What is Imposter Syndrome?
Basically, imposter syndrome (IS) is the sense that you’ve been promoted beyond your abilities, that you’re in over your head, that through some combination of luck and others’ misperceptions, you’ve landed in a position for which your skills are wildly inadequate.
It’s the career version of performance anxiety, aggravated by a dread that you might be “found out” at any moment. It may not be rational, it may fly in the face of years’ worth of accomplishments, but it’s estimated that some 70 percent of successful men and women experience this chronic and often crippling self-doubt.
And that’s exactly what hit me when my boss gave me what he thought was terrific news about my promotion. His rationale was that he’d worked with me for 18 months, knew my strengths and weaknesses, and thought this was something I’d be good at. My reaction was that he’d completely overestimated my strengths, underestimated my weaknesses, and we were all about to find out in the most awful way possible…In essence I was going to be “found out.” Classic imposter syndrome.
Do Any of These Sound Familiar?
Imposter feelings, i.e., a sense of being in over your head, of feeling “undeserving” of success, may manifest as:
- Feeling like a fraud who has somehow managed, intentionally or unintentionally, to deceive others as to your capabilities
- Assuming that your career achievements are due to luck, or being in the right place at the right time, or other external factors not based on your actual skills or value as a contributor
- Dismissing, discounting, or downplaying your successes to yourself and others with statements like “anyone could have done it,” “it wasn’t that important,” or “I really got lucky on that one.”
Points out IS expert Valerie Young, “self-doubt and negative feedback weigh heavily on the mind, but praise barely registers. You attribute your failures to a stable, inner core of ineptness. Meanwhile, you discount your successes as accidental or, worse, as just so many confidence jobs. Every positive is a false positive…..”
IS is most prevalent among perfectionists, academics, and others whose careers are based on performing intellectually. This anxiety can be accompanied by fear of success, a pressure not to fail, or unrealistic expectations in yourself in new situations.
Coping – or masking – mechanisms may include being overly diligent (read: working really, really hard), figuring out what behavior influential people in your life want from you and “mirroring” that – no matter how inauthentic that behavior is to the real you, or studiously avoiding drawing any attention to your strengths or accomplishments to avoid being seen as overly confident.
The IS Checklist: Where Do You Fall?
Wondering if you’re suffering from IS? Some of the questions experts use when assessing the presence of IS include:
- Do you secretly worry that people will discover you’re not as smart or competent as they thought you were?
- Do you have a difficult time accepting praise?
- Do you hesitate to take on challenging opportunities because you’re afraid your lack of ability will be exposed?
- Do you avoid presenting your ideas or opinions in meetings in order to avoid exposing your self-perceived lack of knowledge?
- Do you have a hard time taking credit for your accomplishments, instead attributing them to good luck or others’ efforts?
- Do you see making mistakes as a personal failure, and not being perfect as a weakness?
- Do you feel like everyone you compare yourself to is smarter, more capable, more deserving of success than you?
- Do you worry with every new responsibility that this will be the one that unmasks you as a fraud?
If you’ve got mostly “yes” answers here, join the club! Almost every friend I spoke with (mostly librarians) who had achieved any level of career success as defined by status, salary, or title, felt exactly the same way.
Getting Beyond the Imposter Syndrome
If it causes you enough anxiety, IS can limit your life in many ways: it can stop you from taking a great new job, limit your earning power, constrain your ability to contribute all that your skills qualify you for, and quite frankly, make working much less fun than it might be.
So what are some ways to get beyond the self-doubts and anxiety that IS lands on (and in) our heads? Here are some tips from the experts, all of which I tried and am happy to report actually do work pretty well:
- Recognize when IS may be driving your reactions, for example, when you’re feeling panic rather than elation at a job promotion, and work to short-circuit your emotions with a strong does of reality-check. Feeling incompetent does not equate to being incompetent.
- Realize that what you are experiencing is not a sign of weakness or incompetence, but rather an indicator of a conscientious nature, and a sense of seriousness about responsibility – any idiot can be overconfident, so pat yourself on the back for your thoughtfulness.
- Accept that just about everyone else you know, in a similar circumstance, would probably experience the exact same self-doubt reaction (based on the fact that almost every librarian I know is an over-achiever); what’s important is whether you allow that anxiety to hold you back.
- Be willing to discuss your feelings with trusted friends and colleagues, to get them out of your head and into the reality light of day.
- Learn to recognize when you are discounting yourself and your accomplishments with statements like “I was just lucky,” and try instead statements like “I worked really hard/was really on top of my game/did some great writing, etc.” Let yourself – or rather insist – that you OWN your accomplishments.
- Check your self-doubt against reality by revisiting those accomplishments; my guess is you have, in fact, faced unfamiliar situations or roles or responsibilities and managed to figure them out just fine.
- Develop a healthy respect for the limits of your abilities, knowing that these aren’t weaknesses, these are simply areas that you haven’t yet chosen to develop into strengths. Then be honest about those areas when a promotion possibility is under discussion so you won’t feel like you have to “hide” those areas; instead, you can ask questions openly and learn from those who have those strengths.
- Lighten up, and unload the burden of perfectionism. Any new opportunity involves a certain amount of tap-dancing, and that necessarily entails learning new things, making mistakes, and having to ask lots of questions. This is called growth, not incompetence.
- Trust that the people who’ve worked with you and promoted you are not idiots – in my case, my CEO (whom, as already stated, is one of the smartest guys I know) had seen me work for 18 months and decided that I would do a good job coordinating strategy for the company. I may doubt myself, but I don’t doubt him, so his confidence in me boosts my confidence in me.
- Pay attention to whether you’re feeling IS anxiety or a true mismatch between a job and your real self. If the latter, then make a change to a position that aligns more closely with who you are and what you enjoy. But be sure this change is based on positive growth rather than damaging fear.
In my case, I resorted to a large glass of wine, an evening of soul searching, and finally a determination that I really wanted to take on the strategy role to help drive the company’s impact on the lives of people with disabilities. Then I took out my laptop, and started making my to-do list….