Who do you think you are? Re-thinking the Impostor Syndrome

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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13 thoughts on “Who do you think you are? Re-thinking the Impostor Syndrome

  1. Oh, I suffer from this mightily, but only in certain areas of my life. I don’t have a bad case of IS in my flute playing, but it’s almost debilitating when it comes to my writing. My husband finished my book and was very complementary; I could barely stand to hear it much less believe it. From my husband. Sigh. I’m not surprised it appears to affect women more than men. I just wish I could get a handle on it already.

    • Jen, I really like the blog post you wrote about this topic (http://christinefonseca.wordpress.com/2012/06/08/impostor-me/) and find it fascinating to think of why we feel impostors in one area but not another. Writing is such a challenge in this respect, because even the best written works can be loved by one person and loathed by another, so we really need to learn to trust to write for ourselves primarily (*she writes as though she’s mastered it!*). Not that editing and feedback aren’t important, but the core of what we have to say has to come from our own voice, heart and mind.

      I was helped a lot by the Forbes piece I mentioned in terms of realizing that eliminating the self-doubts may not be the goal. I might need to learn to live more peacefully with them instead, hear the chattering voices but not engage them so often. When I figure it out, I’ll let you know. 😉

  2. Interesting thoughts. Sometimes difficult to see that we are suffering when we have been programed to believe that we are so capable. Sometimes it is just a thought to myself that says,” if no one hears or sees me, then what does it matter?’ i am pretty capable and will live in my world, not the world of what others think.

    • Sheri, what a great reminder to live in our first-person world, not the third-person world created by others (to borrow terms from Willem Kuipers). Thank you.

  3. Terrific post, Lisa, and so timely! I know there are some people who take success for granted, but I’m definitely not one of them. I’ll sail along day-to-day comfortably, but then something will happen that really whaps me upside the head – usually something complimentary said by someone whose opinion I really value – and I act, as my daughter says, “like a teen girl whose forever crush just asked her on a date.” 🙂 It’s as if my own internal judgement isn’t good enough and if I don’t hear it from someone else, it doesn’t count.

    • Yes, I know just what you mean, Corin, about the self-doubts coming intermittently. Those whaps have been more frequent than usual recently, but I think I have some hormonal changes that are contributing, as well. The Impostor in Perimenopause! 🙂

  4. Oh, I felt like an imposter for daring to add a blogpost to this week’s Gifted Blog Tour! Who the hell do I think I am, being listed on the same page as Lisa Rivero, Stephanie Tolan, Nicholas Colangelo, Jen Merrill? What have I done the world of “gifted” to be even writing about it?

    But my little, limited view and personal experience with my kids still has something to offer. My life as a gifted kid and gifted adult still has relevance. Participating in the gifted world reminds me of my own potential and gives me hope for the future of my kids.

    • Ingi, thank you for reminding us that “getting out there” regardless of our fears can help not only ourselves but others. I’m glad to have found your blog!

  5. BINGO! “…a sign that we are finally aiming high enough…” With no offense intended to the educators among us, for my first six years post-undergrad I taught, mostly first grade, while getting my Masters and ABD in Education. Related to an unexpected and sudden move and the lack of reciprocity for my certificate in a new state, I accidentally found myself in IT. Every day was a challenge as I reinvented myself in this new career: the excitement of reaching high to exceed expectations matched lock-step with an extended panic that I was going to be promptly fired the day they finally figured out what a mistake they had made – what an incompetent excuse for a new employee I was!

    Having moved from one side of the desk to the other overnight when I began teaching, I felt a challenge adapting to the pace, routine (and isolation) of teaching but never intellectually stirred. Even grad school left me wanting. Exploring the uncharted territory of this new career field, however, my self-perception as “average” (despite being ID-ed as gifted since the 5th grade) underwent a metamorphosis: starting with a feeling of doom that I would be discovered as woefully incompetent to 9-12 months later professional bliss realizing that my new environment appreciated not only my work ethic and my intellect but that my colleagues had begun to seek out my opinion and insist on my assistance. For the first time I felt more than average: I began to see my skills as strengths and my ideas as valuable. Living through the internal wails of “self as imposter” for several months (think Munch’s famous painting ;)) allowed me to experience more personal growth than I had seen in the previous six years combined. For me, emerging on the other side of “self as imposter” was the milepost indicating I was well on my way to becoming more than I had ever been before. “Finally aiming high enough” to me meant I was outside of my comfort zone and being forced to take on new information and experiences at a rate I hadn’t experienced since a youngster. Living through the discomfort allowed me to feel a professional exhilaration missing in my previous professional life.

    It’s been fourteen years this summer since the ride began. I’ve since learned to trust my intuition, I continue to find new ways to aim high, and I’ve never been accosted by the Imposter in the same way since. Self-examination keeps me on my toes, yes, but the intense self-doubt and anticipation of waiting for the other shoe to drop never returned. There’s a contentment that’s come with owning this truer picture of myself. And like painting in oils: it gets richer and more textured as time passes.

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