In my last post, I wrote a little bit about how impostor syndrome — the belief, most often seen among high achievers, that the only thing you’re good at is pulling the wool over people’s eyes at how big a fraud you are — had driven a hiatus from my blog as well as from other professional pursuits.
For me, impostor syndrome is both generalized and specific. In my head exists a general sense that no matter what I do, I’m probably screwing it up. Between marketing and parenting (and thanks to the latest health research, even sleeping and eating), there’s not a chance I’m getting much of it right — and I won’t even know it for many years to come.
There’s a certain freedom in realizing that everything you do is probably a mistake, but it only works to counteract that generalized fear. The more specific fears are harder to beat, because they go back to the times I’ve actually screwed up.
When you have impostor syndrome, specific mistakes “prove” that you are, in fact, a fraud. If you knew what you were doing, you’d never make them. And too many in a row will make your employers realize what a mistake they made in hiring you. It doesn’t matter if I keep my job that one day. That mistake piles on all the others, and someday it will be enough to bring the whole house down.
In the past, this uncertainty could paralyze me into inaction — a self-fulfilling prophecy. These days — since dietary changes blew away most of the cobwebs, an unintended consequence of fixing physical issues — it’s a lot easier to manage. Having had time and space to reflect, here’s what I’ve learned:
I’ve never felt this way when I wasn’t stretching.
Feeling incompetent doesn’t happen when 90 percent of my daily work consists of things I could do in my sleep. Instead, I’m bored. Given a choice between feeling incompetent and feeling bored, well, I’d definitely rather feel incompetent. It means I’m growing, that I have more things to learn. That I care enough to want to get it right. That other people respect me enough to challenge my intelligence.
There’s a fine line between stretching and self-sabotage.
Part of stretching is leaving your comfort zone. However, when you’re out of your comfort zone so often that you feel like you’re failing pretty much all the time, that’s a signal: you need to find a way to play to your strengths. Sometimes that’s a matter of having a heart-to-heart with your boss about how to be more successful. Other times, it could be a matter of finding a job that’s a better fit.
When mistakes aren’t OK, it’s time to get out.
It’s one thing for bosses to tell you that mistakes are OK to make, how you learn, whatever. It’s another to have the sense that they really aren’t OK. Seeing a colleague fired for a relatively easy-to-make mistake has a way of messing with your head, even many years and positions later.
Find the place that values mistake-making. To quote John Cleese, “I suggest that unless we have a tolerant attitude towards mistakes — I might almost say a positive attitude towards them — we shall be behaving irrationally, unscientifically, and unsuccessfully.”
Do your own thing.
Not at work, obviously. But make sure you’re making time for your own crazy projects. Otherwise, you risk putting too much of your time and energy into everyone else’s projects. Not only will they never have the same vision as you; your vision may also not be what the organization needs. You need an outlet for what you need, which can help you separate yourself from your work and lend better clarity to your professional life.
This is how we bust through impostor syndrome: by telling ourselves, every time we start thinking that what we have to say isn’t as good or isn’t as necessary as what others have already said, that out of all the humans ever to put words on paper, all the possible permutations and combinations and evolutions of the human brain rendering language usage so unpredictable, only one thing is true: it hasn’t been said YET. That’s why we need to say what we need to say.
I’ve learned the uncomfortable truth that impostor syndrome and pride are intimately linked. I feel incompetent when I realize I don’t know as much as I thought I did, and when I realize the answers aren’t as obvious as I want them to be. That’s a sure sign it’s time to ask for help — to humble myself, even to be vulnerable.
This is not an easy task in a world that values self-sufficiency above all: the ability to outsmart, outmaneuver, and outperform peers — we see it, pervasively, in reality television and politics, in our kids’ test scores and gleeful celebrity gossip. We’ve taken competition to an extreme, where we’re obsessed with being “better than,” and it’s making us lose our empathy.
The thing is, impostor syndrome and its big brother, perfectionism, make you focus on yourself even when you think you’re focusing on others — your kids, your workmates, your friends. Fear of screwing it all up can make you stop trying out of self-pity, and that can have the exact same effect as extreme competition.
I may not get much right in life. No one does. If that makes me an authentic impostor, then I’m okay (and probably a lot happier) with that.