By Dr. Tara Halliday
Anyone considering or pursuing an MBA has almost certainly had periods of self doubt.
Am I good enough to be here? How do I compare to my peers? What if I don’t get a job at the end?
But these thoughts are often a symptom of imposter syndrome, which affects even the best students or employees and can seriously impact both careers and personal lives.
We reached out to Tara Halliday, Director at Complete Success and imposter syndrome expert, for some practical tips on how to banish these worries for good.
Think of your fellow MBA students, they’re an impressive bunch, as I’m sure you’ll agree.
It may surprise you to know that 70% of them will experience imposter syndrome at some point in their lives. It will create huge stress, distract them or lead to burnout, even ending their career. Imposter syndrome is the self-doubt of feeling like you’re not (quite) good enough. Feeling like a fraud and dreading someone is going to find you out. Feeling like you don’t belong.
With imposter syndrome, you feel driven to certain typical behaviours. The most common are perfectionism, over-preparing, procrastination, deflecting praise, avoiding advancement, hiding your opinion and comparing. Comparing yourself to others is natural, but the twist with imposter syndrome is a false comparison leading to a false conclusion.
The false comparison is comparing how others look like they’re doing to how you’re feeling inside.
When you’re in a high-performance environment, you’re surrounded by people who are competent, capable, focused, controlled and confident. It’s easy to assume that they are all ‘naturally talented’ and that they’re not having any difficulty. Because you don’t see it.
Then, when you find something challenging, you compare your struggle with their apparent ease. The false conclusion you draw is that you’re the only one feeling this way, that you’re a fraud and don’t belong. Imposter syndrome strikes. You feel more isolated, and most people keep it a secret. Because they don’t want anyone finding out.
And when everyone keeps it a secret, you don’t see that 7 out of 10 people around you know that feeling too.
The isolation makes your brain look for confirmation that this is true. We’re wired to be wary of isolation, because in caveman times humans needed to live in groups to survive. It taps into ancient survival fears.
Comparisons to your peers become focused on the differences between you. If you have a different background, for example, or were accepted based on your experience versus qualifications. You might look for differences in age, position or income. The brain seizes upon these differences as ‘proof’ that you may be in danger. It triggers the nervous system into high alert, and your bloodstream is flooded with stress hormones of cortisol and adrenaline. Preparing your body to fight or flee a life-threatening tiger, for example.
Now you’re stressed, and even more convinced that you’re the odd one out and don’t belong.
If you recognise these imposter syndrome thought-processes, there are things you can do.
Remind yourself that 7 out of 10 feel this way at some point too. This helps you feel less like it’s just you.
Calm your physiology, your brain as hijacked your body chemistry and put it in survival-mode. Do everything you can to calm your system. Breathing techniques, excercise, meditation, calming music, or simply slowing down and taking a break. Whatever works best for you to relax.
Get some support, talk through how you’re feeling with a neutral party. Also get help in balancing the demands on you and your time.
The main trigger for imposter syndrome is a combination of high challenge and low support. Actively look for more support to reduce your overall stress levels and give you the resources to manage high-challenge situations.
This support may be:
Emotional support from a therapist, counsellor or understanding friend
Logistical support with all areas of your life such as child-care, cleaning, gardening, transport etc.
Time support from your boss by prioritising work, so you’re not overwhelmed with too much to do, for example
Social support by taking a break and relaxing with friends
The underlying cause of imposter syndrome is a widely-held belief that our worth as a human depends upon what we do. The (false) belief that our worth is conditional. Identified by Dr Carl Rogers in the 1950s, this belief is endemic in our society, and most people are unaware of it.
When high-achievers are in high-challenge, low-support situations, this belief shows up as imposter syndrome. You change this belief, thankfully. When you do, then you become calm, effortlessly confident, resilient and authentic. Imposter syndrome, then, is not a personal flaw or a weakness. It is a response to triggers of high challenge and low support, in the presence of a belief in your conditional worth. It’s not you, and it doesn’t mean anything about you. And you are most certainly not alone in feeling this way. Get some good support to help.
Try consciously looking at your peers for similarities rather than differences. You may be pleasantly surprised.
Dr. Tara Halliday is an Imposter Syndrome specialist. She has a PhD in engineering and 20 years of experience as a holistic therapist and coach. Tara is the #1 Amazon bestselling author of Unmasking – the coach’s guide to imposter syndrome. She runs Inner Success, an 8-week training and coaching programme to get rid of imposter syndrome for good.