Outsmarting the Imposter Syndrome

Outsmarting the Imposter Syndrome

Feelings of self-doubt can plague all of us — and in some cases these harbored doubts threaten to derail our work lives. The chatter of these disconcerting “pangs” can become quite vocal as we approach (or settle) into a new challenge. While I do not recommend debating if this is worthy of your attention (it is), actively considering how to neutralize the negative by-products is both worthy and necessary.

There is a name for this dynamic: The Imposter Syndrome or The Imposter Phenomenon. First documented by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the 70’s (Read the source research here, which explains how family experiences can serve as one instigating culprit), it illustrates how high achievement doesn’t automatically translate into a deep sense of confidence. We can harbor experiences that make us feel vulnerable and unworthy. In fact, some us fear being discovered as less than competent (even a “fake”) as we progress career-wise.

Questions such as these — “Do I deserve to be here?” — and “Do I really have what it takes to succeed?” can dominate the internal monologue. Research examining this dynamic in a lab setting, recorded greater anxiety levels for those identified as “imposters” before a challenge and greater loss of self-esteem after a failure — yet did not affect actual performance. Those examining IP further as it affects us career-wise, found that IP decreased career planning, career striving and the motivation to lead — all of which can spell trouble.

I’ve heard the urban legend of a freshly minted groups of MBA students at a prestigious university. On the first day of lectures, a professor inquired if they entertained the thought that their acceptance may have been an error. (Surprisingly, the majority of students raised their hand in response.) They had unceremoniously diminished their hard work and accomplishments, to something as capricious as an office error.

The truth is this, I’ve been there — and in all likelihood you’ve been there, as well. We must make every effort to squelch our negative inner voice, as it attempts to trump our hard work. In fact, we should unpack the “whys” and “hows” of the syndrome. Self-managing these pangs is an important task.

Some things to consider:

  • Where do your doubts originate? This a worthy, yet very tough question to answer. In many cases, past experiences are so ingrained in our daily lives that we have forgotten to challenge them. Has an early career failure or unhealthy family dynamic plagued you in some way? Take the time to examine the “layers of the onion”.
  • Watch the stress of transitions. Feelings of anxiety can accompany new surroundings or uncertainty. Recognize this is completely normal and will likely pass as you become more settled in your new endeavor.
  • Watch the “perfect” trap. Feelings of doubt can be fueled by the penchant to achieve perfection. Try to determine if perfectionist tendencies cloud your judgement concerning your knowledge set, skills and experience.
  • Consider the facts. Take a deep breath and examine the facts. (In fact, sit down and review your accomplishments.) There is likely much more evidence that you are competent and can meet the challenges in front of you, than not. Remember, that an organization chooses to engage you, betting you will succeed, rather than fail. If you are not chosen for a valued role or task, realize that this does not mean you are entirely competent — just not the individual with the “best fit”.
  • Learn to process setbacks in a healthier manner. Failure is an ever-present possibility — and the greater the challenge ahead, the more likely your protective mechanisms will kick into high gear. Yes, there is a chance that you might fail. However if all does not go well, be careful to “unpack” the low points without sacrificing yourself.
  • Monitor self-talk. What usually dominates your thoughts with a challenge? Excitement? Doubt? Negativity? Monitor (and auto-correct) the dialogue marching through your head.
  • Share your concerns. If you have nagging doubts about an specific element of your work life, put the cards on the table with someone with who can offer an impartial opinion. Go there and discuss perceived weaknesses. This may offer you a needed perspective.
  • Still doubtful? Focus. If you still have a suspicion that you may actually be lacking somehow (even though others may not share that assessment) explore methods to satisfy your inner critic. Carve out strategies to help you feel comfortable and build confidence. (Circulate your ideas for review/comment, etc.) This may do your workplace “heart” a world of good.

A version of this was first posted on Linkedin.com