For the vast majority of people, confidence and ease come with practice and accomplishment. But even being at the height of your career is no guarantee you'll feel comfortable in your own professional skin — "imposter syndrome" is common even for those at the top, experts say. It turns out not only are there ways to manage your feelings of being a fraud, but the worry about being unmasked actually has its upsides.
Image remixed from Viorel Sima
"There are high-achieving celebrity impostor syndrome sufferers including Tina Fey, Maya Angelou, and Sheryl Sandberg, who have all openly admitted to feeling like an impostor at some point during their careers," wrote Caroline Dowd-Higgins recently on The Huffington Post. If the likes of Facebook's COO suffers from occasionally feeling like she's faking it, no wonder so many young careerists experience imposter syndrome (women are more likely to suffer than men).
Surf Your Imposter Syndrome
The most immediate question for imposter syndrome sufferers is how do I make it stop?
That's the wrong question, according to Down-Higgins. She suggests instead riding out your feelings of being a fake. In her post, she quotes Dr Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive In Spite of It, who advises: "when you feel yourself sliding into competence extremism, recognise it for what it is. Then make a conscious decision to stop and really savour those exhilarating mental high points and forgive yourself for the inevitable lulls."
"The beauty of the impostor syndrome 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," writes Young.
A Badge Of Honour?
Another way to respond to your imposter syndrome is to be aware that the feeling actually indicates positive things about you as a professional.
Feelings of faking it are usually associated with intelligence, diligence and, paradoxically, competence. Slackers, blusterers, and the genuinely incompetent tend not to stress about feeling like fakers.
Don't believe me? Neuroscientist and former TED speaker Bradley Voytek writes on his blog:
Anecdotally, [imposter syndrome] appears to be fairly rampant among academics and other "smart" people. At some point during your career, possibly more than once, you will look at your peers and think to yourself, "I'm not as good as they are; I am not cut out for this…"
Listen to that voice. Understand where it's coming from. But be aware that you're failing to recognise your own accomplishments; you're overemphasizing the accomplishments of others and you're vastly underestimating the failures other successful people experience on their way to success.
The New York Times has also covered this phenomenon, rounding up research into imposter syndrome and concluding that "in mild doses, feeling like a fraud… tempers the natural instinct to define one's own competence in self-serving ways".
The paper explains:
Researchers have shown in careful studies that people tend to be poor judges of their own performance and often to overrate their abilities. Their opinions about how well they've done on a test, or at a job, or in a class are often way off others' evaluations. They're confident that they can detect liars (they can't) and forecast grades (not so well).
This native confidence is likely to be functional: in a world of profound uncertainty, self-serving delusion probably helps people to get out of bed and chase their pet projects.
But it can be poison when the job calls for expertise and accountability, and the expertise is wanting…. At those times feeling like a fraud… reflects a respect for the limits of one's own abilities.
So don't stress if you feel like an impostor sometimes. You're in good company, you're probably wrong in your fears, and chances are you're bright and conscientious. All you need to do is ride out that feeling of faking it.
Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London. She writes a daily column for Inc.com and has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch and GigaOM.
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