The Impostor Syndrome
Published in Womensmedia.com (September 2003)
Do you ever feel like a fraud in your professional realm? Do you secretly suspect that you have fooled others into thinking that you are more talented than you actually are? In spite of your achievements and successes, do you fear that one day you’ll be found out, exposed as a sham, and ridiculed for being someone who is less than capable? Studies have estimated that up to 70% of us fear being labeled as phonies. The woman who is laid off may believe that she’s just been pulling the wool over a series of bosses’ eyes, and finally the gig is up. She’ll never work again! I know one very accomplished professional woman with almost 20 years of successful corporate experience who is seriously making plans to become a bag lady.
Meet “The Impostor Syndrome.” The Impostor Syndrome is a well- documented tendency among many highly successful people to believe that their successes are largely accidental, and that at any moment they may be exposed for the charlatans that they really are. (Of course we impostors still tend to take all of the credit for our failures!) In the book, If I’m So Successful Why Do I Feel Like a Fake?, Joan Harvey cites research showing that it is often the most successful people who feel like impostors. And according to the information I have read, this phenomenon is far more prevalent among women than men.
The stereotype goes something like this: When a can opener doesn’t work, a typical woman assumes there is something wrong with the way she is using it, while a typical man assumes that it is broken. OK, who among us has ever met a “typical” anyone? Averages do justice to no one. One math professor of mine used to say, “My head’s in the oven and me feet are in the freezer, but on average I feel fine!” However, before you discount this gender difference, try a little experiment: The next time you turn the wrong knob on the stove to light the left-front burner consider that MAYBE the person who designed the stove could have arranged the controls in a more intuitive way.
Sure, sometimes we can truly be as dense as the components on a surface-mount circuit board, however that’s no reason to go through our lives denying our talents and explaining away most of our accomplishments as some kind of lucky break or odd fluke. And yet that is exactly what many highly successful women do. The charlatan complex, as this is also called, is quite common, and yet I find that many people who experience this kind of self-doubt have never heard of this phenomenon.
The Impostor Syndrome web site (www.impostorsyndrome.com) is a welcome source of information. It’s a great relief to realize that we are not alone in this self-limiting way of being. This site claims that people in the grip of this phenomenon “seemed unable to internalize their accomplishments. External proof of intelligence and ability in the form of academic excellence, degrees, recognition, promotions and the like was routinely dismissed. Instead, success was attributed to contacts, luck, timing, perseverance, personality or otherwise having ‘fooled’ others into thinking they were smarter and more capable than (they) ‘knew’ themselves to be.” If you live with the nagging worry that one day someone will discover that you have achieved your successes by some sleight of hand, rather than due to your own abilities . . . RELAX! Most of us feel that way some of the time.
What can you do about this irrational paranoia? Nothing more than realizing that you are perfectly normal, and that stretching outside of your natural comfort zone does feels a little odd. Give yourself a break! Acting as if you ARE the magnificent person you hope to be is a very effective way to BECOME that person. There is no shame in a “fake it ’til you make it” approach. In case you haven’t noticed, we’re all making it up as we go most of the time.
Sometimes I find that people are best able to perceive themselves in the quiet stillness of another attentive being. A coaching relationship can provide such an opportunity. I have personally seen the power of coaching help people remove self-limiting assumptions and beliefs and begin to perceive themselves more accurately and favorably in as little as one session. Effective coaching can give people permission to be as magnificent as others perceive them to be.
Having experienced the other extreme, the “often wrong, but never in doubt” mindset, I prefer a healthy middle ground with a touch of humility. We can acknowledge that luck plays a role in each of our lives without continuously undermining ourselves or our accomplishments. And as we give ourselves permission to achieve our greatest potential, we can make it safer for others to expand into their own possibilities.
“No one can give you what you deny yourself.” – unknownby