Last week, a friend said to me “I know you speak on this thing called ‘Impostor Syndrome.’ But how do I know if I have it?”
If you have this feeling that you are not as smart as people think you are, and you feel like a big fat fraud, you may be suffering from the Impostor Syndrome. It’s often confused with a lack of confidence, but it’s different (as I wrote in my last post.) It is common among high achievers, especially in the fields of STEM, design, performing arts, fine arts, higher education, professional fields requiring higher education (researchers, lawyers, accountants, etc.), high level executives (both in the for-profit and non-profit world) and entrepreneurs.
Maybe you don’t know what the impostor syndrome is, but if you are in any of those fields listed above, you may be familiar with the cluster of symptoms that come together to accuse you of being a fraud. There are 6 symptoms of the syndrome:
- The Impostor Cycle: When you’re faced with a new assignment, you’ll either over-prepare (work frantically to eliminate any possible failure) or procrastinate (delay until the last possible moment, and THEN work like crazy.) The result is usually the same: You do a phenomenal job and everyone is thrilled. But you are too stressed because you feel like you faked the work, and you must repeat it again with the next cycle. You never enjoy your success.
- The Need to be Special, or the Best: You’re a perfectionist that sees life as an unending and unmerciful report card that measures every movement against some perfection plumb line. Your value is based on your performance. You say “If I do good, I am good.” (I know…poor grammar…but you get the point…). Or maybe you want to feel special, unique or privileged…definitely different from everyone else.
- Superman/Superwoman complex: This is the sibling of the perfectionist. You don’t delegate well because it’s all on your shoulders, and nobody else can do it as well. Or, perhaps you think asking for help signifies weakness, or it rudely puts a burden on someone else. The dirty little secret is this: your real motive could be to look as busy as possible in order to give the appearance of being effective. What you don’t realize is this: You ARE effective, and you don’t realize that asking for help can make you look even MORE effective. Humility is extremely attractive.
- Use of Charm/Insight/Humor: Impostor-sufferers are utterly charming and magnetic, especially toward people in authority or influence. You look up to superiors, and try to impress them or win their approval. Maybe you’ll add insightful comments to conversation to appear relevant, even if you’re not entirely familiar with the topic of the conversation. But you may know just enough to sound smart. You’re witty, because if you can keep them laughing, they won’t notice you’re uninformed. You even feel pressured to join a conversation you think being silent equals being stupid. (Note: This is NOT true!!)
- Fear of Failure: We all fear failure. But when the fear causes you to consistently aim lower than you’re capable of, everyone loses. When it becomes a shield of in-authenticity that hides your best, and calls you to a hyper-vigilant practice of personal image management (ie protecting your dignity at all costs), that’s exhausting.
- Fear of Success: Maybe you don’t really want to succeed because then you’ll have to repeat or perpetuate the success. Or maybe you’re afraid of disrupting the status quo, or of living at a new level of competence. Or maybe you don’t think you deserve success. Life has been and should be hard, and receiving a reward, especially a financial one, intensifies some weird guilt. The result: Self-sabotage. Don’t shoot for the stars. Stay grounded on planet earth.
Does this cluster of symptoms describe you? When I speak to group of people and ask in the beginning “Have you heard of the Impostor Syndrome?” I get lots of head shaking “no.”After I describe the symptoms, there’s a collective communal response of “YES! That’s ME!