You’re working the dream gig you’ve hoped for as long as you can remember. You’re acing every challenge, the boss thinks you’re a star—only problem is, you feel like a big fat fake and live in fear someone’s going to figure it out and boot your butt to the curb. What’s up with that?
Imposter syndrome, defined
It could be imposter syndrome, says Valerie Young, a public speaker with a doctorate in education and a specialty in helping career folk overcome feelings of professional inadequacy. “Despite evidence of your accomplishments, you continually discount your success, thinking instead that you must be fooling everyone and thus in constant danger of being unmasked.”
Yes, this sounds a lot like low self-esteem, and we as a society are quick to give things labels that lend more significance (tall, grande, venti?). But according to Young, imposter syndrome is more than ordinary self-doubt, more complex than simply faking it until you make it. Usually chronic, it’s most often related to areas of achievement and feeling undeserving of success. “It’s particularly persistent in creative fields such as acting or writing,” Young says, “where you think you’re only as good as your last effort.”
How imposter syndrome can affect you
Young identifies two main reactions to what can sometimes be paralyzing fear. “If they allow it, imposter syndrome can hold people back, make them afraid to go after advanced positions,” she says. “Others deal through extraordinary effort, working harder than everyone else while secretly convinced that if they were really smart, they wouldn’t have to work so hard.” A common thread is attributing their careers to luck, with the certainty that had circumstances been the slightest bit different, someone talented would be in their place. “The syndrome gets in the way of feeling pride and accomplishment,” says Young.
Angela Bodden* works at a mid-size custom-publishing firm. Having forged a solid, bright and successful career in sales, she was promoted last year to VP of the division. “Everyone thought I was way more up on things than I thought I was,” she says. “My boss seemed pleased with my work and clients were happy, but I was terrified, working overtime to get to the level of expertise I expected of myself, and convinced I was five minutes from people finding out I really didn’t know what I was doing.”
How to deal with imposter syndrome
Thankfully, there are ways to cope. “Re-examine your competence rulebook,” advises Young. “People who feel like imposters often have high, unrealistic expectations of themselves, perfectionist issues, and the conviction that they shouldn’t be struggling at all. Ask yourself, ‘why would I know this? I’ve never done this before,’” she says. And remember, mistakes are not necessarily proof of ineptness, but opportunities to learn and improve.
Bodden says it took a year, but she forced herself to work through it. “I’ve been in business long enough to know that everyone goes through something like this at some point—and it’s not my first time, either,” she says. And know that you’re not the only one who sometimes feels overwhelmed. “Anyone who is successful and says they’ve never felt this way is lying.” Incidentally, Bodden won the company’s “Sales Achievement of the Year” award for 2008.
And it affects me, too
Hello, my name is Janine Falcon, and I have imposter syndrome. On more than one occasion I’ve held back from going after a job I was afraid I couldn’t do although I was perfectly qualified. When folks comment on how well I appear to be doing careerwise, I pull out the “I’ve been really lucky” card. I’m still surprised when someone says he or she has enjoyed something I’ve written; I secretly think maybe it was a slow, boring day. I’m also surprised when someone assigns me a story, and I get scared I can’t deliver. Sometimes that terror is so bad that I want to find a park bench to hide under until it passes. (I don’t know why always a park bench. Mystery.)
But hey, did you catch that? “Until it passes.” I’m making progress. When anxiety gets that big, I force myself to look at my history as though I’m someone else, as if my resume and body of work isn’t mine. It takes a bit to switch gears, but eventually I realize that if a friend were feeling about herself the way I’m feeling at that moment, I’d oh-so-gently call her an idiot. And I get back to work.
What about you?
Have you suffered from imposter syndrome, too? Are you happy to find out it has a name? How do you deal? Tell us in the comments below.