakes—two behaviours that can slow any career.

2) Internalising feedback

Research on MBA students has shown that men and women internalise feedback differently.

Women will more quickly align their self-perception in response to feedback than men.

This difference can be described using the pants analogy.

A woman tries on a pair of pants. The pants don't fit. The woman thinks about what's wrong with her. Too fat? Too thin? Wrong shape?

A man tries on a pair of pants. The pants don't fit. The man thinks about what's wrong with the pants. Too big? Too small? Poorly made?

3) Unconscious bias

Unconscious bias is a kind of bias that we're not typically aware of. It's necessary because we limited cognitive capacity to deal with the tidal wave of information we receive at any given moment.

Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in economics for his work in this field, and he summarises how unconscious bias works in his book Thinking Fast and Slow.

Project Implicit is a Harvard study where you can self-test your unconscious bias.

Unconscious gender bias is where we expect a certain behaviour from each gender, and when people do not conform to these expectations they're liked less.

The Heidi vs. Howard Study conducted by Columbia Business School is a classic example of unconscious gender bias in action. If you haven't heard about it, check out this short video where Sheryl Sandberg and Oprah discuss it.

Unconscious bias can also put women in the workplace at risk of being heard less.

Unconscious bias will not be going away any time soon. It's part of how we're wired. But if we pay attention to unconscious gender bias and have conversations about it, it's less likely to negativity impact gender diversity or amplify feelings of impostorism.

I've listed eight ways we can face impostorism as individuals and a community.

Because we're all different, some will be more impactful than others. But from one impostor to another, I promise it's worth giving them all a go.

This is how we battle our own twisted perceptions of the world. We get a reality check from talking with others.

I’m not recommending you call out at every moment you feel like an impostor, because that probably won’t help with career prospects either, but I do recommend sharing your feelings with someone you trust.

Make a list of your successes. They can be as big as landing your dream job and as small as remembering to take the rubbish out every week.

And if you find it hard to made this list, get someone else to make it for you.

Then every time someone says something about how awesome you are, what you've done well, what you achieved... add it to your list.

Find someone who you can share support with.

Someone you can call before that important meeting, job interview or performance review, who will tell you how awesome you really are.

Supporting one another helps balance your negative internal dialogue. On the long run it also helps us to identify, remember and internalise successes.

Perfectionism is the constant tweaking before issuing a paper or report. It’s reviewing and rewriting emails over and over. It has nothing to do with getting things right and everything to do with getting in your own way.

This iterating is stalling that prevents us from being timely and making progress.

Perfectionism is not wanting to say anything until you're sure know what the answer is.

It drives a fear of mistakes.

For the simple fact that there's no way to really know what someone else’s struggles are, where they are on their journey, what they face day to day, we must reject comparison.

Impostors, in particular, must reject comparison because of their tendency to think everyone else knows more, are more, do more, and have more.

Please understand that although there are people whose sphere of knowledge and capability overlaps with your own, there is nobody quite like you.

In the age of Facebook we're almost constantly faced with golden avatars of the people around us. It's now more important than ever to remember that focusing on what's happening in someone else's waka will make's it harder to paddle your own.

Feedback on a particular thing does not mean that you have failed.

The purpose of useful feedback is to help you go forward: be better, feel better, and make a better contribution.

However, not every piece of feedback is relevant or useful. Sometimes, feedback is not really about you. It can be about the situation, the environment, or unconscious bias. Think of Hilary being constantly critiqued for ’likability’ issues. This article is a useful reference on how to deal with unconscious bias when you give feedback.

To critically assess feedback, ask yourself "is this relevant and useful?" If you're having trouble deciding, get perspective on your situation from a trusted third party.

Critically assessing feedback will enable you to take what will help you improve while also protecting your core.

Minimise (verb) 1. to reduce (something, especially something undesirable) to the smallest possible amount or degree. 2. To represent or estimate at less than the true value or importance.

If what you say is peppered with minimising words, you and those around you will believe it.

Things like "I'm just..." and "I used to...", and to some cases things like "I think that..." and "I believe that..." also sabotage your presence.

This applies to what you whisper inside and speak to the outside world.

'Faking it' is not about being inauthentic or selling yourself beyond your ability. Instead, it's about accepting two simple truths.

Truth 1: We're all winging it.

Despite the calm exteriors, nearly everyone is making it up as they go along. Check out this Guardian article for some great insight on this.

Truth 2: Your body language shapes both how others see you AND how you feel.

Maria Richards, talented geothermalist and president elect of the GRC, recognised the importance of posture during her recent WING leader talk. She recommends looking around your group to find someone who looks relaxed and then mimic their posture. This usually involves uncrossing legs and hands, and assuming a more open, neutral position. An excellent life-hack for creating a calm exterior.

In an inspirational TED talk, Amy Cuddy revealed posture will will prime us to feel and behave in different ways. Just two minutes of holding a high power pose will raise testosterone and lower cortisol (the stress hormone). A low power pose will do the opposite. This doesn't mean you stand meetings waving your arms like you've won a race. Instead a two minute trip to the bathroom beforehand is all you need to make the change.


Two books formed the foundation of this workshop: Sheryl Standberg's 'Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead' and Valerie Young's "The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It'.

I'd also like to thank those people who have shared with me their experiences and insight on impostorism, in particular those who came forward to share after the November WING University session at the New Zealand Geothermal Workshop.

A Bit About the Organisations that Bought You this Workshop

Cubic Earth connects business, communities and the environment using authentic communication. It's founded on a philosophy of promoting cultural understanding, social inclusion, and conservation of our natural resources. Click here to find out how Cubic Earth can help you connect.

WING (Women in Geothermal) is a international organisation whose mission is to promote the education, professional development, and advancement of women in the geothermal community. Click here to learn more about WING and view the 'Roadmap to Iceland 2020 Strategy'. Join us as we waves in the geothermal industry.

The Geothermal Institute is hosted at the University of Auckland and has been one of world's premier geothermal research and training centres since 1978. Click here to find out more about their diverse geothermal research capabilities, people, and services.

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