What Is Your Impostor Syndrome Trying To Tell You?

Long before I’d heard the words, impostor syndrome, the most successful of my friends told me that every day he expected to be found out and fired from his job.


I held my breath, wondering what he’d done that would result in such a drastic outcome. He frowned, looking as if he was asking himself the same question. He knew he was good at his job and that he hadn’t knowingly done anything that would land him in trouble but he didn’t feel he deserved the level of success he’d achieved and he was sure – as in lying awake at night, worrying about losing his house, sure – that some day his bosses would realise they’d made a terrible mistake and he’d be laughed out of the building. Or, he’d make a mistake so huge that he’d be escorted to his car by security. Or, he’d have his shortcomings shown up so badly that he’d have to resign. He had quite a collection of vivid mental films depicting a crushing fall from grace.


To me this made no sense. I was still busy trying to get people to take me seriously. I longed to find an employer who would believe that I was capable of doing anything.


Later, as I finally managed to get off the first rung of the career ladder and start moving, I met many more people like him. There were those who were terrified of not being able to do the job they were in – even though they very clearly were doing it perfectly well – and people who felt they could never admit to a weakness, never show any doubt and so were a nervous wreck about trying to live up to the claims they made.


My Mr Spock-like self found them illogical, captain. Then one day, leaving a job interview where I thought I’d done well, the member of the interview panel walking me back to reception said, “Why are you applying for this job?” and before I could give my well-rehearsed answer, added, “You should be applying for jobs much higher than this. Why are you lowering yourself?”


I got the job and for the most part, loved my time there but I was offered a lot of opportunities to take on more senior positions and I turned most of them down. I felt rock solid on what I was doing but very unnerved by senior colleagues nominating me to do things where I felt I wasn’t sufficiently qualified or experienced.


My problem, which might be better named, knowing your place syndrome, lasted about a decade. In different companies I stuck rigidly to what I thought was realistically within my grasp, no matter what my bosses said, and in that time I watched people who’d told me they felt a complete fake and total incompetent, move into and then on from the positions I’d turned down. Some of them drinking heavily, popping anti-depressants or both, to manage their anxieties as they went.


My more classically imposter syndrome friends looked like people pleasers to me. They desperately needed everyone to like them and worked hard at being everyone’s friend. I, on the other hand, didn’t mind about stating an unpopular opinion or suggesting something new that challenged established routines, so long as I had a mountain of facts and figures to back myself up. I doubt anyone ever read the extensive reference lists at the back of my reports.


On the surface the charming self-deprecator and the bookish nerd don’t seem to have much in common but studies into impostor syndrome suggest that we both share a belief that how we are is just not good enough. My wealthy, successful friend would have no more openly disagreed with someone than I’d have trusted my instincts and expected others to trust them too. Both charm and research are useful skills in life but we saw ours as a tortoise sees her shell, that is, remove them from us and we’ll die – or at least fail at everything which could possibly result in us becoming destitute and then dead.


The most common advice for this can be summed up in the title of Susan Jeffers’ classic book: “Feel the Fear and do it Anyway”. Once you have identified that you’re having feelings that are not particularly sensible or helpful to you, you can stand up to those feelings and stop letting them run your life. Make friends with your feelings of not good enough and use them to prevent yourself from falling into complacency. Tell yourself: there are the impostor feelings again but I’m going to do this anyway and see how it goes.


Watching interviews with successful people or reading their biographies is a good way of finding out how many other people feel they are in over their heads, or they’ve conned the world and are about to be rumbled. You’ll also see how often they’ve failed and made bad choices along the way but they’ve picked themselves up and got on with things. You’re probably right to think you might not be flawless at a new task, because no one is ever flawless at anything, but that’s not called failure, that’s called being human and that means you are in the same boat as everyone else.


However, Dr Valerie Young, an impostor syndrome expert, makes a little discussed point on her blog: what if your problem is not confidence?


We’re so used to being told that any problem in life, particularly for women, is just a matter of confidence and self-belief but what if you’re sure of your abilities and you still feel fake?


Dr Young suggests a test: imagine yourself as brimming with confidence and super-capable and now, as that totally worthy person, how do you feel about the meeting or promotion or whatever seems daunting?


If you still don’t want to do the thing then maybe you have other reasons. Dr Young points put that we don’t all measure success in the same way and we have more priorities and influences on our decisions than just our career.


A promotion might mean a move away from family, which you don’t want but you’d be happy to take the same step up if you could stay in the same town.


With the amount of time we spend at work, some of our closest relationships are there and a change in role can strain those friendships. Some of us see that as a price worth paying but some see it as too high a price and they’d rather stick with their friends.


Maybe no amount of success in this line of work would feel like success to you because really, what you regard as a good life involves doing something completely different.


My successful friend always dreamed of moving to the non-profit sector but couldn’t quite bring himself to take the big cut in income. In the end he moved to a good job as a regulator of the industry he’d found so uncomfortable. This allowed him to finally express his natural sense of needing to do the right thing, without making much of a change to his lifestyle. He was also able to keep the same network of friends he’d built up through a twenty-year career.


His impostor syndrome wasn’t urging him to jump ship, it was just telling him he was in the wrong cabin and needed to try another deck.


For me, shifting my work-life balance did the trick. Instead of basing most of my sense of self-worth in my job, I took on other roles and developed more interests outside work. It took a while and meant wrestling with my workaholic tendencies, but I found that if I was doing okay in two or three other areas of my life then taking a risk in the office didn’t feel so risky.


Image by iStock.com / Choreograph

First published in Issue 14 Widows and Widowers magazine

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