Many years ago, I was talking with a close work friend over a drink. As he finished a lengthy, animated exposition about how he felt the concept of cloud (at the time) was misunderstood by the technology community, he said, “… but what do I know, I’m only pretending to have a clue.” I started to laugh, thinking of how well educated, “with-it”, and graceful under pressure he seemed. He held a respected position in the organization and was held in high regard by everyone with whom he worked.
As he took a long draught of his draft, a silence fell over the table, only disturbed by the murmur of pub noise around us. I looked past him and said, “You know, every day I feel that someone will find out that I’m pretending like I know what I’m doing.”
He put down his drink and said, “You feel the same way?! You always seem like you’ve got it together!”
It was the first time I ever expressed – in a serious way – that I felt like an imposter to anyone. I felt that, at any moment, someone would realize that I didn’t know what I was doing, and my career would be over. To have someone else react with surprise at my admission was surprising in itself.
Since that day at the pub, I’ve had this conversation with dozens of people both in the networking industry and in other walks of life. Nearly everyone with whom I’ve spoken has either been shocked that others felt the same way, relieved that they weren’t the only one, and grateful to have had an opportunity to express their “dark secret”.
What Is Imposter Syndrome?
The official term “imposter phenomenon” was coined by Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes in a 1978 article entitled “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention”. They discovered that these women often perceived themselves as intellectual frauds based upon many societal and social factors. It turns out that, after further research, both men and women experience these feelings.
In simplified terms: you feel like you’re a fraud, you don’t deserve your success, and that you’ll eventually be exposed as a fraud.
My journey with Imposter Syndrome originates from a struggle to overcome my lack of traditional education and early experience. I worked very hard to address those challenges by learning how to learn and developing a strong skill set in technology. Still, I always felt I missed opportunities to build a stronger knowledge foundation. Today, I get to work with some of the smartest, most educated people I’ve ever known. Some have doctorates, some have invented protocols or technologies, some have legerdemain with numbers, statistics, facts, or physics that make my head spin. It can sometimes feel like being dropped amongst a cavalcade of intelligence whilst holding a colouring book. Almost every day I wonder if anyone noticed that I’m the one wearing a dunce cap.
There is nothing wrong with having doubts or being unsure of yourself in a new or unfamiliar situation or role. People react differently to new challenges, but it is crucial to know the difference between perfectly natural doubt and an unhealthy view that – most often contrary to the evidence – you’re not worthy of your success or the opportunity to be successful.
Are there circumstances where you may not have the knowledge or skillset for a task or job? Of course. Differentiating between the story you’re telling yourself and the reality of the situation will help you see the difference. Being able to make that assessment based on self-knowledge will allow you to make better choices and recognize when you’re letting your psychology win. You may be able to accomplish that task or grow into that role by asking for help, fostering great relationships, and applying your experience to address the task successfully.
When those thoughts happen, I work hard to overcome my innate sense of being an imposter. Let’s talk about how.
What Can I Do?
First off, take a deep breath. You’re not alone. I guarantee you that many of your colleagues and friends have felt the same way. This feeling is something you can overcome and even begin to help others to overcome. I try to remember that my emotional dunce cap is invisible to everyone but me, so I have space to address it before it gets too heavy.
Phone a Friend
Speaking about your feelings with someone whom you trust – a friend, a co-worker, or a mentor – can go a long way to helping you name the beast. Throughout my career, I’ve had people open up to me about their feeling of being an imposter and they – to a one – have been shocked, then relieved to know that I’ve felt the same way and can empathize with them. Merely knowing that you’re not alone can help you start to reframe the experience and provide an outlet when the sensation becomes overwhelming. Some people may also find value in speaking with a therapist who specializes in mindfulness therapy. I know I did.
Mindfulness is a non-judgmental practice of being aware of your thoughts, emotions, and sensations “in the moment”. Don’t worry; this isn’t an introduction to a cult! Being mindful can open you up to a new way of addressing anxiety, a clearer understanding of how your body and mind react in different situations, and can help you find ways to circumvent those thoughts that lead you into unproductive thought patterns. In my daily life, I work very hard to be mindful of how I experience situations. I have a mental metaphor of a lighted box where my experiences play out, and I’m watching from beyond the box. Being mindful of my reactions from moment to moment provides me with a compassionate way to judge whether I’m telling myself a story or if I’m genuinely out of my depth.
Own Your Gaps
On every whiteboard I have – and I have many – I write the words, “I don’t know” in the top right corner and sign it. It’s a reminder that not only do I have gaps but that it’s okay to own that. In every interview I’ve conducted with job applicants, the moment I sense they’re not willing to say, “I don’t know”, I know they’re not the right candidate. Being able to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll go find out and get back to you”, or “I’d love an opportunity to learn more about that”, or “I’d need some guidance on that” is a game-changer for your state of mind. It removes the risk of assumptions by others about your knowledge or skillset. It allows for you to own and control any exposure of gaps in knowledge. It also provides a broader, more valuable opportunity to learn and grow by finding people who are willing to work together with you to enhance everyone’s success.
I find it valuable to reach out to someone in my work or social network more knowledgeable than I and ask them for some time to discuss the subject. It’s essential to learn to ask the right questions, identify key topics relevant to your needs, and discuss where you might find additional information. Building these relationships may also introduce you to others with knowledge and experience and expand your network. There are free online courses, continuing education courses from community colleges, and books upon books upon books on every subject imaginable. Find subject matter expert groups or clubs with outreach channels. For example, you may have some challenges with communicating ideas or speaking in public. In that case, there are organizations such as Toastmasters International who specialize in helping people build confidence and speaking skills.
Embrace Your Success
While it may seem a bit facile to say, “Know thyself”, having the compassion to embrace your strengths and successes contributes to overcoming imposter syndrome. When you accomplish something, acknowledge what strengths you brought to the task and celebrate your success at completing the task. You can even review your negative feelings along the way and identify how you overcame them to achieve your goal.
If you receive positive feedback, learn to take a compliment! I struggle with this one, too! Don’t deflect or ignore compliments or positive feedback. Let yourself accept it without finding a way to dismiss it (“It’s not a big deal…/I didn’t really do much…”) or diminish it (“Thanks, but…”). Let positivity enhance your success. If you receive constructive criticism, you need to practice separating that criticism from your self-worth.
One of the most challenging experiences of my life has been getting to know myself. I can sometimes judge myself harshly, but I offer this perspective (as told to me by someone who quite literally changed my life): would you judge your best friend the way you judge yourself? I wouldn’t be as negative and critical of anyone in my home, work, or social life as I can be with myself, so why would I treat myself with so little compassion? We all struggle with this, but – again – being mindful can give us the space we need to think more objectively about ourselves. Take off your emotional dunce cap and give yourself a round of applause.
One of my life’s joys is waking up knowing that I’m going to learn something new today. Whether it’s from the people with whom I work, the reading, writing, or research I do, or just from the world around me changing rapidly, I get to include all of that in my view of the world. I’m okay not being the smartest person in the room because that gives me room for growth and perspective. I can then use my experience and my perspective to add something unique to the team. I ask questions when I need to clarify something, and I listen to the unique voices around me.
Some days I still think to myself, “What am I doing here?”, and I feel those familiar sensations start to build up in my body. But I give myself some space, open up the toolkit and, after a while, my internal voice says, “You may be able to bring a perspective that only you could offer, so let’s try to be present enough to make a difference.”