Do these apply to you?
- Someone has offered you the opportunity to chair an important committee, and you consider saying no because you have never run an important committee before and you just aren’t sure if you are experienced enough to manage it.
- Your supervisor praises you for doing a great job on a project, and you think, “Phew, I got away with that one. I had no idea what I was doing.”
- You do not apply for a job because you match only half of the required criteria for the position.
- Someone pays you a compliment and you say “thank you,” but then you tell them why you really don’t deserve praise.
- You get asked to speak at a conference but say no because you don’t think you could answer any questions people asked. (Or you say yes, but you are terrified the entire time that people will find out you really don’t know the topic that well.)
If you answered yes to any of these, you are probably suffering from the Impostor Syndrome. While many women and men suffer from the Impostor Syndrome, many people have never heard of it. “The Impostor Syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in the face of information that indicates that the opposite is true. It is experienced internally as chronic self- doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence.”1
Feeling Like You’re Fooling Others
The Impostor Syndrome was first identified in 1978 in an article by Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes.2 In their work with 150 high- achieving women, they found that women often felt themselves to be impostors. “Women who experience the impostor phenomenon maintain a strong belief that they are not intelligent; in fact they are convinced that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”
I’ll be honest; I felt like an impostor for years. I spent many years feeling that I didn’t belong in the jobs I held, that somehow I was fooling everyone. This was despite consistently delivering on the goals that were set for me and being praised by supervisors and senior executives for my work performance. Then about eight years ago, I was working at a conference and someone told me that I absolutely had to attend the Impostor Syndrome session, which was led by Maria Klawe, President of Harvey Mudd College. I listened to an entire panel of senior women describe their feelings of being an impostor. And I had that “aha” moment we all hear so much about—maybe I wasn’t an impostor after all!
I’ve subsequently taught a class on the Impostor Syndrome many times, and the most discouraging stories are the ones about the negative impact the Impostor Syndrome has had on many women’s careers. Listening to your inner impostor can lead you to turn down career-making opportunities. Taking on challenging work and succeeding at it can open many doors. If you don’t accept a position as a leader or organizer, someone else will, and he or she can easily become the “go-to person” for a supervisor or organization. Those people go on to get the key promotion or job.
But there are encouraging stories, too. My favorite is that of a young woman who wrote in to an advice column I managed. She had interviewed at a company for a specific job but instead she was offered a different position, one that was actually at a higher level both in rank and pay but that involved some technologies with which she was less familiar. This seemed to me to be every job candidate’s dream—more money, a better, more challenging job, and less grunt work. Instead, she was preparing to sabotage herself. She was so worried that she couldn’t do the job, and her inner self doubt was so extreme, that she was planning to accept the job but insist they pay her the lower wage with the proviso that if she proved herself after six months, they could give her the higher salary. But if she didn’t, they could move her to the lesser job.
I immediately contacted her and insisted she not do any of those things. I insisted she accept the job and the salary and ask for some additional concessions, leveraging the window for negotiating that applies when you are getting hired. She followed my advice, and when I followed up three months later she was happy, challenged, and loving her new job. Impostor Syndrome was defeated in this case. But many of us don’t reach out in times of uncertainty. Rather, we listen to the inner voice of doubt. The important thing to note is that when we give in to this doubtful voice, we are not pursuing tougher, more challenging work, and not grabbing opportunities when they are offered. Failure to do both of these things will derail your career more quickly than you can imagine.
Listening to your inner impostor can lead you to turn down career-making opportunities
Overcoming the Impostor Syndrome
There are ways to overcome the Impostor Syndrome. Try these when your inner voice is telling you to run:
- Recognize that the person asking you to do the task outside your comfort zone wouldn’t ask if he or she didn’t think you would be able to do it. The person isn’t stupid or crazy— he or she believes in you and feels comfortable asking you to do it.
- There are always resources that can help you learn to do what you don’t already know. The Internet and books are loaded with advice on just about any topic you can imagine. If you are running a committee for the first time, ask to see minutes from previous committee meetings, or look up how to run a committee.
- Get advice from friends, mentors, colleagues, and your boss if you have a question. No one is expected to know everything. I believe in assembling a strong list of advisers that I can turn to at any time. Just remember that your advice has value as well, so share it freely.
- Check in periodically with the person who gave you the opportunity to make sure that you are meeting his or her needs. It’s easier to realign things as you go than to redo them at the end. The person will probably appreciate your checking in.
- Most importantly, always remember that no one knows what your completed project is supposed to look like except you. Unless you are following a rigid template (which can be helpful in new situations) no one else really knows what to expect. So embrace the decisions that you make and own the outcome. And be sure to thank everyone who helped you along the way.
I’m always happy to advise people confronting the Impostor Syndrome. Feel free to send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Jerri Barrett, SENS Research Foundation
Footnote and Reference
1Caltech Counseling Center. http://bit.ly/1lu2DZ6.
2Clance P, Imes S (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice 15, 241–247. http://bit.ly/1tu2V5g.