I work with a diverse group of individuals: men and women of different ages, from different cultures and countries, at different levels in their career, and from different industries. But in all, there is one theme that is commonly present: Deep down, all of them are afraid they aren’t as good or competent as they think other people experience them. This is called the impostor syndrome.
I first learned about the impostor syndrome when I was in college. I had been “elected” for a leadership position at my University. I felt the pressure of being visible; feeling that I needed to lead these people, even though I didn’t have a clue as to what I was doing. While on a road trip with my Dad one weekend, he asked me how I was doing with the responsibilities of my new role. I confessed that it felt like only a matter of time before people started figuring out that I wasn’t as smart as they thought.
It was hard for me to admit this to him. I felt like I’d just shared my deepest, darkest secret. I felt exposed and certain he’d have judgment about my response. But he quickly replied, “Oh, that’s the impostor syndrome. I feel like that too.” Did he just say that?!? This was a man I looked up to; the president of a large company who, at least in my eyes, appeared to have his stuff together. What a relief. Just hearing I wasn’t alone was refreshing and freeing. You are not alone either.
Since that initial conversation with my father, I have continued to learn more about the impostor syndrome and how it occurs when a leader believes their success is “dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.”
I recently led a retreat where a team leader shared that he doesn’t always feel worthy of being in his role; that he doesn’t have all the answers and often feels less smart than his counterparts. When I explained the impostor syndrome to the group, people were surprised at the how common the experience was for people in the room. Nearly everyone there admitted to having thoughts of not being good enough and fear of being “found out”. The beautiful thing about this conversation was that for the rest of the event, the conversations were far more real, transparent and not surprising, far more productive because no one was trying to prove their worth…or at least they took a break for a couple of days.
One of the most powerful ways to work with the impostor syndrome is to name it. Once an unconscious thought becomes conscious and then acknowledged by spoken or written word, it loses its power over you. The unconscious mind is dependent on you NOT being aware of it, so when it finally is witnessed and acknowledged, its gig is up.
Experiment: The next time you experience any form of the impostor syndrome, find a trusted colleague or friend and make your “confession.” In the spirit of author Brene Brown, say, “The story I tell myself is…(fill in blank)” and notice how it feels to say it out loud. Notice if it’s freeing or scary (or both!) to simply acknowledge your fear. Then see what your colleague has to say. Could it be possible they are seeing you in a more objective light than you see yourself?
Looking for more tools on how to work with the impostor syndrome? Here are 21 Ways to Overcome Impostor Syndrome.