Imposter Syndrome

Imposter Syndrome

One part of Lean In that resonated with me, and applies to both men and women is the discussion of imposter syndrome. This is the internal belief that you’re not good enough and that you’re just faking it and at some point you’ll discovered as the imposter you think you are. Success is often dismissed as luck, timing or due to the help of others. We see other people’s success and think we don’t measure up, but the problem with this thought is that we only see their outward success and don’t see their internal struggle and similar feelings of inadequacy. The problem is only made worse by gaining more experience, and rise through the ranks as you surround yourself by more and more qualified people; “do I really fit amongst these smart and skilled people?” you ask yourself.

And it doesn’t necessarily affect every part of your personality. You can have the best self-esteem in the world about your social life, yet have crushing insecurities about aspect of your work life.

This limits our confidence and our ability to say yes to opportunities that we’re capable of because we don’t think we are. It results in us being nervous talking to people about topics that we feel under-qualified for and over-preparing for meetings and talks, which, ironically only serves to reinforce our fears, as we attribute our success to the preparation and not our abilities. A considerable amount of time can be wasted attempting to reach an unobtainable and unreasonable level of perfection, trying, unwarrantedly,  to justify to ourselves and to others that we do belong.

I know a lot of people feel that they’re not prepared for adulthood and that it’s not what they were expecting. Hell, even at the age of 34, I’m definitely not. As if we stopped maturing somewhere around the age of 18 and this is just an elaborate joke or that somehow we missed the lessons where they taught us what being an adult meant, so we bluff our way along, hoping no one notices that we’re just making it up as we go along. This, too, is a form of imposter syndrome.

You should talk to the girl down the hall; I think you'd like her.  Lemme know if you find out why she's ordering all those colored plastic balls.
XKCD: 616 – Lease

The best way to combat these feelings, first of all is to be aware of them. This feeling is incredibly common, with surveys putting it at around 70% of people feeling this way at some point, and overwhelmingly affects women more than men, but it’s likely to be even higher, given that people may not want to admit that they feel this way, so you are not alone in your thoughts. I know I’ve felt this way on many occasions, particularly in meetings with clients. “Who let me have a company, with big, famous clients, and employees? Do you think they realise I don’t know what I’m doing?”

The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.

It’s worth noting that the imposter syndrome is almost the exact opposite of the related Dunning-Kruger effect, which explains how people with low or limited skills consistently over-estimate their skill level, because they don’t have the required skills to know how low they are, while those with high levels of skills are self-doubting of their skills, presumably due to imposter syndrome.This is embodied in the Bertrand Russell quote above.

Other things to think about is to remember that people who offer you jobs, promotions, speaking opportunities think that you are capable, and the more that they’ve had a chance to see your work, the more likely they are to have an accurate idea of your capabilities. It might be considered insulting to dismiss their judgement of you. It might help to revisit your resume and ask the help of someone you think is good at self-promotion. Get them to give you advice on what you can add. Keep an up-to-date record of your accomplishments, and seek feedback from someone you trust to provide an honest  opinion rather than telling you what you want to hear.

Finally, when you have the opportunity, talk to younger or less qualified friends and colleagues and discuss how you feel like a fraud. Let them know that they aren’t alone in their feelings of inadequacy.

Do you feel like an imposter? Has this had any effect on your behaviour? What have you done to mitigate these thoughts? Let me know in the comments below.

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1 thought on “Imposter Syndrome

  1. I personally don’t question whether I’m good enough as I think that I accurately represent my skills plus I have quite high self-esteem and confidence – without being an idiot I hope!

    However, my friend who is a foreign diplomat said that for the first year in her job she thought they were all suddenly going to come to their senses and realise that she wasn’t up to it. Needless to say they didn’t but she says she still feels like a kid when she’s in a room full of foreign dignitaries and they’re all listening solemnly to her advice!

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