Imposter Syndrome (and How to Punch It In Its Stupid Face)

Over dinner, my friend tells me “I’ve been promoted to my level of incompetence.” She goes on to say she feels like she’s faking it – and has for the past 4 years. She’s a Director at a biotech firm making significant strides toward curing cancer.

The next day, one of my clients, the VP of a prominent investment firm, is explaining how their skills aren’t really marketable to other companies – despite their wildly successful track record over the past 20+ years.

Another client, a Senior Program Director from a global telecommunications company, is trying to convince me my suggestion he join the board of philanthropic organization is inappropriate because he’s not really a leader. He’s responsible for a high-tech division of 60 people with a $35 million annual budget.

There’s the brilliant journalist who graduated from a top ranked undergrad program. She’s crushing it in her career while raising a family, making art, and having a social life – and she feels like she’s faking it on an almost daily basis.

Every academic I know has gone to great lengths to explain to me how they can’t hack it in private industry.

Every entrepreneur I know experiences self-doubt on a daily basis. Sometimes it’s a whisper, but other times it’s an ear-drum shattering roar. It doesn’t matter how successful they are.

I’ve been dragging my feet on this post because even though I’ve been in Career Development for 14 years and an entrepreneur for 3 years, I’m not 100% sure I’m qualified to weigh in on this subject. Licensed psychologists and prominent companies have already written about it extensively and there are TED talks and videos galore, so why the hell would you listen to me?

i-have-no-idea-what-im-doing

Ahhh, Imposter Syndrome. I first heard about it a few years ago, and it’s been getting increasing airtime ever since. It pops up on blogs and podcasts. It’s dinner party conversation fodder. We give reassuring nods when a friend tells us about their particular strain of this affliction.

I’m thrilled the concept is now part of our collective consciousness! It’s time we change the way we think and talk about it. And the first step to slaying a mythical beast is figuring out what you’re up against. (Either that, or I’ve been binge watching Supernatural on Netflix for too long.)

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Imposter Syndrome is the belief that, despite our high achievement, it’s only a matter of time before we’re exposed as a fraud. That underlying fear we’re not good enough, not qualified, don’t truly know what we’re doing. We’re faking it. And everyone else is going to realize it.

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The Cure

There’s no magic pill to cure this illness. No single mantra, exercise, or event to make it all better. Instead, we can find relief through a combination of the following:

1. Be Glad You’re Not Suffering From Dunning-Kruger

I find it especially comforting to know Imposter Syndrome, by definition, only plagues high achievers.

It could be so much worse – I could be suffering from Dunning-Kruger instead, and vastly overestimating my competence. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be a tortured, competent smarty-pants than an unskilled goober who is too sure of herself.

imposter syndrome dunning kruger2. Seek Feedback From Others

Whenever I start working with a new client, one of the first things I have them do is interview people who know them well. They ask friends and colleagues to name their foremost strengths and engage in a discussion about their talents. This is really awkward for some people, but everyone finds it immeasurably valuable once they actually do it.

Most of us have difficulty tooting our own horns, and it’s way easier for other people to home in on what makes us awesome. The results are always enlightening and validating – and usually the push my clients need to start describing themselves with objectively positive language.

3. Name It

It may seem basic, but calling a duck a duck allows us to take our power back. It was embarrassing for me to admit this is something I struggle with – I’m the one who helps other people overcome Imposter Syndrome. I can’t have it myself! It’s B.S. And the sooner I admit it, the better off I am.

Call it what it is. It’s liberating.

4. Remember You’re Not Alone

Imposter Syndrome is most common among people in leadership roles, grad students, and newly minted PhDs. Even Emma Watson, Cheryl Sandberg,and Neil Gaiman have it. We’re all in good company.

5. Find the Humor In It

Imposter Syndrome is such a hot topic there is no shortage of comedic relief. Some light-hearted self-deprecation can help keep things in perspective.

6. Fake It ‘Till You Make It

Hokey, but true. Even if your insides feel like a knotted mess or a pile of goo, look for ways to outwardly demonstrate confidence and force yourself to act as though you’re rockin’ it all the time.

This can include surface level actions like getting a new haircut and updating your wardrobe to doing a deeper dive by taking an improv class or hiring a personal stylist. When our outsides are their shiniest, our insides tend to tag along for the ride.

7. Tell Your Tale

You are the keeper of your story. Find your voice and share what you care about, what excites you, your passions, cool things you’ve done, current projects that have you fired up. It’s good to hold yourself to a high standard – as long as you give yourself credit when you achieve your goals, and then make them part of your narrative.

For a jump-start in this story-telling area, I recommend Body of Work by Pamela Slim.

8. Embrace the Upside

Imposter Syndrome may very well be the price we pay for having strong work ethic and expecting big accomplishments from ourselves. And we can embrace it! Anxiety sparked by our innate drive and motivation makes sense. And it’s not so bad if we can harness it and find healthy applications. Like conquering the world.

9. Help Someone Else Conquer Their Own Imposter Syndrome

This final one is my favorite!

A magical thing happens when we help others – not only do we get a warm and fuzzy glow, we also shut down the part of our brain that’s all angst-riddled with our own problems.

Helping other people by calling out their own Imposter Syndrome and deconstructing it with them makes me feel immensely better about myself. When I observe it in other people, it’s so clear to me – so easy for me to see their valuable contributions and unique talents. When I become a mirror for them, they feel better and so do I. It helps me get out of my own way. I encourage you to give it a whirl!

Written by Kim Eisenberg

Kim Eisenberg

I provide individual and corporate career development services to clients throughout the US. I’m your trusted business advisor, motivational speaker, professional butt-kicker, and complacency crusher rolled into one.

Comments

  1. Thanks Kim! This is super helpful.

    Here’s something I often feel is left out of these discussions, though. You can say, “look, you have successes a, b, and c, and you feel like a fraud, therefore you have impostor’s syndrome.” But it really doesn’t follow that I’m not an imposter. Part of the fear of just believing I’m competent is the fear that I will then in fact have Dunning-Kruger. We don’t have objective access to how good we are. I have peers who tell me I’m great, and I have peers who put me down. I also know quite a lot of successful people who think they have imposters syndrome and in fact have Dunning-Krugger. How do I ensure I’m not like those fu**ers?

    • A totally legit concern. 🙂 The first clue it’s not Dunning-Kruger is the fact that you’re even worried about it at all. Beyond that, it can include the presence data that tell you otherwise – like, oh, say, having earned a PhD, becoming a subject matter expert, being respecting your field, receiving accolades from people you trust and admire, receiving balanced feedback from neutral observers who have no vested stake in your outcomes.

      In the example of peers who are critical of you – do you have evidence that supports their position, or is it possible something else is going on there? Toxic workplaces abound, and sometimes it really is a case of, “it’s not me, it’s you.”

      There are no perfect, easy answers, and as human beings we are inherently messy and multi-dimensional. This is why I like data collection from multiple (neutral) sources prior to diagnosis.

  2. They call it the Peter Principle. People are evaluated for a promotion based upon their success in their current role rather than their ability to handle the new role. There’s a corollary where they say that an individual is promoted to his/her level of incompetence and then promoted further up to get out of the way of those that are actually doing the work.

    • Sure, the Peter Principle is a very real thing. But by definition, Imposter Syndrome is something different – it’s people who are legitimately successful and talented who are unable to believe and accept that.

      In the first example in this post, my friend at the biotech firm is not an example of the Peter Principle, as there isn’t a shred of evidence to support her claim she’s incompetent. She has a stellar track record, is loved by the C-Suite and her team, and continues to do significant, meaningful work. It’s in her head.

      • Yes…I understand the difference here. I “accidently” graduated nursing school and I fell through some cracks and landed in an Er where I became a stellar nurse but its all a fluke. Lol

  3. How can one determine whether one is an example of the Peter Principle or Impostor Phenomenon? I would guess that everyone who is objectively the former thinks of themselves as the latter–whenever a Peter Principle person comes near to perceiving the actual incompetence they daren’t acknowledge, wouldn’t they say “I am experiencing Impostor Phenomenon and must turn away from this self-doubt until it subsides”, whereas whenever someone with Impostor Phenomenon makes a mistake it seems to them that their true-but-denied incompetence is breaking through the surface?

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