(Why impostor syndrome is itself an impostor.)
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same.If, Rudyard Kipling
Fred Rogers may have liked us just the way we are, but most of us don’t share his upbeat opinion. We gnash our teeth and silently scream, “I hate myself!” We’re sure that any success that might have drifted our way was just luck, not ability.
As we all know, this loathsome mindset is called impostor syndrome. Like the other cranial villains who ambush our occasional positive self-thoughts, impostor syndrome is a common condition. In fact, at least 70 percent of us suffer from it, and I suspect that many of the 30 percenters lied on the study survey.
In this installment of Light at Sea, we will discuss strategies for putting this confidence-killer away for life without possibility of parole.
SENDING THE SYNDROME TO SOLITARY
A short story
In 1976, a Princeton admissions officer, apparently under the influence of something extra-legal, sent me an acceptance letter. Impostor syndrome made short work of my excitement and pride. My classmates were obvious stars. They’d make varsity teams; I’d be cut. They’d get straight A’s in STEM classes; I’d get low C’s in liberal arts. Of course, like most of my irrational fears, very few of these dreadful things came to pass. Ironically, at a reunion 40 years later, one of those stars told me that I, the seemingly cool California tennis player, had intimidated him. Go figure.
In 1980, I managed to dupe the admissions office at USF Law School. Luck got me past the bar exam. Although I became a partner in a law firm where I contributed to a very successful securities litigation practice, impostor syndrome followed me from time to time like a mangy stray cat.
But enough about me (for now).
The downward spiral of impostor syndrome and mental health issues.
While the syndrome itself is not formally classified as a mental health disorder, its gang of symptoms rarely operates on its own. A 2013 article by the American Psychiatric Association acknowledges that the phenomenon “is a very real and specific form of intellectual self-doubt. Impostor feelings are generally accompanied by anxiety and often depression.” Pre-existing mental health conditions, especially depression and anxiety, can contribute to impostor syndrome, which in turn exacerbates those mental health issues. That combination can become a downward cycle of eroding self-confidence and clinical anxiety disorder. So, what’s our next move?
Some counter terror strategies.
Relieve me of the bondage of self. AA third step recovery prayer
The internet is brimming with self-help tips on reducing impostor syndrome. Here are some of my strategies and perspectives. Of course, as I have said before, I am a better talker than walker.
– When I was doing research for this article, I was delighted to stumble across a 2019 Cornell University study on the “liking gap.” The researchers up in Ithaca found that people actually like us considerably more than we think they do. That’s not just my mom saying it; that’s hard science!
– And other folks’ opinions about us are right. You and I deserve to be in this room! We didn’t sneak in through a backdoor that someone forgot to lock. Each of us has a golden ticket bearing our name (correctly spelled) that allows us to walk through the front door, heads held high. The discerning folks who gave us the ticket knew what they were doing. They saw good character and strong ability in us.
– As I have gotten better at evicting the impostor, I have stopped trying to come off as the allegedly smartest person in the room. Instead, I try to be one of the (authentically) nicest. This mindset not only lightens the heart, it is a more gentle path to success, in the most balanced and mindful sense of that charged word.
– Impostors like us often assume that “luck” is the main cause of what we perceive to be our infrequent success. It’s not. Luck is binary. When I flip a coin for ten bucks, my chance of winning is exactly 50/50 on each flip. If those had been my odds of doing well in four schools and four law firms over four decades, I would have fallen by the wayside long ago. Parenthetically, that “failure” undoubtedly would have opened doors into all sorts of good things. That’s a story I will tell next week.
– It’s also important to realize that perfection and excellence are in some important respects quite different. The Quixotic search for perfection, the human equivalent of infinity, is another toxic symptom of impostor syndrome. Try a different route: Fold yourself into the mindful process of embracing the good, while patiently seeking excellence. Leave the paralysis of seeking perfection to that mythical smartest person in the room.
– A quick word on email and texts. My impostor-villain turns up the volume on its PA system to 11 when folks don’t respond to my email messages. “Paging Cam Stout. Please be advised that the people to whom you just sent that raft of emails saw and read them, but they think you’re a loser, and have chosen to banish you to the over-populated Land of Spam.” Chill, Cam. The deluge in the recipients’ inboxes rivals a tsunami. They probably never saw your “urgent” message, and will be grateful for a ping. We will explore all of this bother in “Email is the New Snail Mail,” coming soon to a blog near you.
– Finally, I have found that working in the service of others is an effective antidote to the poison of impostor syndrome. I forget my own self-doubt and anxiety about the future when I turn my focus outward and help others have self-confidence and find quiet pride in their accomplishments.
– We can even help folks to fight off their own impostor myopia: Let’s say that during a 10 am (virtual) coffee break, you ask someone on the Zoom session who reports to you to call at 5 pm “to discuss something.” Without more detail, your colleague’s inner impostor will make him or her really nervous (and unproductive) for the next seven hours. Instead, assuming it will in fact be a positive conversation, be sure to say so at 10 am. “I’d like to talk strategy on that project you are doing such a good job on. Looking forward to touching base later on.”
Au revoir for now, M. L’Imposteur.
May you come to accept and act on Mr. Rogers’ view of you with a lighter heart and a more focused mind. He knew us better than we did all along.
Book: The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame (It ain’t “just” a kid’s book. It is a beautifully written, wonderful portrayal of resilient friendship and loyalty in their purest forms.)
Movie: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (The 1947 original flick starring Danny Kaye)
Quote of the day:
Coming to a blog near you: Fear of Failure is an Impostor.
Excellent thoughts. Thanks Cam!
Love this Cam! I couldn’t even recognize imposter syndrome in myself because instead of thinking I’m an imposter I pretty much assume everybody already thinks I suck and will fire me soon. Ha ha Ha ha ha! But somehow I have made it this far, haven’t I.
Great insight. Revealing the identity and ways of the imposter.
Excellent and relatable article! I experienced this feeling with my very first accounting job fresh out of college. Told my boss on Friday of week 1 that he should fire me. That honest encounter ended up being a positive turning point In my life and one that’s served me well since!
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