Imposter Syndrome


I’ve been talking to a lot of people this week about “imposter syndrome”. The term1 refers to the feeling that, despite all evidence to the contrary, that your success at doing something isn’t actually merited and that you are somehow a “fraud”. Successful outcomes are put down to luck, timing, collaboration with the right people or worse with the belief that people have been fooled into believing you have the skills or intellect to have achieved the outcome.

I’ve recently had a situation where I’ve felt very strongly that I simply couldn’t do something that intellectually and objectively I know I can (and indeed have done in the past). The truly horrible aspect of the feeling is that it leaves you not trusting your judgement and choices and slowing your decision making to a crawl. It’s a highly unpleasant feeling and I think sometimes forces me (and I am sure others) to make decisions that aren’t good because they appear easier, simpler or avoid putting you in the position of taking a risk.

So I’ve started doing some things that I think might be able to cure myself of this feeling (and especially the defense mechanism where I get belligerent when I think people are questioning my competence).

  • Trust my instincts and my fear

In a somewhat contradictory sense I think if the voice telling me that I am a fraud is particularly strong then I am probably doing the right thing. I need to drive myself to make the opposite choice from the one that my imposter voice is trying to sell me on. Or in other words: Just Fucking Do It.

  • Recognise that this is self-preservation not self-sabotage

Acknowledge that the feeling is about my psyche trying to protect itself from potential failure. It’s not a self-sabotage or a self-destructive activity but rather my brain’s rather annoying way of trying to shield me from potential failure. Once I’ve acknowledged that it’s both much easier to understand what is going on and to overcome it.

  • Care less about what other people think

A big part of feeling like this is comparing your wins and skills to others. If you start to recognise that we’re all fundamentally self-absorbed people, that others aren’t constantly measuring you, then you start to recognise and care a lot less about the status of others as a comparison mechanism. As let’s face it: other people really aren’t paying attention to you…

  • Find a mentor

I moved countries two years ago and left behind the guy who primarily acted as my professional “rabbi” and mentor. I never really replaced him and that was a mistake. Having a sounding board and someone whose judgement you trust is crucial to talking about and then making good choices.

  • Tell people about the problem

I fairly regularly joke that Americans are all about the feelings unlike us somewhat uptight Australians. But in this case I think it’s important to tell people when you are having “imposter syndrome” moments. It helps people understand your behaviour and allows them to acknowledge similar feelings and concerns. I know I am definitely not alone in feeling like this and that it is often people who exude the most confidence who are hiding the fear that someone will see through them.

  • Celebrate your wins

The most ironic aspect of this feeling is that dispassionately and intellectually I am not an imposter. I’m a professional success, I make good money, I’ve built awesome teams, lines of business and companies. I’m awesome at hiring people, building process and running operations. I’ve written five books, countless articles, been elected to positions and consulted by smart people. Personally, I’m a good partner (married twice … so perhaps not so great there the first time around), a good brother, a mostly dutiful son and a generally nice guy.2 So I need to remind myself of that rather than focus on the aspects of my life and career that I don’t perceive have gone so well.3 I am going to celebrate a few more of the wins without immediately diving into a post-mortem on the pieces that didn’t go so well.

So I am hoping that will help me and potentially other people.

  1. Which isn’t a recognised psychological disorder in the DSM IV. ↩︎

  2. Opinions vary on this but I am going to go with the broad consensus. ↩︎

  3. Ironically and reflexively I almost deleted the part of this section where I talked about my successes. sighs↩︎