Have you ever experienced a moment of panic before you got ready to pitch a proposal, deliver a talk, or convene a meeting? I’m not referring to butterflies in your stomach or simple stage fright. I’m talking about being stopped in your tracks with a feeling of such tremendous self-doubt that your confidence was shot. Welcome to the non-exclusive club of millions of professional women (and men) who experience the imposter syndrome. Dr. Valerie Young is an internationally known speaker, author, and expert on women and the Imposter Syndrome. Her book — The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive In Spite of It (Crown Business, Random House) — is a fascinating look into how so many accomplished and capable people suffer from self doubt.
A self-described “recovering imposter,” Young remembers her own experience in graduate school when she succumbed to feelings of self-doubt and failed to recognize and celebrate her accomplishments. The Imposter Syndrome is a major psychological phenomenon that is extremely prevalent in the career world.
There are high-achieving, celebrity, Imposter Syndrome sufferers, including Tina Fey, Maya Angelou, and Sheryl Sandberg, who openly admitted to feeling like an imposter at some point during their careers. Young says, “When you feel yourself sliding into competence extremism, recognize it for what it is. Then make a conscious decision to stop and really savor those exhilarating mental high points and forgive yourself for the inevitable lulls.”
That’s what Tina Fey does, as excerpted from Young’s book: “The beauty of the impostor syndrome,” says Fey, “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!’ So you just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud.”
Another type of imposter never achieves success, according to Young, because the imposter syndrome holds them back from moving forward with their goals: “The thing about ‘impostors’ is they have unsustainably high standards for everything they do. The thinking here is, ‘If I don’t know everything, then I know nothing. If it’s not absolutely perfect, it’s woefully deficient. If I’m not operating at the top of my game 24/7, then I’m incompetent.’”
Fakes & Frauds
Imposter feelings need to be normalized so we can understand that the circumstances are situational. The imposter syndrome is not a mental illness but a phenomenon that afflicts many whose work is constantly being reviewed by a subjective audience.
Consider the creative careerists and those who use skills in writing, design, performance, or marketing, as an example. These professionals often only feel good when they garner rave reviews because their work is appreciated by a subjective audience.
First-generation professionals and college students often feel like they are frauds who don’t deserve to be charting a new path. Women in STEM careers (science, technology, math and engineering) are a still minority in the workforce, and they often succumb to the pressure of feeling they need to represent all women in STEM fields. They often believe they are not worthy or good enough even when very accomplished. This is a classic example of the imposter syndrome at work.
Take a Risk
When opportunity knocks with a new job, promotion, or a chance to take a risk, women often feel the imposter syndrome take hold. Young suggests the imposter syndrome gives us an opportunity to drill down and ask if the new opportunity is fear based. Sometimes it’s a question about whether the new promotion, for example will really provide you with an authentic path that honors your values. It begs the question — how do you define success? The feelings of self-doubt are normal, and in the best-case scenario, it prompts one to self reflect on what really matters. According to Young: