Who's The Imposter?

Who’s the Imposter?

One of my resolutions this year is not to back off from difficult topics. So when, following my last blog post, an email arrived asking for my views on imposter syndrome, I realised I would have to put that resolution to the test.

Here goes. First, I’d like to make it very clear that in trying to take a slightly wider perspective on this issue, I am not in any way seeking to diminish the genuine suffering and crippling anxiety that those with Imposter Syndrome undergo. Thankfully, this is now a clinically recognised psychological condition and there are a range of therapies and services available to help people, though the highly specialist nature of these means you may have to look further than your local GP.

What I would like to explore here is the idea that, for most of us, feelings of self-doubt and even inadequacy are an entirely normal reaction to particular situations. Whereas someone with severe Imposter Syndrome would experience these feelings as overwhelming, debilitating and permanent – because they arise from deep-rooted beliefs and insecurities which must be addressed. In the rest of us, feelings of self-doubt may be an entirely rational human response to an unfamiliar situation.

The good news is that your feelings of doubt are actually proof you have the insight to see that an environment or a challenge you face will require you to develop skills and abilities you may not have felt confident in before. Recognising and acknowledging this is a great strength. If you don’t believe me, think about anyone you have ever met who is blissfully unaware of their own shortcomings, faults, limitations and ignorance. They are a person who lacks insight – there are countless numbers of them out there, but you are not one of them.

So why are so many of us now reporting that we sometimes feel a bit of a phony in both our personal and workplace lives? A study (International Journal of Behavioral Science. 2011; 6(1):73-92)   estimates that 70% of people will experience at least one such episode of feeling this way.

I’d like to suggest that it is linked to changes in recent decades, particularly around our consumption of social media. We have fostered a society where we continually and often unconsciously compare ourselves, our achievements, abilities and indeed our whole lives with others. We are as helpless to turn off this entirely human but unhealthy aspect of our thinking as we are powerless to turn off our smartphones. Even more worrying, we often cannot recognise the ways in which these comparisons influence our thinking.

For example, if you are on a video conference it is almost guaranteed that many people on screen will have behind them an artfully curated background containing a selection of; a tidy bookshelf, tasteful lamp, family photo, holiday souvenir, degree or diploma certificate, and some sports or professional award. As Fall Out Boy would say “This ain’t a scene, it’s a goddamn arms race”. Take part if you like with your own carefully arranged backdrop, but don’t beat yourself up if your whole home or professional career doesn’t look like the immaculately presented three square metres behind their heads. Because nor does theirs – it’s all smoke and mirrors.

In the modern workplace, there seems to be a culture of downplaying the effort we put into our accomplishments. When did it become uncool to admit you worked hard? When I started in business, I wanted to be seen as hard working. Nowadays, we may spend all night writing a report only to tell our colleagues and bosses “Oh, it’s just something I put together quickly”.

Comparisons can be especially damaging when they become self-fulfilling. Presenting to meetings and handling formal social situations are both learned skills. Sure, these skills come more easily to those with an outgoing disposition, but we can all become better. If you didn’t know that most presenters rehearse endlessly and that their effortless ease is the result of practice, your belief about yourself might be that you can never become a confident presenter.

How are we meant to be confident in our abilities when other people are creating an illusion about theirs? Because even when we do something well, that positive experience may not change our self-belief if we put our own success down to hard work, but attribute other peoples’ success to ability?

We must learn to see this differently. I like to imagine that my work life is a bit like playing a game of poker. Each card in my hand represents an experience, skill or ability that I bring to the table. Like cards, these skills can be changed and upgraded when I am given an opportunity, and I take calculated risks based on what I absolutely know for certain I have in my hand. But what if the other players at the table were playing a subtly different game, in which they were not just occasionally bluffing, but were allowed to tell outright lies about what cards they held and what hands they played. How might you play the game differently, without calling out your co-workers and demanding that they show their hand at every turn, which would of course get you thrown out the casino?

One answer is that you could start to play ‘liar’s poker’ too. Or you could accept that you can’t see what hand other people hold, and you can’t necessarily take people at face value. All you can focus on is playing your hand as best you can and stop bashing yourself over the head with unhelpful comparisons.

  • Feelings of self-doubt are a normal human reaction to unfamiliar situations
  • Such anxieties are common around transitions to new roles or responsibilities
  • Recognising and acknowledging doubt is a great strength and proves you have insight
  • Make an inventory of experiences, skills & abilities you have, and those you will develop
  • Reach out to younger colleagues and co-workers who may struggle with self-belief

I hope you have found this helpful and that it has provided some food for thought. If you have ideas and questions that you’d like me to cover in my bullet blogs, please do get in touch.