Imposter Syndrome

The crippling lie that holds us back

The principles that govern success, individual, leadership, and organizational greatness

It’s a
lie

Imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon where we tend to doubt our own accomplishments, we doubt (or fail to recognize) our own inherent strengths and abilities and even fear being “found out” as a fraud.

This is usually in spite of ample external evidence of our success and talents, and is often accompanied by feelings of anxiety, stress, and even depression.

It’s a self-perceived intellectual or skills-based phoniness.

It’s a lie we tell ourselves about our own inadequacy that becomes such a pervasive part of our own internal narrative that it can poison our performance, become toxic to our progress, end up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

When
does this happen?

This feeling tends to surface most when given a new assignment or when facing a new activity, especially (but not only) if unfamiliar. It can be brought on by a new environment, a change of circumstances, newfound authority or power in a position. It can happen within relationships and social interactions, or wherever we are prone to compare ourselves to others.

For this reason, time spent on social networks, where exaggerated lifestyles abound and we tend to immerse ourselves in comparison, can trigger sharp feelings of imposter syndrome, even among close friends and family, and even when in contrast to reality or external evidence of your own success in life.

This is one of the main reasons why excessive time spent in social media tends to lead to feelings of depression and anxiety.

Here’s
how it works

It’s triggered by comparison. Our incessant determination to hold ourselves up against someone else’s standard.

The problem with this is that we usually underrepresent ourselves on this crucial scale, and we tend to overrepresent the other party, leaving us to inevitably conclude that we are worse off, or for some reason… lesser.

This, in part, is because we are inherently bad at recognizing the magic within us. We tend to downplay our own superpowers, our strengths, talents, and the traits that set us apart. We do this because to us, it’s just us. We live with it. And because we live with this talent, and access it freely, we devalue it.

This is the principle of Scarcity in action. This is a fundamental principle of behavior and life that you can learn more about here, but that basically causes us to value things which are scarce over things which are abundant.

Since to us, our talents and strengths are abundant… we have constant access to them and visibility of them, and most of the time have grown up with them… we don’t really value them.

We’re just used to it. Even when people compliment us on those skills, we tend to dismiss those compliments because it just comes natural to us. We think that for us to be deserving of those compliments, we needed to have worked harder for it somehow. This is imposter syndrome at work.

Instead of recognizing these things as unique and valuable strengths (as others do when they look at us), we downplay and devalue them, and even tend to shy away from them, feeling like we should chase something more “worthwhile”.

On the other hand, when we look at other people, people who have strengths and talents different than ourselves, we tend to see value in those things because those are talents we don’t possess. To us it’s a scarce resource. So when we hold ourselves up in comparison against another, we tend to see them as being more valuable and of more worth than us, even while at the same time they’re doing the same thing to us, for the very same reasons.

Imposter syndrome
at work

This, by the way, is one of the reasons people tend to not succeed at work or in life. When they think they have stalled in life, they decide they need to add more value.

But their perception of value is not focused on what they do best—their most natural, innate superpowers—but rather what other people do best… those things that are specifically not in their talent toolkit.

So instead of focusing on their own superpower, and how to scale it and go all-in on the things they were born to do, they start chasing things that they weren’t born to do, that they aren’t inherently good at. They try to become someone else, and then struggle to excel and succeed at those things for that very reason… it’s not who they are.

Depriving the world
of magic

The worst part of this is that imposter syndrome causes people to abandon their most precious, innate talents… refusing to recognize their great worth. In this way some of the very best art is kept from the world. Some of the very best of what’s inside you, we will never see, because imposter syndrome tells you it’s not valuable.

It’s like a painter deciding that they should really do something meaningful with their lives, like accounting. So they focus on math and logic, when their brains were wired to see and create. Sure, they can reach some modicum of success through enough hard work.

But most often they end up failing, because it’s not what they were “wired for”. Then when they don’t experience success, what do they blame? Themselves. Their identity.

Their sense of identity and self-worth becomes diminished. They use that failure as evidence that they are of less worth, that they are inherently “less talented”, or just, well, less. When in reality it’s just that they were pulled into someone else’s narrative. They focused on something that wasn’t inherent to them.

In pursuit
of excellence

As a Life Engineer… as someone committed to the disciplined pursuit of excellence (individual excellence, leadership excellence, or organizational excellence), you have to develop a sensitivity, awareness, and an ability to recognize imposter syndrome when it surfaces.

Simply learning to recognize imposter syndrome, learning to call it what it is, and to help others understand it as well, will give you a leg up on life.

Now, for what to do about it, click one of the application lenses below.

How to
apply the principle

Click each icon below to see how this applies.

The people who are most successful in life tend to be the people who are relentless about understanding their own unique talents, falling in love with those gifts, and going all-in on them.

This has been captured in a number of books, but two of my most favorite are written by Marcus Buckingham. The first is called “First, break all the rules”, and the second “Now, discover your strengths”. You can learn more about them in the Life Engineering Library by clicking on those links. Between the two of them he really teaches how to break away from the propensity to conform to the status quo, and instead, hone in on the things you are specifically good at.

Relax and keep going

First and foremost, simply knowing about imposter syndrome gives you power. It gives you power to recognize that this feeling you have, when you have it, is totally natural, is felt by everybody, and is totally false.

Once you recognize the deceit under the surface of those emotions, you can courageously and refreshingly ignore them. Just shove them out of your consciousness with a knowing “yup, I know what that is, and I aint failing for it.”

Now you can move on, and keep pushing forward.

Focus on your strengths

Because you’re most likely to feel imposter syndrome about the things that you’re actually best at, for all the reasons described above, those feelings should actually be a leading indicator that you’re on the right track!

The key is to know your talents. Know your strengths. Fall in love with them. Go all-in on them. And when you feel imposter syndrome settling in, as it will, again and again, let it be confirmation that you’re probably on the right track.

And if you haven’t yet truly identified your strengths, and are still wondering what you are specifically good at, you need to get yourself a copy of the Gallup StrenthsFinder 2.0, by Tom Rath, and go take the test. It’s a several-decades-old model that is the industry standard in finding out what your unique strengths profile is.

It’s a beautiful way of building up your identity, and ensuring alignment between your identity and your objective (and even choosing an objective to begin with).

As a parent, you’re likely to feel imposter syndrome all the time. That’s because you are continuously faced with new circumstances that challenge you, and your propensity at any give time will be to feel like you’re not good enough, like you’re not adequately equipped for what you’ve been given. It’s false.

You made it here, and you’ll make it through. Focus on your strengths, and lead with love.

More difficult, perhaps, is that like you, your children will be faced with imposter syndrome. They’ll go to school and compare themselves to friends and peers, and they’ll feel like they just don’t measure up. Because they are digital natives, they’ll be more prone to spend time on social media, and will be deeply influenced by the unrealistic comparisons they’ll make there.

This sense of imposter syndrome can be paralyzing to a child who lacks the emotional maturity and knowledge to recognize it for what it is, and who lacks the history of success and other evidence that an adult my otherwise draw on to combat it. It can lead to intense feelings of depression and low self-worth.

You can learn to recognize imposter syndrome in your kids. Look for things they say that might indicate “comparative processing”.

Look for behaviors that might suggest a sudden (or sometimes not so sudden) drop in confidence. They may start using words that describe themselves as being less, or language that is otherwise self-demeaning.

If you recognize that you may have a child stuck in a cycle of imposter syndrome, teach them what it is. Knowledge gives us power. Even knowing the name for something, and especially knowing that everybody feels it, can go a long way to helping them recognize that this is normal.

Most importantly, focus on their strengths. Learn to see (and learn to be the first to see) the magic in your kids. Focus on it, dwell on it, celebrate it, talk about it, and encourage them in every opportunity to develop it. The more they see you recognizing their strengths, and the more they start to see evidence of those strengths, the more ammunition they have to mitigate feelings of imposter syndrome when they happen.

You can even get the book and have them take the included StrengthsFinder assessment. A formalized recognition of their skills is as valuable as just knowing what they are. In a recent study, college freshmen who took the assessment were 50% more likely to graduate.

As a leader, you will often find employees, or those within your influence who, under a new assignment, or just in life, are starting to suffer from imposter syndrome.

This often shows up with evidence of black-boxing behavior. Where they try to shut you out from gaining visibility into their performance, or what they are doing or how they are doing it. There’s a (sometimes very sharp) reluctance to be measured or examined or to face feedback. They will try to create boundaries, and defend those boundaries to decrease visibility, under the fear that they may be found out.

It’s especially important in these situations to help them recognize that error and even failure are an important part of business, as well as personal and professional development. Help them know that you are playing a long-game, and not a short-game. That you’re more interested in building long-term competency and perfecting imperfect processes and activities, and that imperfection is an expectation. Help them recognize that what you really care about is helping them become better, which is a warm embrace to the idea that you know they aren’t perfect.

By doing so, you remove the fear of reprisal, and break down the anticipation of disappointment.

Most importantly, when you find someone in this category, focus on their strengths. Help them recognize the magic you see within them, and how that magic uniquely qualifies them for the work you’ve asked them to do, and how that magic is more important to the outcome you’re seeking than any deficiency they might have.

When you do this, you will win not only their performance, as they open themselves up to tutoring and feedback, but you will win their love and loyalty as well.

And of course, I highly recommend you have your employees read the book and take the (free, included) StrengthsFinder assessment.

Imposter syndrome can be crippling in an organization, especially one that is growing fast. It can run rampant in new managers and cause them to behave in ways that become culturally toxic, and can create a heavy tax on employee satisfaction and engagement.

Worse, the black-boxing byproduct of imposter syndrome can blind an organization to the very data and feedback it needs to pivot, evolve, and adapt in such a fast-moving economy, where the nimble and fluid survive.

It’s important to build up “cultural allowances” around failure. The greater the fear of failure, the more likely your organization will be to suffer from imposter syndrome and it’s unhealthy manifestations.

It’s not that you should stop holding people accountable, but it’s how they’re held accountable that matters.

Insofar as the ultimate organizational objective is to evolve and improve over time, and that objective is clearly and repeatedly articulated in both words and behavior, then you can prevent a lot of those symptoms from ever happening.

Make feedback core to culture. Invest in it. Creating a culture of openness, all the way to the top, will create feelings of psychological safety, which (according to Google’s latest research) is the primary driver of high-performing teams.

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The disciplined pursuit of excellence

Life Engineering is dedicated to helping individuals, parents, leaders, and organizations achieve excellence. We provide the tools and the training, the motivation and the methodology to move beyond where you’ve been, to go farther than you thought you could… to achieve more, to become more. It’s about more than just success.

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