Impostor Syndrome

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I love impostor syndrome. I love it not for what it is, which isn’t super fun, but because it gives a name to something we all experience.

It usually goes something like this: a client is admitting to me the lack of confidence they have about their ability to fulfill their role or advance in their organization. Or telling me about the tenuousness with which they feel connected to what they are doing, that they have the sense that everyone around them is more capable of the expectations and requirements expected of them. And I say, “ah, yes a little impostor syndrome.”  Their eyes grow wide and they exclaim, “What?! That’s a thing? Yes, I have that!”  Usually it is a relief to be able to name it. To know the thing is common enough to have a name.

Impostor syndrome is the feeling that one isn’t capable or qualified to be where they are or to be doing what they are doing. It’s doubt in our own abilities, a feeling that we’ve gotten where we are due to luck or a fluke. There is fear this will be exposed at any minute: that someone is about to realize we don’t belong here. The kicker is that impostor syndrome is especially prevalent in smart, high achieving people. When the term was first introduced in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, they thought it was unique to women. It’s easy to understand how a feeling of not belonging or being a fraud would be experienced more by women, who are working in systems designed by men, and at high achieving levels, are often surrounded by people who are distinctly different than they are. But we now know (and I’ve certainly witnessed) that impostor syndrome is experienced by plenty of men as well. In fact, at some time or another in our lives, we all experience impostor syndrome. We may even swing wildly back and forth between great confidence and gnawing impostor syndrome.

As with many of our thought patterns that show up to undermine us, the first step to dealing with impostor syndrome is to recognize it for what it is; a belief about ourselves that we are inventing. The next step is to figure out where it is coming from.

One possible source is a habit of constantly comparing ourselves to others. If this is a tendency of yours, remember that what we are really doing is comparing ourselves to our idea of others. The world is full of people faking it until they make it—we don’t know what people’s insecurities, hang-ups, mishaps or actual experiences are. Catch yourself, avoid the trap of comparisons that make you feel bad. They are almost always false comparisons.

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Another more subtle thing we might question if we are experiencing a pervasive case of impostor syndrome is, do I doubt myself or the system I am in?  Sometimes we question the validity or purpose of the thing we are a part of. If some part of you is thinking what’s the point of this, or this is such a ridiculous way to operate—you may turn that doubt inwards. Doubting processes and norms can be even more uncomfortable than doubting yourself. Consider what happens when people seriously start doubting their governments. When people believe the system is inefficient or not working it is destabilizing and can lead to chaos. On an individual level, it can often be easier to doubt ourselves than the systems we are a part of.

With time, experience, and growing self-awareness, some people will figure out how to kick their impostor syndrome to the curb. But most of us will have to wrestle around with it from time to time. What I recommend is to get kind of friendly with it so you can look it in the face and learn from it. When mine creeps up I take a time-out and ask, “You’ve come again?  Why are you here today?”  Sometimes it’s because I just got challenged by someone I respect. Sometimes it’s because I believe I could’ve done better that day. Sometimes it’s because I’ve taken on something new. Sometimes it’s because I don’t feel brave or my good feeling hormones took a nose dive or I didn’t get enough sleep. The key is to find out. Then give yourself credit for finding out. And then reward yourself for putting yourself in situations that continue to challenge you. This is growth. This is how you get better and wiser and stronger. If you are never doubting yourself, if you are never chatting with your impostor syndrome you are probably not stretching yourself, reaching your potential , becoming more you. Which is why you really can be friends with this thing. It’s there to make you think, to offer you a moment to look inwards, to let you know you are doing the good work of pushing out of your comfort zone into the great, wide beautiful and scary world.

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