I'm endlessly amazed at how many of my clients and continuing education students share that they feel like impostors. No matter how many degrees and awards they've earned, what level they’ve reached in society’s pecking order, and how "together" they appear, right beneath their perfectly-pressed Prada exteriors, many don't believe they're as big a deal as you might think. It’s as if their greatest wins are accidents or they just get lucky each time they get a raise, a promotion, a new client, or an honor. To quote a fellow Psychology Today blogger, Lisa Rivero, who recently wrote about impostor syndrome, “One thing is certain: More success and more awards do not always bring the self-assuredness we seek.” Can you relate?
To learn more about this phenomenon, I turned to someone highly accomplished who has studied it extensively: Stephen Brookfield, Ph.D., a Distinguished University Professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Brookfield is the author of 16 books on adult learning, adult teaching, critical thinking, discussion methods and critical theory as well as critical pedagogy. Despite his credentials, Brookfield acknowledges grappling with his own impostor syndrome.
NA: What is impostor syndrome?
SB: It's the feeling that you're presenting a false self—you project a public sense of presumed competence and command that you know masks the fact that you're just struggling to make it through to the end of the day, week, or month without falling flat on your face in front of colleagues, students, or supervisees/reports to. You live your professional life smitten with a fear that sooner or later something is going to happen—probably that you'll make a mistake—that will cause people to recoil in horror and say, “How did we hire this person? Obviously they're not up to the job.” Impostorship means living permanently with a feeling of false pretense.
NA: What got you interested in researching impostor syndrome?
SB: Talking first to adult students in higher education who felt it, and also to first-generation, traditional-aged students in college. Then, as I talked to instructors, they manifested the same syndrome. Finally, when I began to study leadership, the same syndrome was evident in the vast majority of leaders I spoke to.
NA: Is impostor syndrome more common among women or men?
SB: I think it's equally rife across gender. However, women are far more willing to own up to it and make public disclosure. For men it's very difficult to do that.
NA: How can impostor syndrome affect your ability to get ahead?
SB: If you are convinced that you are the only one who's not up to the job, this can stop you from asserting yourself or taking necessary risks. You can become fixated solely on not making a mistake, rather than being proactive.
NA: What is an example of how impostor syndrome plays out in an individual—particularly a successful one—in the business world?
SB: A negative example is constantly overcompensating by blowing up/puffing up your sense of importance. A positive example is being willing to admit publicly that you're learning along with your team, being willing to own up to mistakes, and not feeling you know everything. And that, therefore, you have a lot of room for development. Such disclosures create a culture of risk taking and openness, and often builds trust.
NA:How can you overcome impostor syndrome?
SB: By going public about it. Once someone in a position of prominence names impostorship, it becomes normal, natural, and predictable. When a senior leader admits to it, you can see people relaxing and being ready to own up to it too. It's as if a weight of unrealizable expectations has been removed from their shoulders.
SB:I think as a rule introverts are less likely to talk publicly about this and to ruminate internally on it. Extroverts are more likely to let slip their sense of it when talking with others, which means that they are more likely to get reassurance from colleagues that they too suffer from it.
NA: Any observations or insights specifically about introverts and impostor syndrome?
SB: We—I'm a strong introvert—do tend to focus and obsess about this more. I walk around my room hitting myself on the head and saying, "stupid, stupid!" I've given hundreds of workshops and speeches, and have taught classes for 43 years, but I still think of myself as an impostor. It will never go away. However, introverts can become better at holding it in conjunction with a parallel sense that they do know what they're doing and are expert in many aspects of their job.
NA: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
SB: I would not want to work with anyone who didn't have a healthy touch of impostorship, because it keeps you humble and focuses you on improving your practice. Without this syndrome, lies a megalomaniacal belief in your own infallibility!
© Copyright 2013 Nancy Ancowitz