Overcoming Impostor Syndrome: Why You Really Might Be the Expert in the Room
I became aware of the Impostor Syndrome eight or nine years ago, when I was working for a failing start-up. Watching our staff whittle to half its size every few weeks was starting to take a toll on the remaining employees. I was grateful to still be working, but I wondered whether I should start looking into another job -- something more secure.
I spent my lunch hours in Starbucks studying for my GRE -- surely I would need another degree to help me get the security I needed -- and poring over job sites, looking for anything in the rapidly shrinking online media job market that approximated my skill set. For good measure I hired a coach.
During our first conversation, she asked me why I was studying for the GRE. I told her I was going back to school for my MBA.
"That's very interesting," she said, "especially considering you just told me you love to write and wanted to do something in the communications realm." She continued to ask questions until we boiled down my faulty logic for getting an MBA: Sure, the degree didn't pertain to what I REALLY wanted to do, but if I had the perceived credibility those three letters often provided, perhaps people would be more inclined to listen to the other things I wanted to say.
What could I say, I was cold busted and embarrassed.
My coach gave me a series of assignments; one was to read up on the Impostor Syndrome. I thought to myself, "Why? I don't think I'm a fraud, I'm just misdirected." But I'm glad today that I had the assignment, because it addressed a pervasive tendency I had of doing and achieving everything I could in order to have the credentials I felt I needed to do what I really wanted. It saved me a lot of time, and it bolstered me later in my career, which has shifted rapidly at times and has put me in positions in which I'm supposedly the expert in the room and not feeling like an expert.
But let's back up. What exactly is "The Impostor Syndrome"? Simply put, it's a state of insecurity -- common to women but not confined to them -- when we feel we are frauds being credited with recognition that we do not deserve. We feel like we somehow fooled the public into thinking we were more qualified than we actually are.
I wrote blog pieces about the Impostor Syndrome years ago and was interviewed about it for a newspaper article. What amazed me was that other women interviewed for the story, including self-made entrepreneurs and executives who had reached the top of their industry, had perhaps the most acute cases. The "higher up" these women went, the worse their feelings of inadequacy.
Why is Impostor Syndrome more common among women? The reason may be tied into the same reason why women, when providing self-evaluations of themselves during job interviews, are more critical of themselves than men. We are our own worst critics. Speaking in the most general sense and looking at women's strengths in work settings compared to men's, could it be that our abilities to process multiple perspectives and validate others turn back on us? Just as much as we can see how effective we are, we can see other reasons why we are perceived as effective without being so. Just as we can convince others of their competence, we can convince ourselves of our incompetence. We can appreciate how hard it can be to achieve, so when an accomplishment didn't seem so hard to achieve, we cannot say we deserved it.
The Impostor Syndrome is not technically a psychiatric diagnosis; there are no pills to take to take the edge off and help us feel validated. But there are some things to consider doing if you feel you may be experiencing IS:
- Spare yourself the mantras: I've read advice to the contrary, recommending written affirmations and repeating to yourself that you deserve your success. If self-talk works for you, I say go for it. But if you are like many women who are better at convincing others of their competence than themselves, I recommend treating defeating thoughts like a yoga instructor recommends you do during meditation: Observe these thoughts and let them pass. And realize: They are just thoughts.
- Play the role of deserving goddess: If you are feeling like a fraud in a world where you are not, what's wrong with pretending to be the woman you really are? Have fun with it! Accept that award, get up in front of the crowd and show them what it would look like if you actually KNEW what you were talking about. When you are done, realize that you could not have made all of that stuff up without really being an expert.
- If you don't know, say so! Realize that you can still be an expert and deserving of recognition without knowing all of the answers. I recall a speaking engagement where I was asked a question and, after some puffery and prelude, realized I didn't know the answer and said so. After the talk a number of people came up to me exclaiming that my talk was one of the more informational ones they'd heard on the subject. Initially I thought, "bullshit." But consider how many talks you've attended where people bloviate and shortly following you couldn't recall a single takeaway. Admitting that you don't know something only puts more credence into what you do know.
- Realize that just because it comes easy to you doesn't mean you don't deserve to be recognized as the shiznit for it. We learned quite a lesson back in 2005, when it was suggested that BlogHer open a speaker wiki for the community for posting our bios and areas of expertise. We originally thought there was an alarming lack of women speakers at conferences because programmers simply didn't know how to find the most qualified women. But few in the community added their bio to the wiki, and when we investigated, we learned there was another, more pervasive, reason: Many women didn't think they were qualified enough to be considered for speaking. We received responses such as, "I just started blogging and love writing about such and such, but that doesn't make me an expert in it."
Umm. Actually, yes it does. Think about all of the people in this world who followed a passion, didn't turn away opportunity and are now considered experts in relatively new fields (areas they were not experts in before seizing upon opportunity): Erin Brockovich, Hillary Clinton and Elise Bauer, who had a career in business before taking on a food blog as a hobby and personal challenge and is now one of the most referenced food experts on the Web.
Jory Des Jardins writes on business and career topics at BlogHer, and on her personal blog From Here to Autonomy