Have you ever felt like a fraud? Or, you've at least felt like you were in over your head in your job?
I know that I used to feel that way. I suffered with it for such a long time.
I didn’t actively try to eliminate the impostor syndrome that continually lurked in the back of my mind for several decades. However, recently, when I tentatively reached inward to touch it, I found that it was surprisingly gone.
This happened sometime during the past few years, but it took a bit of thinking to understand why.
First, let’s talk about why so many of us experience it. The condition was first identified in 1978 by the psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. It has been estimated that 70% of people feel like an impostor at some point in their careers.
However, I think it all begins long before we enter the working world. It may reach all new heights as you progress in your career, but it starts much earlier than that. Impostor syndrome doesn’t suddenly appear overnight.
It starts the moment in childhood when we were first told — and started believing — that we were somehow not enough.
That who you are is not sufficient or acceptable. That you would need to be someone different to fit in, be accepted, and make friends. That you would need to behave and be perceived in a certain way to be successful.
So, you began creating layers of camouflage and defense:
- This layer makes me look smart.
- This layer helps me make friends.
- This layer protects me from bullies.
- This layer is how successful people look and behave.
- This layer is what everyone expects from me.
In their book, If I’m So Successful, Why Do I Feel Like a Fake? The Impostor Phenomenon, Harvey and Katz called out three indicators of imposter syndrome:
- "Believing that one has fooled others into overestimating one’s own abilities."
- "Attributing personal success to factors other than one’s ability or intelligence, such as luck, extra work, charisma, or evaluator’s misjudgment."
- "Fearing exposure as an imposter."
The cycle of feeling like an impostor and dismissing your successes typically follows this pattern:
- You’re faced with a big and important task.
- You doubt yourself and your ability to succeed at this task.
- You’re a perfectionist and fear to fail at the task.
- So, you procrastinate because you feel overwhelmed.
- But, you pull it together at the last minute and work like crazy to get it done under immense time pressure, stress, and anxiety.
- Surprisingly, the task turns out well, and you’re successful.
- But, you don’t believe that you deserve success. It only happened because you worked like crazy at the last minute and got lucky.
- You feel like there is no way you can repeat this success, so the cycle starts again with the next task.
The 5 truths
I’ve been on a journey of personal career transformation for the past 10+ years, ever since I left my last corporate exec job in Silicon Valley Tech. I want to tell you that I left my impostor syndrome behind when I left the corporate world behind. But that’s not true, unfortunately.
Instead, it accelerated and climbed to all new heights as I began pursuing a new career as a strategic advisor and founding my own tech startup. I raised $1.3M in funding, incorporated the company, became the CEO, hired a team, and immediately experienced the crushing weight of feeling like I was in over my head.
Of course, I really was, as any honest startup founder will tell you. But, the impostor syndrome made the gut-wrenching fear, doubt, and anxiety almost unbearable. The good news is the startup failed.
Wait… That was bad news.
Believe me, shutting down the startup was one of the saddest moments in my life. I went through a long period of darkness, as many founders do. I should have been honest about that and talked with someone. But I didn’t.
* Let me take a moment and tell you that you shouldn’t suffer through something like that alone, and you don’t need to at all. There are online resources to get help.
The silver lining of this experience (i.e., the good news) is that it forced me to completely reevaluate what I wanted to do with my career and life. Should I try again and spin up another startup? That’s the Silicon Valley Cinderella story we all love to read.
Should I even stay in Tech? I had invested more than 2 decades in that career path, so leaving it seemed insane. But, should I set that all aside and go deep on what I really wanted for my life, if I could live anywhere that I wanted, doing what I really wanted to do?
I came face to face with myself, looked deep inside, and thought long and hard about who I really was. Not who I wanted to be. Not who I may have aspired to be, or even pretended to be. Not the layers upon layers of “me” that I had developed since childhood.
I dug deep until I got to who I really am at my core, what I’ve always enjoyed doing. What I’ve always been good at doing. Who I was before people began telling me who I should be. Also, admitting what I suck at doing and what I simply don’t enjoy doing. Ever. No more pretending.
I’m sharing my five core truths/strengths/talents to explain why I think that accepting these and centering my career on them made my impostor syndrome vanish. Obviously, we all have different natural talents, strengths, and interests. Your core truths about who you are will be unique to you. So, don’t focus too much on what mine are.
But, here is the key point: someone else’s recognition or praise doesn’t generate the core truths about yourself. They can’t be taken away by someone else’s criticism either. Failure doesn’t affect them.
They are neither good nor bad. They don’t have some rating or score associated with them.
They simply exist. They simply are.
1. I’m an explorer
I enjoy the new. I’ve always explored and gone farther. I’ve never thought to score or rate myself as an explorer. Is that even a thing? I don’t know. I don’t care. It simply gives me joy.
It’s been a part of who I am, from the youngest age. I remember going on field trips with my class and getting in trouble with my teacher. I would get too far ahead of the group. I would go too far. I wouldn’t want to turn back when it was time to leave.
Whenever I travel and land in a new city, I drop off my bags, and then I start walking. I walk and explore, with no particular destination. I walk for hours and hours, sometimes until very late at night. I want to explore and experience the city. The real city.
2. I’m a learner
I’m not saying that I’m a good learner or a bad learner. I simply enjoy learning, and it is what I do. It is what I’ve always done, as far back as I can remember.
I’m a voracious reader. I have eclectic interests. I’m a jack of all trades. I like to learn. It isn’t subject to someone else’s approval. It isn’t a good or bad thing.
Yes, I was that weird kid who would walk to the library through the snow and spend hours reading, sitting in a big chair by the fireplace. I was the kid who always had too many books checked out.
I’m that adult who is seriously considering going back to college again. I enjoyed the experience of learning that much. Maybe that makes me a freak. But I’m at the point in my life that I no longer care if people think I’m a freak.
3. I’m relentless
I’m persistent to the point of being quite stubborn (just ask my wife). When I discover something new and start learning it, I can’t stop. I go deep. I become obsessed. I want to learn everything I possibly can about it. It’s probably why I ended up with a Ph.D. in Psychology. I’ve always been fascinated by how human beings think and behave.
This persistence has made me relentless with my work and problem solving too. There have been times that I simply couldn’t stop working on something until I solved the problem. I would forget to eat. I wouldn’t sleep.
Many might see this as a bad thing. Some might see it as a good thing. In the end, it doesn’t matter. It’s just who I am. I’ve accepted that it won’t change. It can’t be taken away.
4. I’m a teacher
Until recently, I never would have described myself as a “teacher.” I’ve never had a job as a teacher, and it has never been an official part of any of my roles. But, it has certainly become central to what I’m doing now as a career advisor. I guess that it’s always been there waiting for me, but it took me decades to recognize and embrace it.
Of course, people can be considered to be excellent or poor instructors. But that’s not the point. It’s just something I’ve always done in my personal life, and it always crept into my life at school and work too.
I can’t help myself. I explore, learn, go deep, and then I want to tell others what I’ve discovered. I want to teach people what I’ve learned. I’ve found that this is useful and interesting for some people who appreciate and need help.
I’ve also found that my behavior is extremely annoying for other people who don’t want to hear about my latest discovery and don’t want to be “taught.” Again, ask my wife about this.
She’s been the unfortunate recipient of this behavior for over 28 years. But, she’s also the one who helped me recognize what I should do with this core truth about myself.
5. I seek justice
No, I’m not Batman (I wish). I’m not talking about pursuing criminals and delivering swift justice. And I have no desire to become a lawyer or judge.
I’m talking about the justice and fairness we witness in our daily lives. I deeply believe that good, decent, and kind people deserve better. I also believe that malicious, manipulative, and deceitful people don’t deserve to profit from their selfish behavior.
This is one of the biggest problems I had with working in large corporations. It drove me crazy to witness the Machiavellians' political maneuvers in the office — using deceit and exploitation to get ahead.
Now, I get to work with good people who have run into issues with the bad ones at work. They struggle to be recognized and succeed. It makes me angry when good people like this have to deal with a string of bad bosses and toxic coworkers. This is also why I now do what I do.
Accepting this about myself also helped eliminate my impostor syndrome. I no longer have to pretend to be some heartless exec who is ok with good people getting laid off while some jackass gets promoted. Working with good people 100% on their behalf allows me to embrace this core truth about myself and live up to it.
Does talking about my truths seem like I’m bragging about them? I hope not. I don’t see them as anything special. In fact, numerous people in my life have complained about them. I didn’t ask for them. I didn’t cultivate them. They’ve just been a part of me for my entire life.
I set them aside, ignored them, and didn’t even recognize them until recently. But, looking deep inside and recognizing these truths changed me. I stopped trying to be what I was not and would never be. Instead, I focused on creating a life and career that could be centered on them.
Why my impostor syndrome disappeared
You’ll notice that none of my core truths were about being some genius, a wildly successful billionaire, or the world’s greatest leader. No one would ever compare me to Elon Musk or Steve Jobs. Most importantly, I no longer compare myself to someone like that either. Or anyone else, for that matter.
My core truths just are what they are — flaws and all. They aren’t particularly impressive. I don’t need to pretend about them. I don’t need to prop them up. I’m honest about them.
Impostor syndrome exists when you fear that your lack of amazing talent or abilities will be discovered. Maybe it’s part of growing older. Maybe it’s part of leaving my past career behind.
However, I no longer fear being exposed as lacking talent because I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the smartest or most talented person in the room. I’m ok with that. That’s not the value I bring to my relationships with others.
I’ve survived. I’ve made mistakes, and I’ve learned. I’ve found my way around obstacles to achieve goals (that relentless thing again). I’ve had enough success that even I finally had to admit that it couldn’t all be due to luck.
I’ve had a good life, and I’m happy. I’ve figured out how this crazy working world works, and now I really just want to help others make their way through it so that they can be happy too.
How to deal with your Impostor Syndrome
It’s not unlikely that 70% of you reading this have suffered from impostor syndrome. Maybe it comes and goes. Maybe it makes you feel sick to your stomach every time you achieve some success, and you still feel like the whole facade is going to come crashing down.
If you feel this way, I’m going to ask you to take some time to invest in understanding yourself.
Stop defining yourself by who you think you should be or the expectations others have placed on you. Stop letting yourself be judged by talents and skills that you secretly feel you don’t really have.
Instead, center yourself on the deep truths that have been core to who you are for as long as you can remember. Think back on your life.
Reach back into your childhood to see the patterns. Talk with friends and loved ones who have known you for a very, very long time.
Your truths will reveal themselves as consistent threads that keep cropping up in how you work, live, and interact with others. They are a part of defining you as “you.”
They aren’t necessarily good or bad. They aren’t granted by anyone else. They can’t be assessed or measured by anyone else. They just are.
And that is the secret to eliminating impostor syndrome. Center yourself on who you truly are. Be radically honest about your strengths, talents, weaknesses, and flaws. It’s ok to be a normal human being. Really.
Discard the labels and assessments being used to try to measure you by what you really are not. You can’t be revealed as an impostor for something you no longer define yourself as being. It is incredibly liberating.
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
I’m not saying that you don’t need other knowledge, skills, and experience to do your job well. Of course, you do. We all do.
But, they don’t have to define you. That’s an important distinction.
Your manager’s assessment of these skills — good or bad — should have no impact on your own sense of worth. The knowledge and skills are helpful and useful tools. But they are not who you are.
I’m also not saying that you don’t need to make a good impression on others if you want them to hire you. But you don’t need to be fake.
Being fake might get you in the door, but maintaining that facade will make you miserable. You’ll be much happier in your next role when it maps closely to your core truths and who you really are.
Do you have any other tips for managing and eliminating impostor syndrome? There’s no reason for any of us to suffer with it any longer.