I have some confessions;
I’ve been lucky in life.
I’ve had a lot of fortunate breaks and they’ve helped me achieve moderate success and wonderful relationships.
I worry that people might see through my exterior, judge me, and find that I don’t quite measure up to their expectations.
I’m concerned that I might not be as smart or as good at my work as people sometimes think I am.
Do any of those resonate? Did you find yourself thinking ‘oh crap, I’m not the only one!’?
If so, the good news is you’re not alone.
More good news is that what you’re feeling has a name.
In very real terms, Imposter Syndrome is the belief, shared by many high performers, that you don’t deserve your accolades, rewards, or acclaim.
Psychologists Suzanne Imes, Ph.D, and Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D, first coined the phrase in the 1970s after their research into high performing women uncovered a peculiar trend. Many of these women, who were highly regarded by their peers and unquestionably successful from the perspective of others, attributed their success to luck or chance and had trouble internalizing what they had done to get where they were. They felt sure that at any moment they’d be revealed to be imposters, undeserving of all they’d achieved.
Early research found that this thought process shows up often in high performers and minorities, and increasingly research is finding that most of us feel this way sometimes.
Don't look at me, I'm nobody.
At times it feels like we live in an age where the only two options are ‘Look at me, I’m special’, or ‘Don’t look at me, I’m nobody’. We post pictures about the food we eat and the vacations we take, but shy away from asking for the promotion or pay raise we feel we’ve earned. We’re told that we’re not grateful for what we have, and then told to reach for the stars and never be satisfied.
And good luck if you’re a Millennial, because everyone has something to say about Millennials and how they approach the world. (Hey Millennials, what we’re all experiencing are global trends, not generational ones; but more on that at a later date)
One of the voices that talks the loudest is the one that says ‘Who are you to do this?’. Maybe you’ve heard that voice before. Maybe it was ‘who are you to write a book?’, or ‘who are you to be someone’s mentor?’, or ‘who are you to go for that promotion?’.
Shouldn’t we be happy with our station in life? Isn’t it a little bit of hubris to think that what we have to say is so valuable that others should want to hear it, see it, or experience it?
From someone who struggles with that inner voice, here’s are two things I’ve learned. No guarantee they’ll work for you, and there are lots of other options, but I hope they help you like they've helped me.
Adopt a growth mindset more often
Dr. Carol Dweck, Ph.D, wrote Mindset, one of the most significant books I’ve ever had the fortune to read.
Dr. Dweck's research and the subsequent book explore how sometimes we believe qualities and skills are innate, and others times we believe our traits can be developed. When we believe in a ‘fixed mindset’, we tend to do things we know we can be good at, because success is a justification.
The transitive properties apply; e.g. if smart people get A’s, and I’m smart, then I have to get A’s. The best way to get A’s is to do things I know I can get A’s at. Boom! Brilliant!
Take that same rationale and apply it to sports, cooking, work, etc. and you see the downsides of a perpetual fixed mindset.
Conversely, when we exhibit a growth mindset, we define things like ‘smart’ and ‘good at’ differently. We believe that skill is a work in progress, and that we only get better by challenging ourselves. So if I take a tougher class, or volunteer for a more challenging project, even if I don’t succeed by someone else’s definition, I have learned and grown.
And in that growth is progress.
This mentality is a daily struggle. I don’t always get it right where I want. But the awareness that I’ve gained about my natural inclinations, and what that does to my internal motivation, has made me a better person, a better leader, and most importantly to me, a better father.
For me embracing contradictions means embracing the things that I might otherwise view as imperfections.
I am competitive. I like to win. I like to be right.
Right now everyone who knows me is smirking and nodding their head vigorously.
Mix those with this intense desire to please others and I can be a petri dish for the Imposter Syndrome.
But I’ve learned to acknowledge those qualities alongside others that smooth out the rough edges. I like winning AND I love people. That I like being right AND I love to learn.
As I realized that these are not in conflict with one another, I started to accept my inner workings as a melange of emotions, drivers, motivations, and perspectives.
Allowing myself to not have to be one thing or another, but rather a collection of things that change and flex while still maintaining a set of core values, is liberating.
Try giving yourself that same freedom. You may find that it frees you up from the prison of absolutes.
I don’t have it all figured out. I still have to keep myself in check and I don’t know that I’ll ever completely silence that voice in my head.
But if I’m being honest with myself (and shouldn't I be?) I don’t think I want that voice to go away. It keeps me motivated and hungry. It challenges me to question if I’m giving my best all the time, and if not, why?
I hope to keep getting better at harnessing the power of that voice, and putting it in it's place when necessary.
And if you recognize some of the Imposter Syndrome in yourself, I hope you keep getting better at moderating that voice for yourself too.