This is not my beautiful house! Coping with Impostor Syndrome
This feature first appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
You’ve just started on at a new information technology (IT) job. You find yourself feeling overwhelmed. You’re not completely certain about everything you’ve been asked to get done, and you certainly aren’t as “with it” as your coworkers. Sooner or later, someone is going to catch on that you can’t actually do everything that you said you could.
If any of this sounds familiar, then at one time or another you may have had a brush with Impostor Syndrome (IS). Rather than being a full-fledged, diagnosable psychological condition, Impostor Syndrome is more like a persistent and unwelcome mental tagalong. IS preys on basic human insecurities, whispering that you are a fraud in imminent danger of being unmasked no matter what you know or can do.
It’s been estimated that nearly 70 percent of individuals will experience Impostor Syndrome at least once in their life. It is most often brought on by one’s being placed in a new setting. For example, research shows that Impostor Syndrome is not uncommon for students when entering a new academic environment.
Left unchecked, Imposter Syndrome (IS) can lead to a crushing lack of self-confidence and an erosion of belief in one’s own abilities. What does it take to overcome this mental state and stay on track in one’s job or life? Let’s take a closer look and see what makes IT workers particularly susceptible to the problem, as well as what steps can be taken to push through it.
What causes IS?
For individuals experiencing IS, it is often rooted in a fear of success. It’s a quirk of human psychology that we all try hard to succeed, yet often feel underserving of whatever success we achieve. For many people, this fear of undeserved success causes mild panic over the possibility of being exposed. People around us sometimes unwittingly reinforce such fears with praise and compliments.
If an IS sufferer’s performance or work history indicates that they are smart, talented, and responsible, and others refer to them as such, then a self-perpetuating cycle of fear can set in. Believe it or not, sometimes being a star student, or the Employee of the Month, isn’t the best thing for an individual’s mental well-being.
Research has shown that there are a number of common factors that encourage IS. One key driver is family expectations: If your parents tend to measure you against your siblings, or emphasize standards of performance — everyone in this family will graduate from college, for example — this can create pressure that fosters IS.
Other studies have indicated that high levels of education can result in an individual’s feeling undue pressure to perform. In some cases, a perfectionist with low self-esteem can fall into the trap of IS. Depression and anxiety, naturally, can also feed into IS, and excessive self-monitoring is another source of fuel for the fire.
Who suffers from IS?
Most people struggle, at various times and in various circumstances, to build up and maintain self-confidence. I have known top-level senior managers who grapple with self-doubt on a daily basis. Even vice presidents of multimillion-dollar companies and highly paid speakers and lecturers sometimes wonder how their best effort can possibly be good enough.
Many of us also tend to view self-deprecation as an admirable and relatable trait of character. You get the promotion at work, and you deflect congratulations by musing that they must have been short on candidates. Your team or division notches a big success, and instead of taking any share of the credit you attribute victory to the luck of the draw.
It’s entirely natural to progress from shaky self-confidence, or even just folksy self-deprecation, to blossoming IS. IS can also be connected to specific situations and circumstances. A person who feels fully confident speaking to strangers or professional colleagues, might be completely undone if called upon to address a group of close friends.
A manager who does just fine leading a team at work may be completely paralyzed at the thought of addressing a school board meeting. So even if you aren’t prone to freeze up in familiar circumstances, and even if you’ve never had a moment’s pause about stepping into a given situation, a bout of IS could still be just around the next unexpected bend in the road.
What can I do to fend off IS?
There are a few precautions you can take to steer clear of Impostor Syndrome altogether, as well as steps you can follow to fight free should you become trapped. First, don’t base your professional or personal self-image on never slipping up. Though many people equate failure with lacking any ability to succeed, failure is actually entirely normal.
The truth is, there is no such thing as an overnight success. Give yourself time and multiple opportunities to succeed. And don’t define your own success as matching or exceeding someone else’s accomplishments. Success can be subjective on many levels, and there’s no guarantee that what results in success for one individual will also produce a favorable outcome for the next person to come along.
Also remember that, if you are a high achiever, it’s possible that you are prone to IS to a higher degree than others. Allow yourself to be a work in progress. Instead of being frozen in place by fear, take one step forward, followed by another, and another. We all have moments of doubt. The key is to not let doubt turn into professional paralysis.
When you do find yourself stuck, there are a number of things you can do to get moving again. Seek out a mentor, someone who can give advice and serve as a confidant and friend. Having a reliable pillar of support is one of the best things that you can do for yourself.
It often takes a neutral observer, someone looking in from the outside, to provide a well-rounded picture of who you really are. A mentor can help you see the reality of your situation. If you find yourself suspecting that you are a fraud, ask for a second opinion. There’s an excellent chance that the honest truth, seen through someone else’s eyes, is that you’re doing just fine.
It can also be comforting, as well as eye-opening, to make a list of all of the good outcomes and positive achievements in your life. It may seem silly to write down that you have a great family and a nice job, a good circle of friends and loved ones — but if you see it on paper then you are more likely to believe it. And if you believe it, then you are more likely to grant that it can’t all have been a happy accident.
Finally, if you do ever find yourself in the throes of IS, then you should try to change your inner monologue. Most people do this sort of thing already and just don’t realize it. Change how you think about challenges. Instead of saying “I can’t do X,” tell yourself “I presently struggle with X” — and watch the clouds part.
Finding that you CAN, in fact, do something is often as simple as believing that you can do it. Most things are possible, even when you have to tackle them in small steps. And starting a turnaround can be as simple as changing the voice in your head.
You’ve got this
Impostor syndrome is neither the first nor the last nail in your professional coffin. It’s something that, to one degree or another, most people confront — and overcome. You, too, can learn to compartmentalize, to push past the thoughts and feelings that make you doubt your abilities, achievements, and accomplishments.