|How to feel as bright and capable|
Copyright ©2004 by Dr. Valerie Young
If you're like most students, you already know a lot about the Imposter Syndrome because you live with it every day. But just to make sure everyone is on the same page, I'd like to begin by sharing what I call my "in a nut-shell" definition of the Imposter Syndrome. Here it is:
Although the Imposter Syndrome has undoubtedly been around for quite some time, the term was first coined in 1978 by psychology professor Pauline Rose Clance and psychotherapist Suzanne Imes in their paper, The Imposter Phenomenon Among High Achieving Women. Since then, there have been hundreds of studies, magazine articles, and talk shows dedicated to understanding what the Imposter Syndrome is and what can be done about it.
The Imposter Syndrome is surprisingly common. Early studies by Dr. Gail Matthews1 suggest that up to 70 percent of all people have experienced these feelings at one time or another, especially when starting a new job or pioneering in a field.
People who experience the Imposter Syndrome come from all walks of life. They're police officers, priests, doctors, nurses, lawyers, sales reps, artists, engineers, teachers, students, therapists, and actors. Clance has identified a number of groups that tend to be more prone to Imposter feelings.
The writer who publishes a best-seller right out of the gate, the rookie sales rep who lands the major account, or anyone who's experienced rapid success are more likely to experience feelings of fraudulence. The thinking here is, "I don't know how I did it the first time, how could I possibly repeat that success?"
Another group considered vulnerable to the Imposter Syndrome consists of those who are the first person in their family to become a "professional." Although first generation professionals can come from all races and nationalities, the pressure may be exacerbated for Black, Latino, Asian American and Native Americans as well as immagrants who often feel the weight of expectations that they be the standard bearer for their family, community, race, or nationality.
When one or more parents have a history of extraordinary achievement or success, children can feel great pressure to measure up. "And even when individuals from this type of family do gain recognition or fame or success," says Clance, "they may still have doubts about themselves, asking the question, `Did I succeed because of my abilities or because my family is so well known?" '
Everyone knows what it's like to feel under the gun to perform. When you are the only woman, person of color, person with a disability - or you're in a definite minority in your field or job setting - that pressure is more intense because now you're seen as a representative of your entire group. Not having the luxury to be "average" or to fail as an individual unconnected to your social group can lead to intense feelings of self-doubt and fraudulence.
In her research, Dr. Joan Harvey found significantly higher degrees of Imposter feelings in people who were working in occupations considered atypical of their sex. This was true whether the person was male or female.
For the person who works alone there's no management, performance reviews, or documented standards to which to aspire. Instead, the measurements of competence and success are all internally driven. This is a problem since Imposter Syndrome sufferers set extraordinarily high standards for themselves.
Harvey and others say that some careers are more apt to provoke feelings of fraudulence than others. People in creative fields where each new endeavor calls for a new and different performance are especially prone to the Syndrome. Actor Mike Meyers once confessed that, "I still believe that at any time the no-talent police will come and arrest me."
Not surprisingly, being regularly evaluated and graded causes students to score higher on Imposter tests than any other group. "For people with [Imposter Phenomenon] traits," says Clance, "this process of constant evaluation is painful and anxiety-filled. `Am I good enough?' `Can I make it?' `What do I really know?' are questions they repeatedly ask themselves."
For most people, the feelings of fraudulence fade as they get more experience under their belt. The people that I work with - and the people for whom this chapter is directed - don't necessarily feel more confident with time. In fact, for them, increased levels of achievement often serve to exacerbate their sense of phoniness.
And just to be clear:
How do I know Imposter Syndrome sufferers are a pretty smart bunch? Evidence - hard evidence. Proof comes in a variety of forms. If you are a student, proof of your aptitude typically comes in the form of good grades, SAT scores, scholarships, internships, awards, letters of recommendation from faculty, licensing, degrees, and the like.
If you're out in the work world, evidence can take the form of such things as landing a job, receiving good performance evaluations, praise, getting promotions or raises, financial or business success, status, and so on. For both students and workers, proof can sometimes take the form of public recognition like citations or awards.
Sure, there's all kind of evidence that we actually do know what we're doing ...that we really are relatively intelligent and capable people ...that we're not intellectual frauds. The thing about all this evidence, though, is that we can explain all of that. In fact, self-described Imposters have this seemingly unlimited capacity for dismissing, discounting, or otherwise explaining away their successes.
Women are famous for their disclaimers. "I like to think I'm good at such and such," "Anybody could have done it," "It was nothing." A therapist I interviewed insists that such comments are not always indicative of false modesty. Rather, she said, "women's achievements `frequently don't register very well.' Being able to realistically assess achievement and claim it is a major issue for my clients. There's this underlying sense of `if I did it, it can't mean much.' "
Let's take a closer look at a few of the more common ways that people with the Imposter Syndrome dismiss, discount, ignore, or otherwise explain away their accomplishments.
The perennial favorite of Imposter Syndrome sufferers is to chalk achievements up to luck. "It was just the luck of the draw." "I got a lucky break." "It was just dumb luck." "It was a total fluke." "I lucked out." "It was nothing more than a stroke of luck." Achievements are seen as a matter of chance not competence, of destiny instead of effort or ability. And, just because you lucked out this time, doesn't mean you'll be so lucky next time.
A close cousin of luck is timing. If you subscribe to timing as the source of your success, you can probably hear yourself saying things like, "I was in the right place at the right time," or "The stars were right." To the Imposter, timing isn't an element of success, instead timing truly IS everything!
Charm and personality top many Imposters' lists of rationalizations for success. This is especially true if you happen to also be blessed with a good sense of humor. As a sales rep explained it, "I figure if I can just keep them laughing, maybe they won't find out I have no idea what I'm doing."
For many Imposters, there's a direct correlation between the difficulty of a task and the amount of credit we're willing and able to accept for its accomplishment. By the Imposter's way of thinking, the fact that I was able to accomplish something is proof that it couldn't have been that difficult. In other words, "If I can do it, anyone can."
Groucho Marx once joked that he wouldn't want to belong to any club that would have him as a member. Imposters know just how he feels. A university administrator who had just been accepted into a master's degree program at prestigious Smith College started to question her choice in schools. "After all," she explained, "if they'd let someone like me in, what kind of standards can they have?"
When it comes to crediting our success to others, there are a number of variations on the "someone helped me" theme. Here are just a few I've heard over the years:
And then there are a few explanations that just defy characterization. Like the recent master's degree student who was pretty convinced that her faculty committee couldn't have possibly read her thesis. So she thought and she thought and then she had it! They must have put it on a scale and weighed it. The thing weighed about six pounds so they said, "Oh, what the heck, let's just give her the damned degree!"
Another woman had received the highest grade in her state on the CPA boards. Now if you know anyone who's ever taken the test to become a certified public accountant, you know that a whole lot of people fail them on the first try. And she got the top grade in Massachusetts!
"It just didn't make sense," she said. Then one day it hit her. "It's a small state. If I had been in California or New York, I would have been way down on the list."
A few other excuses I've heard include:
It was a small candidate pool.
The first choice turned them down.
I just look good on paper.
Now the first thing I think we Imposters need to do is give ourselves a big pat on the back. If nothing else, I think we need to appreciate the incredible creativity that goes into thinking this stuff up! You have to agree, it takes an exceptional mind to come up with such ingenious and sometimes convoluted excuses for success.
At the same time though, if you're constantly explaining away your success, you have a serious problem don't you? I say serious because, if you are unable to claim your accomplishments on a gut, visceral level, then when you're confronted with evidence of your abilities, it's emotionally unclear to you how you got there.
The program director at a technical training school said it well. "If I experience myself to be this complete failure, and I can't accept the credit for the successes that I don't even see and that I don't recognize as mine, then I can't be here on my own merit because I don't have any successful experiences that I can claim emotionally."
You see, to the Imposter, one success has little to do with the next one. The big account I landed today has little to do with the prospect of my chances of successfully acquiring another sale tomorrow. That's because, for the person who feels like an Imposter, success is not a cumulative event. Instead each accomplishment is its own sum game. So that one success has little to do with the last one or with the next one, never mind being remotely connected with any skills, knowledge, or abilities you might have brought to the table.
Whether it's luck, timing, computer error, or the kindness of others, the result is the same. Any positive feelings about your accomplishments are woefully short-lived. Before the applause has died down, the performance review has ended, the acceptance letter fully read, four familiar words rise up inside to cancel out our glee ..."I fooled them again."
For the Imposter, there's no sense of security. You know that, as a wise president once said, "You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time." Believing that you've somehow managed to slip under the radar screen, sooner or later you know that it is just a matter of time, you believe, before you are FOUND OUT! It's not surprising that instead of offering assurance of our competence, each new accomplishment only serves to intensify the ever-present fear of exposure.
A very competent and credentialed Canadian named Chandreyee wrote to say that despite earning a master's degree in Engineering and an MBA, it wasn't enough to compete with what she called her "nagging self-doubts." "I was on the Dean's list during my MBA program, yet I believed that I'd fail every course. I was a team leader for Engineering consulting and yet I thought that I'd make the biggest mistake ever in the next project."
And this persistent dread has very real consequences. The fear of being discovered, unmasked, and exposed as the incompetent phony you "really" are stunts your greatest aspirations and undermines your potential. But that's not all. For some, the prospect of discovery is accompanied by a deep sense of shame ...something we'll be looking more closely at here.
The fear of being unmasked is also an incredibly stressful way to live. Betsy used to be the activities director at a nursing home. It was a job she'd slowly worked her way into and one which she genuinely loved. She felt comfortable in her role, well-respected by her coworkers, and received glowing recommendations. The only problem was she barely made enough to pay the bills.
So when a significantly better paying position as admissions director came up at another nursing home, Betsy's friends and coworkers encouraged her to go for it. It was a whole new job with new people, a new staff, and an entirely different system to learn. From the moment they offered her the job, Betsy questioned her ability to "pull it off."
Like any new job, the first few weeks were pretty stressful. But the stress of "knowing" she had fooled the selection committee into hiring her made the stress debilitating. She began each morning with a stomachache and ended each day with a headache.
About two weeks into her new job, Betsy started having chest pains. The pain was so bad one day that her secretary called an ambulance, thinking her boss was having a heart attack. Betsy's chest pain was very real, but it wasn't a heart attack. It was stress caused by the anxiety of having to "fool" all these people into believing she was qualified to be the admissions director.
In her counseling work with gifted and talented adults, Mary Rocamora found many of her clients reluctant to show their creative works to others. A contributing factor to the Imposter Syndrome, says Rocamora, is shame. "The fear of being exposed as a fraud feeds a chronic internal tension about showing creative products to others. Freedom to risk is thereby impaired. There's a pervasive feeling that even if something we've done is well received, it was a fluke, and that the other shoe is sure to fall next time."
According to Rocamora shame "keeps a lid on our level of achievement in life by maintaining an internal climate of fear of recognition. Being creative in anonymity or as a hobby is safer than being known or praised for our work. The objective assessment of the true merit of our abilities can be very difficult. Looking to others for the objective feedback we don't have means having to bear the expectation of being shamed."
But wait until next time.
Most of us don't end up in the hospital. Instead, after each successful leap through each new hoop, we wipe our brow and think to ourselves, "Whew, that was a close one ...but I won't be so lucky next time."
"Next time" is a dimension of time that Imposters know all too well. Sure you've been successful in the past ...it's Next Time that you dread. You're utterly convinced that each new endeavor will surely be your undoing. You were lucky last time, but Next Time the whole house of cards will collapse before your eyes - and everyone else's.
And when you are found out, the imagined consequences are dire. Like the attorney who lives in fear of mispronouncing a word in court. On that day of reckoning (which, in her mind, was just a matter of time) she imaged this giant hook emerging from the galley to yank her out of the courtroom like some kind of vaudeville buffoon.
Winning the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in the Accused was not enough to allay Jodie Foster's fear of being exposed as an Imposter. As Foster explained to Mike Wallace in a 60 Minutes interview, "I thought it was a fluke. The same way [I did] when I walked on the campus at Yale. I thought everybody would find out, and they'd take the Oscar back. They'd come to my house, knocking on the door, `Excuse me, we meant to give that to someone else. That was going to Meryl Streep." '
Maybe you're one of the many Imposters for whom having the bottom drop out would actually come as a kind of relief. "If everyone finds out," you think, "at least I can finally stop pretending that I know how to be a graduate student, a lawyer, an engineer, a social worker, an artist ..." That's because if the jig really is up, that means you'd have no choice but to return to some less demanding occupation more suitable to your supposed limited abilities.
The constant anxiety for Imposters comes from the belief that any success you've somehow managed to achieve will be short lived. For those imprisoned in the Imposter Syndrome, the resulting fear, depression, and anxiety is real and debilitating.
The ability to see yourself as competent and capable is essential to unlearning the Imposter Syndrome. What does competence mean to you? And how will you know when you've achieved it? One way to find out is by completing the following sentence: If I were really smart, talented, qualified, competent, I would ...
If you're like 99 percent of the people who completed this exercise, you just learned something important about yourself. What you learned is that you've been walking around the planet operating by this self-definition of competence that is so excessively high and out of whack with reality that not even a certifiable genius could ever hope to attain it. The other thing you may have learned is that you allow other people way more latitude on the competence scale than you do yourself.
If there is one pervasive and unwavering theme to emerge in the Imposter Syndrome workshops it is this:
So let's take a closer look at this inflated view of competency. Over the past twenty years of working with women on their deep-seated feelings of fraudulence, I've come up with six profiles. These profiles are used to describe self-expectations regarding competence.
Most people identify more strongly with one profile over another. Do not be alarmed however, if you identify with more than one. It just means you have to do a little more myth smashing.
"Perfection," observed French Romantic poet and playwright Alfred De Musset, "does not exist. To understand this, is the triumph of human intelligence; to expect to possess it, is the most dangerous kind of madness." In the perfectionist's personal rule book, anything short of a flawless performance 100 percent of the time - is unacceptable. She expects each and every aspect of her work to be exemplary. Here, the internal dialogue goes something like this: "If I were really competent, I would do everything perfectly."
There's a difference between a healthy will to excel and perfectionism. Most people want to do a good job. Those who strive to merely excel however, recognize that while there are areas where perfectionism is highly desirable - for example, while performing surgery or piloting an airplane - not everything requires undue effort.
Contrary to what you tell yourself, perfectionism isn't about doing a superb job. In her book Work Less, Make More Jennifer White observes that, "Perfectionism has nothing to do with getting it right. It has nothing to do with having high standards." Instead, she states that, "Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead." Think about that line for a minute ...Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead.
Unlearning perfectionism doesn't mean you have to let go of your need for excellence. Prolific author and consultant Bob Bly makes the distinction this way:
So as you think about launching your consulting practice, remember, says Cameron Foote "Clients are looking for good, not great."
If you identify with the Natural Genius, you are probably of two minds about competence. On the one hand you equate competence with ease. On the other hand though, when something does come easily to you, it often gets dismissed as "no big deal." So when you respond to a compliment with, "It was nothing" what you really mean is that your own natural skills, talents, or abilities are nothing. After all, you think, "if I can do it, anybody can." We're not just talking false modesty here. Instead the things that "just come naturally" to you frequently don't register very well on the competence scale.
Clearly, some people do have natural talent. But even the most gifted person will fail if they're unwilling to put in the effort. "We tend to assume," wrote human potential pioneer George Leonard, "that mastery requires a special ticket available only to those born with exceptional abilities. But mastery isn't reserved for the super talented or even those who are fortunate enough to have gotten an early start. It's available to anyone who is willing to get on the path and stay on it - regardless of age, sex or previous experience."
If you identify with the Natural Genius, you may take comfort in the words of Michelangelo who said, "If people knew how hard I work to get my mastery, it wouldn't seem wonderful after all."
The Expert is someone who erroneously believes that competence and expertise are synonymous. "If I were really competent, intelligent, qualified ..." thinks the Expert, "I would know this." If you've ever read a job description and disqualified yourself because you didn't have one or two out of the dozen or so competencies listed, you may be suffering from the Expert Trap.
The Expert believes they need to know 150 percent in order to consider themselves even remotely qualified. In the vast majority of fields, however, it's probably okay if you know more like 40 percent. The other 60 percent, you can pick up as you go along.
The problem for people who fall into the Expert trap is that they suffer under the misconception that there's some clear line of demarcation between expert and non-expert - and that they'll actually know when they've reached it. "If I can just get enough knowledge, experience, or training," thinks the Expert, "then I'll be competent." The reality is though, that you can never know "enough." When it comes to knowledge, there is no end. You can add to your understanding of a subject but there is always more to learn.
Certainly there are people - you may well be one of them - who are experts in their respective field. Expertise in and of itself is not a myth. The myth is that being an expert means you know everything there possibly is to know about a subject. The myth is in the belief that you will someday be able to announce triumphantly that you have reached the end of knowledge and are "done." The myth is that if you don't know everything, you must not be competent. The myth is in that little voice inside that says, "If I were really smart, I would know this or know how to do that."
Like perfectionism, striving to be the expert can slow you down or, in some cases, bring your goals to a screeching halt. When you insist on expertise there will always be one more book to read, one more class to take, one more presentation to make, one more book to write, one more degree to earn before you dare pronounce yourself "qualified." This quest for the end of knowledge is an unreachable mirage.
If you're beating yourself up, holding yourself back, or otherwise suffering from the Expert myth it may help to remember the words of the great Will Rogers who said, "Everyone is ignorant, only on different subjects."
If you are a Rugged Individualist, then you labor - and I do mean labor - under the misguided notion that achievement is a purely solo endeavor. Because you think competence means doing everything yourself, in your mind any kind of outside help essentially neutralizes your contribution. In other words, if it was a team or other collaborative effort, if you got the job because someone put in a good word for you, if you received some form of input, advice, or counsel, then somehow that achievement just doesn't count.
The Rugged Individualist's go-it-alone mindset may stem from a certain mystique about competence that Imposter Syndrome sufferers hold. This mystique can lead us to idealize people who occupy so-called "competent positions." "We just embellish these people with all kinds of things that they don't actually have," said one management consultant, "they're smarter than we are, more astute than we are, everything more."
The fact is, competence is not knowing how to do everything yourself. Instead competence is knowing how to identify the resources required to get the job done. Resources come in many forms. Time, money, access to decision makers, advice, expertise, information or power, training, support, and technology.
What resources do you need to achieve your goal of becoming a paid consultant? Instead of thinking, "If I were really smart, I could do this myself," try thinking, "I may not know how to do this but I'm smart enough to find something or someone to help me."
History is a great place to find role models offering healthy scripts of competent people who are smart enough to take advantage of the resources around them. For example, Woodrow Wilson once said, "I use not only all the brains I have but all I can borrow." According to Albert Einstein, "The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources." And, Dale Carnegie unabashedly informed the world that, "The ideas I stand for are not mine. I borrowed them from Socrates. I swiped them from Chesterfield. I stole them from Jesus. And I put them in a book."
The Extremist sees himself as constantly teetering on outer extremes of a very skewed competence continuum. In the Extremist's world, there is no middle ground. Competence is a black and white thing. The Extremist views competence from one of two continuums - incredibly bright or enormously dumb. In the Extremist's world, "If I'm not brilliant, I must be stupid. If I don't know everything then I know nothing. If I'm not totally competent then I'm utterly incompetent."
It's easy to fall into the Extremist trap. After all, you really do know what it's like to feel utterly brilliant. Think about it. You've undoubtedly had days - or at least moments - when, despite all the self-doubt - everything just clicked. The great ideas were coming fast and furious. You knew all the answers. The right words seemed to just flow from your lips. Everything you touched turned to gold. When you're "on" like this, a part of you smiles and thinks, "Hey, I'm a hot dog!"
The problem is like every other person on the planet you've also spent a fair amount of time on the flip side of competence when not a single brain cell would fire. You couldn't think to save your life. Everything came out wrong. You were running on intellectual empty.
And herein lays the problem. You know what it feels like to be operating on all cylinders. So by your Extremist logic system, if you're not totally brilliant all of the time, then you must be stupid. If it's not perfect, it must be awful.
In reality though most people - even the very intelligent and talented ones - spend most of their waking hours right in the middle of the brilliant-stupid competency scale ...and feel perfectly fine about it. The trick for Extremists is to savor those delightful "I'm a hot dog" highs and forgive those inevitable "Brain closed for the day" lows.
Whether you identify with the Perfectionist, the Natural Genius, the Expert, the Rugged Individualist, or the Extremist, the key is to examine how your misguided notions about competence may be holding you back. Victor Frankl once said, "The last of the human freedoms is to choose one's attitudes." If you're serious about pursing your dream of being a professional consultant you'll need to develop a new realistic definition of competence. Do this and soon you'll see yourself as the bright, capable person you really are!
Dr. Valerie Young is an internationally known workshop leader and public speaker. She specializes in helping individuals achieve their full potential. She has presented her How to Feel As Bright and Capable As Everyone Seems to Think You Are (formerly titled Overcoming the Imposter Syndrome) program at numerous colleges and universities including MIT, Stanford, Cornell, California Institute for Technology, Boston University School of Medicine, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Amherst College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, University of Wisconsin, University of Texas, University of Iowa, Northern Arizona State University, University of New Hampshire, University of Connecticut, University of Colorado, University of Massachusetts, Radcliffe College, and Texas A&M. To learn more visit http://www.ImposterSyndrome.com
The complete Imposters, Fakes, and Frauds: A Workshop for Women
Who Doubt Their Competence - But Shouldn't is available for purchase at
http://www.ImposterSyndrome.com and http://www.ChangingCourse.com .
|How to feel as bright and capable|