You’re probably not who you think you aren’t.
By Anna Gelbman Edmonds
I know someone in a midlevel management position at one of the big Silicon Valley tech companies. I mean big. He sits in meetings with people you read about in Forbes and works with people who give TED talks and have lots of letters after their names indicating their educational pedigrees. He travels the world for team projects and conferences. Nifty life!
However, when water cooler chatter with colleagues turns to reminiscing about college, he quietly slips away because he can’t contribute to the conversation. This highly successful, exceptionally bright, naturally-gifted fellow who was sought out by this prestigious company feels like a fraud because he lacks a college degree. He suffers from imposter syndrome.
You probably suffer from some level of imposter syndrome, too. Ironically, I questioned whether or not I was qualified or knowledgeable enough to write this article. But I’m an award-winning journalist, trained in researching and reporting facts, so I’m definitely qualified.
The term “imposter syndrome” was coined in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. Andrea Robinson defines it as “a pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity and incompetence despite evidence that you are skilled and successful” in her article “Overcoming Imposter Syndrome.”
Apparently, according to a study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science, about 70 percent of us experience such feelings at some stage in our lives. So only 30 percent of us feel qualified to do what we’re paid to do? Yikes!
There’s an endless list of reasons why someone would suffer from impostor syndrome, and it’s clearly a form of anxiety, however mild or severe. It can present in five different ways:
- The expert won’t feel satisfied in completing a task unless she feels that she knows everything about the subject.
- The perfectionist is typically dissatisfied with her work and worries when extreme goals are not met.
- The soloist prefers to work alone to prove her worth and equates needing help with incompetence.
- The superhero is an overachiever who must excel at everything and typically is a workaholic.
- The natural genius is a quick learner but feels ashamed when unable to master a particular skill.
You can read more about what kind of fraud you THINK you are and how to turn your thinking around in this article by Melody Wilding, an expert on the subject.
Most of us experience symptoms sporadically (as I did when deciding to write this) or for a limited time, such as when starting a new job. But others may face the battle of feeling incompetent their whole lives. The anxiety level in serious cases of imposter syndrome can significantly hinder some people in achieving personal and professional aspirations. But the good news is that nobody ever died from the malady.
What would I say to the fellow who avoids conversations about college with his co-workers? He’s achieved their same level of success without amassing any student loan debt. He’s smarter than all of them! Next time I talk to him I’ll tell him to read “Yes, Impostor Syndrome Is Real. Here’s How to Deal with It.”