I Hope Nobody Finds Out: Imposter Syndrome, Survivor Guilt, and the Bane of Progressive Political Organizations
Leaders of progressive organizations suffer from special feelings of fraudulence
Posted Sep 10, 2009
Over the last five years, I've had the privilege of coaching quite a few leaders from several different labor unions. Often, I hear some version of the following: "If people only knew that I really don't know what I'm doing..." Such is the secret worry of almost every union leader I've ever coached. In this, union leaders are no different than others who have acquired some degree of authority, expertise, wealth, recognition, or power. Hardly a day goes by in my psychotherapy practice that I don't hear some version of this feeling voiced by my patients, whether they're professors, lawyers, or CEOs. Union leaders, however, seem to have their own special brand of what is commonly known as the "imposter syndrome." Understanding this problem is crucial to overcoming it.
This syndrome should be familiar to readers. Psychologists and Organizational Development folks talk and write about it all the time. It has even made its way into the mass media, sparked workshops galore, and spawned its own organization (impostersyndrome.com)! This state of mind is marked by the feeling that you're not supposed to have the type of authority or competence that you actually have, that you don't deserve it, that you didn't quite earn it. You feel like you're fooling others and that some day they'll get wise and expose you. It's a feeling that you've somehow snuck into a club in which you're not a legitimate member. The club might be the club of "real leaders" or "experts" or "people who know what they're doing." Since you don't belong in the club, you have to police your behavior so as not to draw the wrong type of attention to yourself, attention that might lead to your dreaded "outing." You see others whom you imagine belong in the club who don't have to be careful. You wonder how they do it. You go to sleep at night thinking, "How did I ever get here?"
For some, this sense of fraudulence is mild; for others, it's chronic and intense. For some, it wanes with experience; for others, it is never-ending. In a room of such leaders, it floats around like a collective delusion. Everyone else is comfortable with what they're doing and who they are-you are the only one who isn't. It tends to be more prominent in women leaders because their personal insecurities are compounded by the sense that they're not really welcome "at the top" because of their gender. They dismiss their real achievements and attribute their success to luck, contacts, or affirmative action.
In my coaching with union leaders, this issue of fraudulence is ubiquitous, stressful, and produces maladaptive responses. I believe it is a form of survivor guilt, the unconscious and pathogenic belief that we're not supposed to have more of the good things in life than our caretakers, or than people with whom we're intimate. Some of these "good things" include power, authority, and expertise. The problem arises because we are also ambitious and seek to grow, exercise our competence, and succeed. We do so, but then pay the price: A sense of fraudulence.
The most interesting and important dimension of this phenomenon is not its existence but the ways leaders respond to it. Fraudulence, the imposter syndrome, survivor guilt-whatever you call it-is a feeling that leads us to be less than we're capable of being. Or it leads us to fail to take legitimate pleasure and pride in our very real accomplishments. It leads some people to sabotage themselves when they get power, almost as if they are punishing themselves and thereby reducing the conflict between their ambitions and their guilt. But even if they don't overtly shoot themselves in the foot, they deal with their sense of fraudulence in other, subtler ways, but ways that invariably limit their effectiveness and impair their satisfaction.
Union leaders experience this insecurity routinely. Every leader I or fellow coaches with whom I've consulted have worked with wonders more or less whether he or she fooled someone in order to get promoted into a position of leadership. Leaders respond to these beliefs in several different ways:
1) One leader told me that he spent a lot of time making sure all his legal, budgetary, and administrative "i's were dotted and t's were crossed" in case someone from his Executive Board or the International ever investigated. Such defensive activity took up way too much of his time and held him back from being a bigger player in his state and in the International.
2) A woman recently elected to a top position in her Local described her reluctance to "hobnob" with politicians in her state because of a worry that they would think "who the hell is she?!"
3) Another woman in a senior position in her local told me, with some humor, that she became aware of her feelings of being an imposter at a recent cocktail party. There she was, carrying her large pocketbook, standing off in the corner. She noticed that a woman she greatly admired who was high up in her International union, was "working the room" without carrying a purse. "It occurred to me then that if you aren't carrying a purse, you can use both hands to meet and greet, carry a plate of food or wine, etc. I, however, was weighed down by this ridiculous bag!" The bag, exactly like her feelings of being an imposter, was holding her back.
4) A man I worked with in a large local told me that he felt a need to stay in his office, consumed with internal affairs, because he felt safer and more comfortable in that milieu than in going outside to interact with members and other union leaders. When he was "inside," he felt more protected from attack. When he was "outside," he felt vulnerable to being critiqued and somehow exposed. An undue focus on internal governance is often a consequence of feelings of fraudulence and survivor guilt.
5) Another leader, a woman known as a brilliant tactician, was embarrassed to admit that she felt uncomfortable talking about strategy and vision, burdened with the worry that such an ability was the province of men, charismatic white men in particular.
6) A black male leader I coached confessed that he felt uncomfortable in the company of other union leaders who had college or graduate educations. He reacted by alternating between retreating into silence or by speaking in an elaborately verbose manner, making his points in ways that were ultimately confusing and tedious.
7) A male leader known for being a brilliant campaign strategist was also known for being a flake: late to meetings, poor at paperwork, and inconsistent around accountability. The net effect was that he wasn't always taken seriously. Upon exploration, he admitted that he felt secretly inadequate and worried that he wasn't a "real leader" and that he diminished himself through his irresponsibility as a result.
8) A woman leader was tough and popular with members, but was considered "high-maintenance" by her staff. She was overly emotional and burdened others at work with her personal moods and problems. It turned out that she felt that if she was too "professional," others would resent and feel put down by her. Instead, she put herself down by her office antics.
These behaviors and conflicts are common. For union and other progressive political leaders, however, the difficulties in feeling powerful and "owning" their authority is exacerbated by the fact that they identify so much with the underdog. Their entire work life is devoted to helping people who are powerless and victimized. There is therefore a powerful motive to not see themselves as having power and authority themselves. They mistakenly feel guilty about putting themselves above their members or, worse, exercising power in a way that might victimize others. It leads them to feel especially uncomfortable with owning and exercising their actual power and sets in motion many covert strategies to undo or diminish themselves.
This special guilt about the exercise of power can influence leaders to hesitate to take risks in moving their organizations in new and more radical ways. They fear that various constituencies-staff, members, allies-will feel left behind or betrayed. While there might be grains of truth in this fear, at its core it reflects survivor guilt and feelings of fraudulence, i.e. "If I act boldly and expect more of others, the prior status quo in which everyone plays it small and safe will be violated and I'll be attacked."
The solution to the problem of fraudulence is to decrease the distance between someone's self image and his or her objective position. There are several ways to do this:
1) Insight: It's vital that the person understand that he or she does, in fact, feel fraudulent and why. When such beliefs and feelings are exposed to the light of day, they begin to lose their power. When the origins of such beliefs and feelings are understood, their irrationality can be recognized more deeply and more effectively counteracted.
2) Separating necessity and fantasy: Once the presence of such a syndrome is fully recognized, it's important for the person to understand how it plays out in his or her everyday work life. Here, the challenge is to separate the rational from the irrational. In other words, sometimes a leader does something, or fails to do something, for a combination of rational and irrational reasons. There may be a good reason to focus on internal union affairs at the expense of external ones. There may be rational reasons for hunkering down and protecting yourself from criticism. There may, in fact, be people out there who want to undermine you if you act big. Such considerations have to separated from the irrational fears and guilt around feeling and acting big, competent, and/or visionary. Sometimes we have to do good things for bad reasons and vice versa.
3) Support from others: You are not alone. Everyone in positions of authority have had these feelings or currently have them. If they deny it, they're lying. It is tremendously liberating to share these doubts and fears with others and thereby reduce shame about something that is human and universal.
4) Self-Compassion: Deliberately cultivating an attitude of self-compassion is a crucial part of overcoming survivor guilt and the Imposter Syndrome. Such disabling feelings are harsh, unforgiving, and unfair. If your very value as a person is at stake when you act like a leader, you are holding yourself to an impossible and emotionally debilitating ideal.
5) Combat Perfectionism and Act: The story is told that during the marches and protests that the Rev. King led in Chicago, he reportedly told his fellow leaders one evening at their hotel, "I wonder what people would think if they understood that we didn't quite know what we're doing." And the next day they went out and marched. Perfectionism is a defense against fraudulence ("if I get it perfect, I'll be above reproach") and is a spirit-killer. People have to act in the presence of uncertainty, in the midst of doubt, and in the face of potential failure. In addition, by acting as a leader, by "walking the walk," it is possible, if one is mindful of the issues involved, to gather evidence that dis-confirms these negative beliefs. The old axiom, "fake it ‘till you make it," is often one of the most powerful ways to correct a false belief.
Feelings of fraudulence plague today's progressive leaders and will not go away any time soon. The challenge is to recognize and reduce them. The consequences of not doing so are not dramatic-the status quo remains, the collective delusion that "no one else feels this way and so I better keep these feelings to myself" continues, and leadership continues to play it safe. When Marianne Williamson said that "playing small does not serve the world," she was talking about the cost of survival guilt and the imposter syndrome. Union and other progressive leaders need to learn this lesson.