Impostor's Syndrome and the Afflictions of the Accomplished
Remedies for the fear of being "found out."
Posted Sep 28, 2017
For numerous people, confidence and ease come with practice and accomplishment, except when they don't.
Tina Fey: "The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania, and a complete feeling of: 'I'm a fraud! Oh god, they're on to me! I'm a fraud!"
Neil Gaiman from his University of the Arts commencement speech:
"The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something and that any moment now they will discover you. It's Impostor Syndrome, something my wife Amanda christened the Fraud Police."
Even at the height of one's career, there is no guarantee a person will feel comfortable in her or his professional skin. Debilitating self-doubt happens to scholars, VPs, corporate consultants, celebrities, established authors, professors, media personalities, restauranteurs, tech whizzes, spiritual guides, entrepreneurs, coaches, performers.
It turns out that three key afflictions hold back numerous people from experiencing deeper fulfillment and creating greater impact.
Impostor's Syndrome is perhaps the most common of all the afflictions and limiting beliefs. Take the VP who runs a tech firm team but feels as if she lucked into the position and fears being "found out." Or the family relations expert promising whole and happy families whose family issues with his teenage children have erupted into an ugly mess.
Impostor’s Syndrome often arises in two scenarios. One, when an accomplished entrepreneur or professional feels that what she’s promising is inconsistent with what she’s doing or how she’s living. Two, he feels he's never "enough"; never qualified enough, never knowledgeable enough, never effective enough.
The research of Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes is perhaps among the most thorough in this field. They sum up the syndrome this way:
"Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the impostor phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. Numerous achievements, which one might expect to provide ample objective evidence of superior intellectual functioning, do not appear to affect the impostor belief."
Do men experience this syndrome any more or less than women? According to social psychologist Amy Cuddy, the research is mixed, but men do experience this syndrome—although as a rule many of them may not express it or admit it.
Many people look up to accomplished leaders, creatives, and professionals. So they might feel an obligation to uphold an image of perfection. A professional might be unforgiving of his ever-evolving status in his professional and personal growth.
Many factors correlate, but fear of failure is the most common. More specifically, among entrepreneurs, leaders, professionals, and service providers, this fear of failure is often a fear of not being able to live up to one's promised competency.
The remedy depends. If you're an entrepreneur, leader, or anyone in charge of a brand or business, promise what you can deliver on and live out.
Refrain from promising a perfect permanent state. Promising “enlightenment” or “perfect health” or even “happiness” as a permanent state is not only unrealistic; it’s likely a lie. Promising such permanent states and perpetuating guru-like images of perfection also heightens people’s feelings of inferiority to you or repression of their own imperfections.
If you actually lack knowledge in your field, seek it. Don't fake it. Make it happen.
Shift your point of view. Your brand or endeavor or business is not about you. It's about your signature idea or your mission. Focus on that and deliver the goods. That's the advice from thinker and entrepreneur Nilofer Merchant in her book The Power of Onlyness.
Acknowledge the paradoxes of your personality. When you recognize your contradictions as potential creative paradoxes, then you stop expecting your “self” to be monolithic and simplistic.
The Field-Crossing Shame Affliction
Let's say you've earned your reputation in one field, and now you want to cross over. Why not? If David Bowie can test out acting and Pharrell Williams can test out furniture-making, why can't you test out another field in a way that's more than a hobby?
Well, maybe because of The Field-Crossing Affliction. It comes about when someone accomplished in one field wants to advance in another field. It also arises when a CEO, professional, or creative wants to advance to a different stage in a career and in so doing might break from her or his established persona.
If you've established yourself as an award-winning author who wants to integrate meditation into your writing workshops, who are you to do so? Well, Dani Shapiro for one. If you're an effervescent and established business strategist who wants to integrate mindfulness into your approach for advising people to pivot in their careers, who are you to do so? Well, Jenny Blake for one.
This affliction is not yet addressed in much psychology literature. That deficiency might be because it is a relatively new pattern given our changing economy, human beings' increased average longevity, and our capacity for accelerated learning. Both of these factors give more people greater flexibility in their middle and later decades to test out new careers or endeavors.
Creative entrepreneurs and professionals, even those with master status within their fields, find it challenging to submit to new knowledge, frameworks, and concepts in a new field. They feel they should know what they’re doing. They’re used to being in charge and being the ones with the answers. Sometimes creatives who feel shame for not knowing about brand-building, marketing, or authoring a book don’t recognize that these endeavors each require a different yet complementary skill set.
In either case, it's not unlike what I have identified as The Apprenticeship Gap. It’s a gap between where we are and where we want to be. A gap between how long we think it should take us to arrive at our desired horizon and the reality of how long it takes to learn and assimilate a craft or skill set.
It’s a gap between being an amateur and an artist, an amateur and a coach or teacher or business owner worth investing in.
If you want to enter a new field or excel in a new field, break down the skills you need to learn.
Find models and study them. Practice and prototype over and over.
Find a mentor or resources you can trust, and open up.
Ask more questions, test out, and remember what it felt like to be an inquisitive, experimental, open-minded apprentice or student.
Recognize that field knowledge and domain knowledge change so rapidly in the 21st century that at some level we all should perceive and present ourselves as perennial amateurs and apprentices on our path to increased mastery of work and life.
The most successful, gratified, and influential entrepreneurs, leaders, and creatives do so.
The Intra-Field Knowledge Affliction
This common affliction has to do with what gets in the way of an accomplished professional or entrepreneur advancing authority and thought leadership within her existing field.
The psychologist with a solid reputation cannot open up to new evidence because it might threaten his intellectual "stake" and brand. The award-winning author of novels resists guidance in writing her first memoir. The successful serial entrepreneur cannot hear feedback on how to advance a startup differently.
An accomplished professional’s or entrepreneur's reputation might be built on comparable knowledge. For me or someone else to come along and suggest that there’s more to know about something like writing or authorship, marketing or their brand story can be threatening.
It takes a confident person to submit to new knowledge. When someone presents a potential new way of looking at an “old” idea, open up and see what insight you might take away. An open intelligence, that’s the operative mindset.
Open Intelligence is the talent to receive what is there without judgment or projections or opinions. It’s what happens when you recognize the possibility of an idea or project, often where other people are put out or grumbling.
It’s a unique intelligence that we adults can cultivate. It’s the intelligence of beginner’s mind but more nuanced than what Zen masters describe.
You're Completely Normal
Here's the thing. We all feel this way. Rather, any of us who are putting our signature ideas out there and who are experiencing some degree of recognition, respect, and success feel one or more of these afflictions. And sometimes they never completely go away.
Tina Fey: "So you just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud. Seriously, I've just realized that almost everyone is a fraud, so I try not to feel too bad about it."
Neil Gaiman: "Some years ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And I felt that at any moment they would realize that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things.
On my second or third night there, I was standing at the back of the hall, while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, 'I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.'
And I said, 'Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.'
And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for."
Indeed, life is an experiment. Keep testing out your best ideas and nudge yourself to the deep end, just where you feel a little over your head and know that everyone around you is also trying to figure out the best way to swim.