Imposter syndrome – is there power to feeling a fraud?

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A few weeks ago I was leading a portfolio management session with colleagues, running them through the ins and outs of using the GE Matrix and related business analysis tools.  I did just fine. We all did.  None of my colleagues folded their arms, and peered at me closely as they demanded: “why are we using the GE matrix and not the BCG matrix for this particular exercise?”

But even so, there was little doubt in my mind that I was busking it.

In moments like these – when I feel I don’t know fully what I’m doing, and that I’m to get ‘found out’ by the people I’m working with – does that mean I have Imposter Syndrome? Maybe.

Or maybe this is just a particular moment I really was an imposter, faking it as best I can.

True imposters rarely feel like fakes..

It is an ironic truth, as Oliver Burkeman writes, that “true imposters rarely feel like fakes.” In fact, lack of concern over fakery might even be the killer trait indicating that someone is, in actual fact, completely incompetent.

“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt” said Bertrand Russell.

A strong theme in a great deal of positive psychology and self-help is this assertion we’re meant to aspire to some sort of unwavering self-belief. Just this morning I read these lines: “don’t just believe, be certain in yourself.” And I get that. There’s no doubt that it’s useful to remind myself that just because I don’t think I can achieve something in a given moment, I need to look also to the tangible proof that the opposite is in fact true (no matter now many times I’ve run 5-10K, I believe at the beginning of each run I likely won’t manage it at all this time). A lot of coaching concerns raising the awareness of our true capabilities and monitoring and managing that often incessant negative self-talk.

But I’m not sure the answer is absolute certainty in our abilities.

Indeed, if there are such certain people, I’m pretty sure I’d struggle to trust them or make a connection.   Their imperviousness would smack of inauthenticity. Perhaps what we so easily label as Imposter Syndrome might in fact be the very thing stopping us from being a tunnel visioned and out of tune with reality.

Why do women experience Imposter Syndrome more than men? (And do they really?)

I realise I’m being a bit reductive here. Understood properly, you can see that Imposter Syndrome a bit more than periodic feelings of not feeling good enough (even if it is not strictly speaking a syndrome).  Something systemic is going on in our culture when it is women who are far more likely to experience consistent feelings that they don’t feel they really have what it takes to succeed professionally. As women ‘lean in’ and take on more roles typically associated with men, then Imposter Syndrome is perhaps an inevitable consequence of these changes in our society. And you don’t need to be in the workplace or in an ‘senior leadership’ position to experience these feelings.  The school playground will also do nicely.

But of course women can own up to this kind of vulnerability with far less risk than can men. Brene Brown talks about how the stakes are much higher for men in expressing vulnerability in Daring Greatly, How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. For men, she explains, expressing weakness is highly shameful – much more so than for women.

Certainly, I find feelings of inadequacy and anxiety over being caught out are as typical with men I coach as with women, but they may manifest themselves differently. For example, I notice that my female clients are more quick to name what is going on for them, they’re aware of it, and often to label it as ‘imposter syndrome.’ “I’ve got a bit of imposter syndrome going on.”  Looked at in this way, we could also say that women are more empowered to speak of their shame and vulnerability, and also to more publicly learn from it.

Imposter Syndrome provides us with a ‘proper’ label to describe what’s going on for us.

But what’s that imposter feeling signalling to you?

All of this is not to say you should just ‘go’ with those feelings of being an imposter – I’m not advocating wallowing in a state of ‘I’m not good enough-ness.’  But if you develop the awareness to recognise and name those feelings of being a fraud this is a powerful first step to tackling those feelings.  And are those feelings telling you something useful about your level of competence at a given moment? Is this about how you are perceiving yourself in a given moment (in a self-limiting way) or is there a reality here you need to confront? To get to a better place, do you need more practice and experience? (whether that be portfolio management, writing a book, or running a 5K).

One of my favourite tools as a coach (and as a person)  is the ‘Four stages of competence’ model:


I’d hazard a guess that Imposter Syndrome (or at least feelings of being an imposter) go hand in hand with the ‘Conscious incompetence/conscious competence’ phases in the learning cycle – which I fondly refer to as the ‘busk it’ zones.  In my business development role, I am getting to grips with lots of new ideas and tools for product management that I ‘get’ but aren’t second nature to me yet (and there’s a strong part of me that is naturally cynical about neat models and tools to explain reality).

I’m not yet in the ‘unconscious competence’ zone (which, incidentally, for some people is also the ‘I am now a bit bored’ zone – but that’s for another post).

Returning back to Brene Brown for a minute, perhaps we need to associate the feelings of vulnerability that accompany imposterism as also sources of strength.  Confidence and the ability to strive do not come from certainty in one’s self, but a belief that mastery comes with mistakes, with ‘faking it,’ and with ongoing and sustained practice.

So the next time you’re convinced you’re going to be ‘found out,’ perhaps it might help to ask yourself where on the learning cycle you are, and whether these feelings are perfectly natural.  The question is what you’re going to do to move into the next zone and feel less of the fake.

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