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Wait till I am Found out.. Imposterism, the curse of not being good enough

, November 5, 2014, 0 Comments

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Akhilesh was a very vexed man. The reason… he was to be promoted as a Director for Enterprise Business in an Information and Technology Enabled Services. With his outstanding domain understanding and exceptional people skills, this was hardly a surprise to others. But Akhilesh was very nervous.

His belief about himself was that he had been sheer lucky all this while to get a great start with his career, crack deals in spite of the economic slowdown and surge ahead. He would dread when people addressed him as an expert and would wince at compliments from top bosses. He was sure that one day someone high and mighty would realize that he was a hoax and after all a wrong hire…

Does this sound familiar to you? Technically, this belief is coined as Imposter syndrome or imposterism where people feel they do not deserve what they stand for. They have a strong sense of self doubt and a constant feeling of inadequacy nagging. They are almost convinced that have been over-valued by others and would soon be found out. The term was first used by Pauline Clance and Suzzanne Imes who observed this phenomenon in high achieving women who were unable to attribute their success to internal elements.

Take Radha for instance who was an excellent PR professional and was quickly identified by the agency to head the premium customer league created by the agency. This news rattled Radha completely. She took it as a threatening signal of getting exposed and decided to retreat before being proved to be a fake. The next job that she took up was with a smaller firm with a lesser volume of work and more average client list. Her superior working style however put her in a limelight in the new assignment in less than 6 months and she was once again faced with the challenge of an accelerated promotion. Much to her dismay, she once again started battling with the feeling of incompetence.

People suffering from Imposterism are generally very talented and high achieving and may find themselves rising quickly in the ranks and files of the organization. However they are caught up in their own internal war and are unable to put their devils of insecurity, fear and inadequacy to rest.

Oftentimes Imposterism is seen to be accompanied by Perfectionism. An article in the Harvard Business Review, The dangers of Feeling like a fake, describes the deep connect between the two phenomena. People with a feeling of being an imposter generally set very high standards and goals for themselves and therefore keeping working very hard to achieve these. In that sense imposterism is not completely bad. It helps people excel through school, college and career and may enhance achievement and productivity.

However, most often perfectionism is looked at as a way of diluting the impact of their “fraudulent thriving” in the system. This does not change their internal “I am not Ok” script rendering to a lot of automatic negative thoughts (ANTS), further pushing one in a workaholic mode. To summarize in the words of sociologist Brené Brown, “if perfectionism is driving you, then shame is riding shotgun”.

So how do you tackle with the Imposter syndrome?

Define and Visualize Success realistically

A realistic perspective of “what does success mean to me and to my organization?” becomes a starting healthy point of setting rational goals and action plan.

Own the positives and acknowledge the work in progress

There is no harm in having some work in progress boards in life. The neurotic need of being a master of all trades is not only absurd but also energy sapping and futile.

Get down the validation merry-go round

Seeking constant validation only creates a momentary satisfaction without changing the internal self doubts and insecurities. It’s best to stop being a candidate for a life time and become a traveler in the voyage of the unconquered.

Be prepared for the roller coaster ride of “Not OK” to “OK” back to “Not OK”

The imposter feeling can best be looked at as a phase with a reminder of “this too shall pass”. An anticipation and acknowledgement its cyclic nature would greatly reduce the chance of falling a prey to those thoughts and help you one through.

“Always be a first rate version of yourself and not a second rate version of someone else.”

This famous quote of Actress and Singer Judy Garland prods us towards self acceptance and actualization. People with imposterism may spend a number of their wakeful hours comparing their inside with others’ outside, but in vain.

A neighbor’s garden is not always that green

People with an imposter syndrome may fail to acknowledge that other successful people around them may have also gone through similar feeling of not being good enough. Research proves that 70% of the people feel this way some time or the other. So we are not alone in this feeling of “I don’t deserve to belong here”. The important thing is what you do after you encounter such a feeling:

  1. Politicize and try to cover the feeling of inadequacy with manipulative moves and political networking
  2. Pressurize yourself to perform at unreasonable levels and plan for emotional doom or
  3. Pledge yourself to leverage your positives, correct the negative and own success.

Too summarize, all of us may start with a feeling of being an imposter at some stage in life. What is important is to not make it a permanent place of dwelling, believe in our ability to make a difference to whatever we do and enjoy the journey of excellence rather than lament in the journey of perfection.