Do you find yourself feeling like you’re a fraud? Feeling like you’re getting by on chance, that your friends, colleagues and the client will soon find you out? If so, then you might be dealing with Imposter Syndrome also sometimes referred to as the Imposter Complex.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter Syndrome is a term originally coined by clinical psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes in their paper “The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: dynamics and therapeutic intervention”. While the original work focused on its impact on women, it is actually extremely common in both men and women. Pauline Clance and Gail Matthews identified that up to 70% off people will experience Imposter Syndrome at some point in their lives.
To give you an idea of how pervasive it is, some of the famous people who have commented that they experience imposter syndrome include:
- Tom Hanks
- Emma Watson
- Tina Fey
- Chris Martin (Coldplay member )
- Kate Winslet
- Renée Zellweger
- John Cheadle
- Meryl Streep
- Director-General of the World Health Organisation Dr Margaret Chan
I could go on but I think you get the idea.
Imposter Syndrome, as the name suggests, is the feeling that you’re an imposter in a situation. The feeling that you don’t deserve to be where you are, that people will find out that you’re making it up as you go along. Other examples of feelings that those who experience Imposter Syndrome encounter:
- The feeling that you’re untrained and unqualified for what you’re doing
- Anxiety about the work that you’re doing
- Have difficulty accepting praise or compliments
Imposter Syndrome is also terrible in that it is self-reinforcing. As someone feels that they need to work harder to avoid being viewed as a fraud, they produce more high-quality work, which they then continue to discount in their own mind.
Dealing with Imposter Syndrome
Recognising Imposter Syndrome and the impact it can have is useful in its own rights but we can seek to address it. Imposter Syndrome is something that is, unfortunately, not something that can be completely “cured”, it is something that is likely to lurk in the background throughout your life. We can, however, seek to manage it.
The following are some methods for helping to manage Imposter Syndrome.
Recognise that there are things that you don’t know
In consulting, there is an expectation that we are the experts, that we know everything necessary for the task at hand, however, this simply isn’t true or possible. It is important to recognise that there are things that you don’t know and there are things that you will never know, and that’s okay.
A common thought with Imposter Syndrome is that everyone knows more than you. In meetings with clients or colleague, others having knowledge that you don’t will reinforce this belief but it is only half the story. While you know the times’ someone has said something you didn’t know, you don’t know the times you say something that another person didn’t.
Everyone has their areas of knowledge, while your colleague may have talked about network configuration, which you know nothing about, they may not know the difference between Change and Release management. This doesn’t make either of you smarter than the other. The Venn diagrams below very simply explain people’s overlapping knowledge bases in a very nice way.
Another area that can cause stress for a consultant is the feeling that you need to know all the answers all the time. While ideally, it would be nice to have the answers to all the client’s questions, that isn’t how life works. Sometimes you see people muddle their way through a question and you can see that it isn’t fooling the client. A better approach is to say you don’t know and that you will get back to them with the answer later. This will almost always go down better than muddling through. There are exceptions to this rule, questions like “was the software deployed yesterday?” or “have we met this milestone yet?” are good examples.
Approach life as a life-long learner
One of the key drivers behind Imposter Syndrome is the feeling that you do not know enough. Along with recognising that there will always be things that you don’t know, viewing yourself as a life-long learner can be helpful. If you’re still learning then you can be a little more forgiving of yourself.
Taking opportunities to learn new things and expanding your knowledge will mean you have knowledge in areas others don’t. Don’t be afraid to fail, failing is actually a good thing! As long as you take the time to learn from your experience you can potentially learn more from it than if you had been successful. A great book on the subject of failure is Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed, which I recommend reading for anyone looking to improve themselves.
Remember, the ‘you’ of today is the most knowledgeable you’ve ever been.
As part of our work, we should be regularly collecting feedback. Through this, we are able to get thoughts from our colleagues and clients about our strengths and areas for improvement. If we receive positive feedback then this can help to disprove our inner demons. On the other hand, if an area we’re concerned about is raised as an area for improvement then we can speak to them about methods that we could improve.
Imposter Syndrome can make it difficult to accept positive feedback as it is, I know that I sit waiting for the ‘but’ following any compliment. While it can be difficult, try to embrace what has been said, by denying it you can almost be viewed as insulting the other person’s judgement.
It can be useful to write down compliments or good feedback you receive and keep them safe. This allows you when you’re experiencing doubt about yourself you can refer back to this list and it will, hopefully, help to reassure you.
Imposter syndrome is something that almost everyone will experience during their career. It is important that we recognise that we are not the only ones experiencing it and it is, in fact, something that is very normal. Something to consider is that if you’re pushing your limits then Imposter Syndrome is almost inevitable! By pushing yourself, setting yourself stretch objectives, by definition you will be facing new and more difficult challenges than you have faced previously. This can lead to feelings of being unable to manage, that you’re doomed to fail and increased stress, something I talk about in my post about stress (Stress – What is the right level of stress?).
The key message is, you can almost guarantee that everyone around you has experienced the same feelings of doubt as you, and it’s perfectly normal. If you don’t believe me, then take a look at the chart below (because charts never lie).
Do you occasionally feel that you’re an imposter? If so, feel free to share a time when you’ve felt like an imposter.
For me, a very poignant example is this post, I don’t feel qualified to write about Imposter Syndrome and its impact on people. A little ironic perhaps?