The problem with imposter syndrome is not the doubt. We all can doubt our capabilities. The problem is how best we recognise our own changing capabilities and validate our own intrinsic motivations. Imposter syndrome can be a warning that our perceptions or our expectations are misaligned.
I saw a recent post on social media that suggested 70% of people experience imposter syndrome. That ‘fact’ seems to be sourced to unspecified research. This figure also relates to an experience ‘at least once in their life’. One would question if 70% of us suffer imposter syndrome at least once that perhaps the syndrome is never doubting one’s own capability. Who is so bulletproof on their own capabilities as to never doubt their ability to achieve?
Doubt is Everywhere
Our doubt is hardly surprising. We are taught from a young age to measure ourselves against external and often opaque standards. We focus on our competencies and not our capabilities. In a corporate world that makes a fetish of standardisation, we feel like a round peg in a square hole, always uncomfortable at the gaps, the squishing and bumps required in our work.
Our doubt is often tied to our success. In a hierarchical world, where few progress and fewer are recognised, it is easy to doubt one’s own progress, attributing it to luck, privilege or mistake. In many cases, the selection processes are sufficiently random that luck, privilege and mistake clearly can play a role. The moments after selection for a new role or opportunity bring on the worst feelings of doubt as the step up in expectation can appear greater, the unknown greatest and the merit most doubtful.
Doubt is a natural expectation when taking on new roles, challenges and learning is our work. We see the obstacles and the shortcomings. We easily lose sight of the sand we have shifted already. All the dynamic change around us reminds us that we need to learn and do more. Our performance management systems make us feel like hamsters on a hamster wheel running to get nowhere, finishing one project, one year or one role only to dive into the next sprint. We are often alienated not only from the outcomes of our work but even our contribution to its success.
This doubt is only likely to increase as the capabilities of AI and automation continue to encroach on our roles. The more we are judged for our insights, our creativity, our handling of complexity and our relationship management the more we will struggle to assess against objective standards. The more routine tasks that are automated the more we might fear that we are not unique enough to add value to the machine.
Two things seem beyond doubt:
- we each have unique & growing capabilities
- we each have intrinsic & evolving motivations
Ignoring these two certainties to fit ourselves into a standardised world and a fixed external motivation structure is alienating. That alienation is a cause of dissatisfaction and doubt when combined with the stress of the new, the changing and the challenging. If we live with a disconnect between out intrinsic feelings and our extrinsic circumstances something is going to give.
We need to do a better job to own our own strengths and our own achievements. This means being realistic and having your own standards for progress. Peers, colleagues, mentors and family can act as important checks on unrealistic expectations and unacknowledged progress. Leverage them to receive feedback on your work. Share your work with them. Celebrate your successes however small.
Own your own development. Nobody is perfect and it should not feel like a burden to learn and to grow. The standard isn’t 100% or 110% success. The standard is your growth and development towards your goals. The standard is how well you are statisfying the drivers of your motivation. It’s easy to feel like a fraud when you don’t want to be doing something and everyone else seems effortlessly motivated. Remember also that everyone else is performing and you only see their surface behaviours. They may be struggling too and worrying that they can’t keep up with you.
The response to feelings of being an imposter is not to lower your aim but to better direct it. Nobody ever taps you on the shoulder to say ‘You are a fraud. We finally caught you.’ The only person who will do that is you. Give yourself a break and focus on your strengths, your progress and your goals too.