I’m a university drop out. Yes that’s right, in 1992 I left Swansea to study in Dundee with 3 very good A-Levels but after almost 2 years I quit. What went wrong you ask? Well, after living with a very over-protective Mum, I found freedom and went WILD. No-one but me to blame, I just wasted the opportunity I’d worked so hard to achieve.
You might wonder why I am telling you this all these years later. It’s because this is my greatest regret in life and probably the root cause of the crippling Imposter Syndrome (IS) I have struggled with all my working life. Despite having progressed quickly in every job I’ve had and returning to study in my early 30’s (achieving distinction grades in every qualification undertaken), I am plagued by a persistent fear of being outed as a fraud.
Though I had been aware of the phenomenon of IS for some time, I didn’t associate it with the way I was feeling until it was pointed out to me by my coach, about 3 years ago. I took some comfort from the fact these feelings are not uncommon, with 70% of people experiencing them at some point in their lives. What I had not realised was the debilitating effect the symptoms of this psychological phenomena can have on your well-being and how difficult it is to get over.
My unnatural fear of failure leads to my putting undue pressure on myself to achieve perfection. If I fall short and it is pointed out, I will dwell on it for a very long time. In the past, this has caused me stress and anxiety when I don’t achieve what I expect of myself.
You might think that being recognised for several achievements and getting regularly promoted would help me to get over this self-doubt. However, for those suffering from IS success creates a continuous cycle of self-doubt. Every time I accomplished something, I became even more worried that others would discover the "truth" about my incompetence and I wouldn’t meet their expectations. I have often asked myself why people put so much faith in my ability when I doubt it so much myself.
After changing my profession for the third time to work in aademia, I commenced a DBA (Doctor of Business Administration) programme, looking to validate myself further. I was convinced that achieving the title of Doctor would miraculously cure me of my IS. However the doctoral journey is proving challenging and continuously exacerbates my feelings of inferiority. So my symptoms persisted and since achieving a recent promotion, escalated way beyond that which I had experienced before. So much so, that towards the end of last year I was on the brink of burnout. If you didn’t know, IS is often associated with overworking and the characteristics of burn-out, including emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and insecurity.
The constant and overwhelming exhaustion I was feeling led to poor self-care which only led to a worsening of the symptoms. Overindulgence in quick fix substances such as sugar and caffeine made me feel even more sluggish and the regular walking I had been enjoying fell by the wayside. The excuse - too busy to cook decent meals and take exercise, there was work to be done. I am fully aware of the importance of keeping your body in the right physical condition to maintain mental and emotional wellbeing but I was out of control and couldn’t see a way back.
At my wit’s end, I sought some advice from my trusted friend, David Griffiths, who suggested a ‘good walk’ one cloudy day in November. Getting away from the grind, breathing in the fresh Pembrokeshire air and discussing the way I was feeling with someone outside my situation helped me to put some perspective around what was going on and gave me a reality check. Powerful questions led to insights into the part I was playing in my own destruction. Only I could solve the problems I had created for myself by asking for help and not worrying this would lead to being perceived as a failure.
I know I am not alone. Gallup recently surveyed more than 7,500 full-time employees about burnout and 23 percent of those workers said they felt burned out more often than not.
My own experience and the recognition this is a common issue faced by many were the seeds of the Good Life + Work Project. Our aim is to help people thrive by considering the whole person not just the one that turns up to work. At the Good Life + Work Project, we focus on what works for you because what works is you.
By sharing my story it is my hope if you are suffering from either imposter syndrome or the symptoms of burnout, that you will now recognise them and seek the help you need to break the vicious cycle.