Update as of 04/08/2013: Also see my post on this topic at Psychology Today.

Who do you think you are? It seems a simple question, but what if we add some emphasis and a couple of words at the beginning and end: Just who do you think you are, anyway?

Imposter Syndrome

Photo credit: Ned Potter (CC BY 2.0)

As I was mulling over what to focus on in this post for the 2012 International Week of the Gifted blog tour (#IWG12), Sue Luus (be sure to read her own contribution to the blog tour) gave me an answer with this recent comment:

“Just this morning I could feel that old ‘imposter syndrome’ lurking. There are so many brilliant people in Gifted Land doing such wonderful things that at times I feel totally overwhelmed by my lack of ability to contribute and feelings that what I can do is not good enough and will never measure up.”

Having had the delight of meeting and spending some time with Sue this summer, I am (but should not be) surprised at her self-doubts. Such fears cannot be glimpsed from the outside. In fact, my experience has been that often the very people who seem to others to be the most self-confident struggle mightily with fears of not measuring up and having “fooled” everyone. When they do admit to their inner demons, friends and co-workers might react with disbelief or even thinly concealed joy that “even she has problems, too.”

What is the Impostor Syndrome? According to Dr. Lee Anne Bell, those experiencing Impostor Syndrome “doubt their competence, downplay or dismiss their abilities, and subscribe to the disabling belief that they are impostors or fakes or frauds” (Lee Anne Bell, “The Gifted Woman as Impostor”, Advanced Development Journal 2, Jan., 1990, p. 55-64).

Here are some further readings for anyone who wants to learn more:

It’s easy to see what is bad about the Impostor Syndrome. At its most tragic, it can lead to unmitigated despair, even suicide. But is there another aspect to this common problem that might be more positive or even offer potential for growth?

In her article “The Gifted Woman as Impostor,” Bell suggests that the Impostor Syndrome may serve as a “critique and alternative vision” of traditional views of solitary success. She writes, “I now see a very positive impulse that underlies women’s discomfort with achievement.” Rather than a call to tattoo our awesomeness on our foreheads for all the world to see, our discomfort might be a nudge to redefine “the meanings of competence, success, and failure as terms that are embedded in connection and mutual support” (p. 63). In other words, the Impostor Syndrome is a symptom telling us that something needs to change. We can ask ourselves not just who we think we are, but who we want to be. Not just whether we want to succeed, but how we want to succeed in a way that is authentic, that has integrity, and that we can live with comfortably.

In a Forbes article from earlier this year, “The Upside of the Impostor Syndrome: Lessons from Women in Tech,” Tara-Nicholle Nelson writes of how feeling like an impostor may be a sign that we are finally aiming high enough, a growing pain that we can embrace rather than resist:

“Know that it’s coming, anticipate it, feel it – even lean into it and sit with it for awhile, instead of fighting it –  it will go away faster that way. But approach your new frontier with a clear plan of action, and then absolutely refuse to be moved, deterred, slowed down or stopped by any Imposter Syndrome symptoms that come.

In fact, do the opposite – build a note into your roadmap that reminds you that Imposter Syndrome symptoms are a signpost that you’re moving in the right direction: into a new, expansive realm of possibility.”

My own experience is informed by all of these views. I definitely can benefit from viewing myself and my work with more objectivity and compassion and placing less emphasis on others’ reactions and opinions (perceived or real). At the same time, I know that I feel the Impostor Syndrome when I engage in social media and other self-promotion strategies that leave me feeling unauthentic. Do I plow ahead anyway in an attempt to crush those self-doubts once and forever? Or do I use the discomfort as a guide to change my approach, to play by my own rules that allow me to feel more “me” and less “not me”? It’s a continual work in progress.

  • What is your experience with feeling an impostor?
  • How do you keep from being paralyzed by self-doubts?
  • Is the Impostor Syndrome ever a sign that you are on the right track or a call for personal change?

Be sure to check all the other posts on the #IWG12 Blog Tour!

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