The Impostor Syndrome

“The more we learn, the more we realize how much we do not know.”

The impostor syndrome is when, at times, you feel like an impostor in your own skin. Specifically, people often feel this way at work, especially when they experience fear, insecurity or self-doubt about a project or assignment. People who feel like the impostor often believe they have been mistaken for someone better, smarter, more talented, and more successful. You are afraid that people will soon see through you and find you out for who you really are, which is a nobody. When you feel like a fraud, or unworthy to be doing what you are doing, or undeserving of your past accomplishments, you are experiencing the impostor syndrome. It is when you think to yourself, if people ever really knew what was going on inside of me, they would find out that I don’t know what I’m doing! They would find out that I am an impostor.

As I’ve learned over the years, most people at one point or another in their lives feel like an impostor. I’ve worked with many highly effective senior executives and amazing entrepreneurs, all of whom, at one time or another, have felt like an impostor. Typically, these folks were doing many things right in the beginning of their careers, earned several promotions for good reasons or made several smart deals in their business. Then one day, they found themselves in enviable positions, running and leading incredible companies. Suddenly, they felt all alone. They couldn’t confess their uncertainties to their boards; they couldn’t share their insecurities with their senior staff. On top of that, their spouses and significant others didn’t care about or didn’t understand the details of their work. So, they found themselves all alone, struggling with the insecurity of the impostor syndrome.

When these executives came to me, I supported them as their sounding board and gave them confidence and clarity, understanding that is it is scary and lonely at the top. In our coaching sessions, they espoused their difficulties with their bosses, staff, board, or peers. After discussing their organizational structure and culture, going through their goals and numbers, they often asked me, how could they had ever possibly gotten this successful and this far into their career without anyone ever finding out that they really don’t have a clue what they are doing? What if people find out… 

This syndrome doesn’t just happen to business executives in boardrooms. The “I’m not worthy” syndrome can happen at home to every parent too. How did I ever get this amazing life, or this beautiful home or the undying love of my family? Why me? What if my kids find out that I’m just making things up as I go?

Fortunately, this syndrome is fleeting and the feelings only come to the surface for a little while. After some time and a couple of distractions, the impostor syndrome tends to sink back down to base level. But that doesn’t mean the feeling will go away. No, the impostor syndrome doesn’t ever get resolved; it just stops pulling for a while. And somehow, we all manage to keep on going.

One could claim that this impostor feeling is no different than feeling incompetent, but I propose that the two are very different. You feel incompetent when you truly are just not good at something due to a lack of talent, knowledge, training, or practice. I feel rather incompetent when it comes to fixing things with my hands. That feeling of incompetence is not the impostor syndrome. In my case, nobody in their right mind would think that I actually am competent at fixing things.

The impostor syndrome is different. Those who have the impostor syndrome are usually highly competent in what they do. In fact, they often are the most qualified person for the job. When you feel like an impostor, you’ve reached a place where you have gained true mastery, because you realize how much you really don’t know. It is ironic when we finally reach the pinnacle, after all the skills, trainings, and energy it took to get there, we often finally realize how little we truly know.

If you feel truly incompetent to the point of being paranoid about not knowing something, go out and learn those skills or gain that knowledge so you no longer feel incompetent. However, the only cure for the impostor syndrome is to own and embrace that feeling of being an impostor and know that everyone feels that way sometimes. The more you try to hide the impostor in you, the less authentic and the more insecure you will be in front of others. Your shadow will just grow and grow. Rather than try to hide or push down your feelings, embrace who you are, love your insecurity, and just keep going. After all, if people find out that you deeply feel like an imposter sometimes, that just makes you more vulnerable, authentic and real. It will simply allow people to love you more.