The Imposter Syndrome
Thirty years ago, two researchers from Georgia State University made a startling discovery about how successful individuals perceive themselves. We might think that entrepreneurs managers, and highly paid professionals would be awash in self-confidence. Yet in their 1978 paper, Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes write that “Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments [many] persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”
The existence of the “Imposter Syndrome” seems contrary to practical experience. Shouldn't all of the degrees, certifications and rigorous exams of modern society filter unqualified people from conducting certain kinds of work? Shouldn't all of the compliments and accolades we give provide a sense of self-assurance? If you've already proven yourself by making it this far, why would you doubt your ability to take another step?
Nevertheless, most of us occasionally experience the sudden, gripping fear that we secretly have no idea what we are doing. This self-doubt might be baseless, but it can be crippling. We sometimes find ourselves unable to do any work for fear that it might be wrong. We ruminate on what will happen if we are “discovered.” We work ourselves into a frenzy and then develop self-loathing when it becomes clear we had nothing to worry about. The phenomenon is so commonplace it's likely that it sounds familiar to you.
The standard treatment regimen for the imposter syndrome is simply to be reminded that almost everybody experiences the imposter syndrome. We all question ourselves. It can be comforting to recognize that most people also secretly harbor feelings of uncertainty. When we are stressed, we tend to push back. Feeling like a fraud in difficult situations is normal and healthy, and acknowledging that this is natural can help us to work through these emotions. This is an old adage: you are not alone.
Furthermore, positive affirmation is often effective. Telling yourself that you are capable makes you feel more confident. Yet the irony of reassurance is that it can sometimes backfire. If you secretly believe you are an imposter, hearing others talk about your abilities might only fuel your guilt. We need to prove to ourselves that we are capable. We need others to speak about our accomplishments as much as they do about our potential.
However, there's something more we can do to battle the imposter syndrome besides individual acknowledgment. Organizations should openly discuss the psychology of work. Companies and non-profits should be as focused on the mentality of their employees as they are on the status of their tasks. We know that highly successful people have unreasonable self-doubt. Why not create a supportive culture that concedes these kinds of challenges? Shouldn't our business focus include helping people to be themselves?
An imposter is someone who fears they will be discovered for making mistakes, but an innovator is someone who fails quickly, repeatedly and enthusiastically on the way to success. Recognize those moments when you suddenly feel tremendously unqualified as opportunities to reflect on your ability, your potential to grow and your connection with others. You're not an imposter. More than likely, you’re right where you’re supposed to be.