The Antidote to Impostor Phenomenon
The ‘Impostor Phenomenon’ was first described in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. It described the tendency we have to believe that we are not good enough at what we are doing and, at any moment, we will be ‘found out’ by others. We see ourselves as effectively ‘impostors’ and experience self-doubt as a result. Somewhere along the way, this phenomenon became known as a ‘syndrome’ and it became something that we often used to diagnose ourselves with whenever we doubted ourselves.
There are plenty of arguments as to why labeling it a syndrome is not very helpful. The main one is that it potentially can become something outside of our control that we are the victims of. Thinking of it as a phenomenon is more likely to get us to see it as something psychological that happens rather than something being wrong with us or happening to us.
Regardless, what are some ways we can handle this? First of all, let’s look at the term impostor itself. Whenever someone is an impostor, they are pretending to be something or someone. The opposite of this is someone being themselves or being the person that they are supposed to be. When an actor plays a character, we don’t think of them as an impostor. The term “impostor” implies deception, dishonesty, or fraud. It suggests that someone is pretending to be something they are not in order to gain an unfair advantage or deceive others. If you work as hard as you possibly can at what you are doing, you are actively trying to be that person. There is nothing dishonest about that. An impostor is actively trying to con others. If you are doubting your skills, you are doubting your skills. This is completely different from pretending to gain an advantage.
Second, everybody doubts themselves. Everyone is playing a game to try and act like they know what they are talking about. In the complex and ambiguous world, we live in, there is so much uncertainty that we will often struggle to figure out what’s going on. There is so much information out there about our chosen area of expertise that we really don’t know all that we could know, and therefore it is easy to judge ourselves for the lack of knowledge. The truth is, however, that we will never be able to hold all of that information, and even if we did, it wouldn’t guarantee that we would avoid making mistakes.
Third, the impostor phenomenon often happens when we compare ourselves to what we ‘should’ be. Instead of the judgmental mindset, it is more useful to adopt a learning mindset so that when we make this comparison, we ask ourselves, ‘What do I need to do to get better?’ as opposed to ‘Why am I not as good as I should be?’. Asking this different question will give you a different answer.
Ultimately, though, the real trick to overcoming a feeling of being an impostor is to cultivate belief in yourself. This begins by auditing the stories you tell yourself about yourself. How do you describe yourself to yourself? How accurate is your portrayal? What new stories can you tell yourself about yourself that will change the way you see yourself? Understand what information you are taking in from the world around you. How might that influence the way you see yourself? What kind of actions are you taking? What do those actions say about the kind of person you are? Instead of trying to handle the feeling of being an impostor, do whatever you can to constantly reinforce how great you are to yourself.
P.S. The Changing Minds Podcast is out now with some very cool episodes. The latest one is ‘Lessons learned: Big influences on my life’ and you can find it here.