Imposter Syndrome Doesn’t Have to Control You— Take it from a Pro!
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Imposter Syndrome. Truth be told, I didn’t even know what it was until about a year ago. Oh, I knew the feeling; knew it well. But I didn’t realize it had an official name.
For those who don’t know, Imposter Syndrome is that feeling some of us get that we’re not good enough to have what we have. I think it mostly manifests in our professional lives, but it can happen in our personal lives, as well. It’s not the easiest feeling to fight, either, and it can have real and lasting effects on your career and life if you let it. How many times have any of us seen a job that we initially thought would be ideal for us, only to back out of applying because we decided we weren’t good enough? I’ve done it. I bet some of you reading this have, as well.
The thing is, while I see many people talking about Imposter Syndrome, I never seem to hear anyone really talk about why it’s prevalent and what’s behind it. Now me, I’m like a toddler: “why” is my very favorite question. So naturally as I started to think about Imposter Syndrome and how it’s impacted me or others around me, I wondered why.
Let me set some context. Fair warning; this may come off as self-serving. I promise you it isn’t meant to! I’m just being objective here; everything I’m saying is 100% true. I’m telling it to you for a reason; so you’ll understand that Imposter Syndrome can be a problem for almost anyone.
First off, I’m a smart guy. I have an IQ somewhere north of 145, was inducted into MENSA, and was the class speaker at my undergraduate commencement ceremony. I graduated from my undergraduate program with highest honors, and graduated from my Master’s program with a 3.86 GPA. And it wasn’t an easy program, being loaded with classes on statistics, measurement, research methods, etc.
And unlike some, I’m fortunate that my job is directly related to my education, so every day I use what I learned in my work with clients. And long practice has taught me to balance academic rigor with the ability to explain complex data convincingly to the layperson, so I’ve got great balance and can make things easy to understand while still being very credible.
This, at least, is what my colleagues tell me. Me? I’m not so sure. Logically, I know that all of that is true. So…why don’t I feel like I’m any good?
It’s a strange and unsettling sensation. I’ve seen job openings that I’m perfectly qualified for, but within minutes of beginning an application, I start talking myself out of applying. I was sure that I would be in over my head; that I couldn’t do it. I actually start to feel anxious or even slightly sick at the thought of applying. This is especially true when the job is for a salary that’s notably higher than what I make; that’s a sure sign to the inner me that I’m woefully unqualified and shouldn’t even bother to apply. And if I’m being honest, I’ve backed out of jobs I applied for, stopped in the middle of an application and even deliberately blown interviews because I was so afraid of actually getting the job and being “found out.” I’ve sat in interviews and gotten mildly sick thinking “what if they give me the job and I can’t do it, and they fire me? Or tell me they thought I would know how to do this or that and I can’t?”
And as I started to open up about it, I found that it was actually a common problem. I know many people within my personal circle of friends and colleagues who feel this way as well (though admittedly perhaps not as strongly). And while we’re all in different careers, we all feel doubts about our ability. That we’re not good enough to have the jobs we do, and that we’re not good enough to apply for other jobs that would let us advance.
So, I’ve thought about this, wondering if there was a reason. Nothing came to mind. Our backgrounds, education, ages and even genders are all different. There’s just nothing we have in common.
Or so I thought.
Finally, though, like with many problems or riddles the answer came and was absurdly simple once I saw it. What do we have in common? We all think what we do is easy.
That was my epiphany. And it was quickly followed by another; the reason we all think what we do is easy is because we’re all good at what we do.
Let me tell you about one of these people, an accountant. She is a truly remarkable young woman I’m fortunate to know. She was a student of mine back in 2016 in a Management Information Systems course I taught. On the first night, she struck me as a smart, thoughtful young woman. She was the only person in a class of 25 who I could count on to speak up and offer her opinion when I asked discussion questions. She made great grades and was an impressive writer. We stayed in touch after she graduated, and I helped her with her resume and some interview tips/tricks for her first post-graduation job.
She is very good at what she does, equally skilled at both tax and audit. She’s been promoted several times since leaving school, passed her CPA exams while holding down a full time job, and has been accepted into multiple top-flight Master’s in Accounting programs. She’s smart. She can learn almost anything and has a tremendous store of knowledge about many topics. Whether listening to a podcast on economics or an e-book on the history of World War 2, she’s always collecting new knowledge the way a squirrel collects nuts. And she has enough tenacity and grit for three normal people.
But she’s absolutely terrified of applying for new jobs because she’s so sure she isn’t good enough. One day she even texted right before an interview; she said she was nauseated and on the edge of throwing up. And I was just so baffled! I reminded her of all the amazing progress she’d made. How she got all the jobs she had wanted, the promotions she wanted, how she passed her CPA exams and got into the graduate program she wanted. “Failures don’t do that,” I said. “You’re good at what you do. Just accept it; they wouldn’t give you an interview if they didn’t think you were a fit candidate.”
And I think that’s the thing. Both of us have been doing what we do a long time, and we’re good at it. And what you’re good at comes easy to you. And the real issue is that we’ve been conditioned to think that something easy isn’t valuable. Because if it’s easy for us, it’s easy for everyone else. It’s a sort of self-destructive cognitive bias that causes us to undervalue what we know, because we assume others can do the same things we can…because it’s easy.
I’m going to guess that some of you who read are thinking right now “that’s me!” If so, you’re also probably hoping I can tell you how to fix this. Well…I don’t have a fool-proof answer. But I can tell you what I started to do that I found helpful. And it’s really a simple trick, and the funny thing is I did it with other people for years with everything with career advice, school advice, and even personal advice without ever applying it to myself. And that’s to take yourself out of it.
What you can do is this. The next time you start to doubt your abilities, or the next time you find yourself doubting you can do a job you apply for, or manage that promotion you just got, try this. Pretend you’re someone else. Someone just like you with all your skills, knowledge, ability, experience, and history. Then ask yourself what you would tell that person if they had the doubts you did.
By doing that, you’re removing the biggest block to your own self-image…the “self”. When it’s no longer you that you’re talking about, you can remove a lot of the emotion from the situation. The fear, the anxiety, the worry…those just don’t really exist when it’s another person you’re talking about. The stakes are lower, the stress is less. All you have to do is just practice. It won’t come naturally immediately. But if you really work at it, and push yourself to keep trying, you can start to talk yourself out of feeling like an imposter and start to objectively recognize your skills, your abilities, and your value. It’s there. The world will try to rob you of it, so don’t do it yourself! Now get out there, and get that new job, that promotion, or that project! And if you start doubting, try this method. You’re better than you feel you are!