Dealing With Imposter Syndrome
8 min read
Have you ever thought that your "success" is mostly because of luck or good timing? Or that you got that promotion because maybe no one else wanted to take it? Do you live in fear, constantly trying to show your peers and superiors that you are not underqualified? Do you think the praise you receive at work is because you are a nice gal or fella and not so much because it is a job well done? Let me tell you, you are not alone.
It's the secret best kept in the professional world: the vast majority of adults in the UK (85%) experience intrusive thoughts that make them feel inadequate or underqualified for their position, despite their experience. This is called Imposter Syndrome. Broken down by gender, 80% of men experience it versus 90% of women. These numbers come from an independent survey and based on my own personal, biased and, of course, limited experience, they are probably not too far from reality.
I have experienced it myself too and still do, although probably in a different way than you do. The way it manifests in me is that sometimes I think I've had some degree of success in life because I'm a pretty chilled, easy-going white fella with an education who can speak with enough confidence and think with enough substance. I do hope that I have some reasonable degree of self-awareness that those things I think of myself are true (I'll let other people judge that). However, true or not, the subtle spurious thought slides in one way or another and whispers: "that's the reason why you are where you are".
Have you ever felt the same? Are you feeling like that right now? Do you ever have thoughts suggesting that you are not good enough? Are you having them right now but suppressing them with affirmations? Well, I want to share with you what helps me when I feel this way. I'm no psychologist, and this is certainly not therapy, but I know a thing or two about the way people think, and about human nature. What I will say comes from that experience.
Imposter Syndrome can manifest in different ways, but it always starts with those spurious throughs about your inadequacy. Some people have the luck of having good mental coping mechanisms, so they can dismiss those thoughts promptly as they appear (but notice that the thought is always there). For other people, those thoughts can trigger subsequent thoughts that can quickly lead to anxiety. If that is your case, I would recommend you seek counselling from a mental health professional focused on helping you develop those coping mechanisms.
Is About Quality, Not Quantity
The sort of standard way I've heard people recommend to deal with this is to (a) seek words of affirmation from others and/or (b), affirm yourself. But affirmation is like treating a headache with morphine: you will feel good immediately, then you will crave it, and soon you would not be able to live without it. I don't know about you but I would rather have my sense of value lie in a more stable foundation than the amount of affirmation I receive. There is gotta be something better, right?
What helps me is to recognize the truth that I have never been and will never be adequate for any of the things I've done or will do. I cried my eyes out on my first day of school. I was terrified of giving my first kiss and making a fool of myself. When I switched schools, I wondered if I was going to fit in or be bullied again. When it was time to go to Uni and choose a career I had no idea how the world worked, and I thought I was not ready to choose something for life. When I had my first formal job I didn't know if I was going to live up to the challenge. When I left that job in my mid-twenties crisis I had no idea what I was going to do (it seemed I had returned to my seventeens in a very real way!). When my brother asked me if I could help him with a programming project I told him he was crazy and that it was too complex for me. When I got married I was not sure if I was prepared to selfishly love and care for someone else (I could barely do that for myself!). Now that we are seriously thinking about children, I do not feel capable at all to guide, nurture, care and be an example for a little human being, but somehow I still want to be a father.
In all these things I was never "adequate", "ready" or "prepared". Nope. No one prepares you for what is to come, because no one knows what might come and in what form. We are all learners, facing first-time challenges.
You might say "Yes, but some people have more experience because they have been in more jobs and roles, and they are educated, and they know what they are talking about". Indeed, but as every role, situation or organisation is different and every context unique, their experience might prove not adequate to that particular context. People might have different amounts of experience, but no one ever has the right one. No one. Is not a question of quantity, but quality. And on that, we all fall short.
One of the companies I worked for brought this high-profile executive role person. There was quite the hype and expectation before she joined us because of her credentials and the places where she had contributed previously (mostly fortune 500 companies). Everyone was looking forward to working with her. But after three months of her joining, everyone was pretty much hoping she would leave. And she did. Was she extremely qualified and experienced? Yes, very much so. Was her experience the right one in our context? Not at all.
So remember: you are not adequate for your role. That might seem bad news, but the good news is that no one is. Freed now of that weight, we can move on to the next step.
Break It Until You Make It
Some have a "Fake it until you make It" mentality. They seem to know very well that everyone is inadequate but no one seems to openly recognize it. They conclude, therefore, that everyone is faking to some degree and pretending to be something they are not. It follows that those who can fake it the best are the ones who will succeed. It is all about marketing and how you present that fake image of yourself.
You might have struggled with Imposter Syndrome before and maybe have received that recommendation. They seem to start under the right premise we have discussed so far: everyone is inadequate. However, the proposed approach is not just ethically questionable, but mentally taxable. Are you seriously telling me that my life needs to be about pretending to be something I'm not if I want to get somewhere? Who has the mental fortitude to do that?
Mark Zuckerberg once said, "move fast and break things". I'm not elevating Mark as a hero or a figure I look up to, but I think it is fair to say he gets a few things right here.
I think this quote is brilliant. In my view, it means that, since we were not born with experience and knowledge, but rather we acquire it along the way, we should try multiple things in short intervals of time and not be afraid of getting it wrong. After an iteration, you can adjust the course and try again. This is extremely liberating. You may be agreeing with the approach now but I assure you you still haven't got the depths of it.
He's saying that you are free to experiment. That means actively doing something trying to find out what works best, evaluating results, and correcting your course based on results. This is the classical methodology of investigation. And although some of us can apply this to our jobs somewhat well, when we apply this to our personal experiences, our emotions get massively on our way.
This is because experimenting often leads to one's admission that our original hypothesis was wrong, and that we have some stuff we need to correct. While most of us might be willing to acknowledge that an approach we tried might be wrong, fewer of us could admit that something we did might be wrong, and even fewer of us, something we believe in or we think about or ourselves.
You need to believe this: a "mistake" is just a verified hypothesis. A failure is just discarding a wrong path. There is way more value in recognizing that we need to change the erroneous course than remaining in the same course because we don't want to admit we went the wrong way. If you live pretending that you are capable, smart, well-prepared and experienced, you will have a hard time admitting you have made a mistake; for the simple reason that your inner self draws its value from the adequacy of the image you present.
If you embrace the learner's path, it frees you, it liberates you. You don't need to know everything. You don't need to be always right. You are constantly learning and discovering better ways. You place more value in other people's approaches and experiences and demonstrate a genuine interest in learning how they came to acquire it. You become more focused on refining your trade than pretending you are a master at it. And that, my dear friend, has way more value in the workplace than all the fancy titles, certifications, skills and recommendations you might amass. I'd rather have one learner, than a thousand pretenders. So move fast and break things. Break it until you make it.
This turned out to move in a different direction than I originally intended, and way too long too. But sometimes is good to write words that come straight from the heart. I guess that, in a nutshell, what I intended to convey was that you must not be afraid to acknowledge your inadequacy. First, because no one is adequate; but secondly, because doing so will free you to use the power that honestly embracing one's limitations can exert on your development and of those around you.
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