What If I Really AM an Impostor?

Dear Dr. Young,

For me, it’s always been about achieving success when I have no business doing so.

That’s not to say that I exploit others, far from it!

Instead, it’s that I shouldn’t be in the position I am in because I don’t know these things, I don’t have the degrees, and I don’t have the experience.

When asked by the team or higher-ups what I think our next move is, I tell them what I think we should do, and the suggestion is met with high praise and acclaim!

But I have no idea how to lead a team and I shouldn’t because I don’t understand this stuff!

I have told them that I don’t understand it and that they should stop bringing me into higher and higher meetings.

But they laugh and say, ‘We need you in there.’

I go in, I succeed, and it scares the crap out of me! 

I don’t belong here, and it’s only a matter of time until they all realize it. 

I am charismatic, I speak with confidence, I am passionate, I am intelligent, but I am a fraud.

I don’t FEEL these things, I KNOW these things.

And this is the first time I have really written it down. So thanks for that.

Dear Brian,

I’m not surprised it felt good to put your own feelings into words.

After all, there can be so much (needless) shame associated with impostor syndrome.

The first thing you need to know is this:

Just because you “feel” like an impostor doesn’t mean you “are” an impostor.

But you are thinking like an impostor.

And herein lies your real “problem.” Let me explain…

To unlearn impostor syndrome, you need to learn to think like someone who is, like you, competent but, unlike you, has never felt like an impostor.

I call this person a Humble Realist™

In the mind of the “impostor,” gifts that come naturally to us — in your case, seeing solutions others may not — are the very skills we dismiss. 

After all, we think, “If I can do it… how hard can it be?”

Plus in your case, you feel like you’re basically “winging it.”

But here’s the part you’re missing:

Organizations don’t promote people entirely based on what they’ve done in the past.

They also consider what they have the capacity to do in the future.

In other words, advancement has a lot to do with potential.

The leaders in your company trust that you have three things:

1) the basic skill sets to handle the job

2) temperament to manage and inspire people

3) the ability to figure out how to manage a team or do all sorts of things you’ve never done.

Take the case of a company in the food industry that hires a new CIO from an insurance company.

They didn’t hire this executive for their industry know-how.

They hired them because they know they bring leadership skills and the capacity to understand the business side of things as they go.

The same applies to you.

You see, like most people with impostor syndrome, you’re under the misguided assumption that “If I were really competent, then I’d feel more confident.”

This is not true.

Denzel Washington has won two Academy Awards.

Yet, of his experience standing in the wings waiting to go out on the Broadway stage, he said, “If you don’t have that ‘what the hell am I doing here moment’, it’s time to hang it up.” Humble Realists understand that a certain amount of fear, uncertainty, and self-doubt goes with the achievement territory. With any new role, I recommend you give yourself permission to feel off base for the first 3-6 months.  As for not knowing how to be a leader…  I spent a decade in the corporate world – seven in management. So I know from experience that few people go into management knowing how to manage a team. Yes, you can read books on leadership, get a leadership coach, or attend a training program.  In fact, I suggest you do. Be aware, however, that even with all this, you’re unlikely to feel the kind of confidence you assume you should have.  As Howard Schultz, Starbucks’ chair, president, and CEO put it:   “Very few people, whether you’ve been in that job before or not, get into the seat and believe today that they are now qualified to be the CEO. They’re not going to tell you that, but it’s true.” The impostor mindset expects to step into a new job or role and hit the ground running. Humble Realists understand that’s not how competence works. The more you do anything, the better you get. Besides, you said you’re charismatic and speak with confidence. Your organization understands that people feel more comfortable following someone who is confident. I’m not talking about “faking it.” Sometimes, we all must act and project more confidence than we truly feel. As importantly, you’re failing to see the valid role your personality has played in your success. In other words, personality is not an excuse for your success. Personality is a legitimate skill set.

I’ve interviewed plenty of people.

Trust me, all things being equal, or indeed even when one candidate is less experienced, the one with the better personality will probably get hired.

After all, everyone wants to spend 40-60 hours a week with someone who is personable. 

The bottom line: You are no impostor Brian.

So repeat after me: The only way to stop feeling like an impostor is to stop thinking like an impostor.

If you have a question about impostor syndrome/phenomenon, send it to support@impostorsyndrome.com 

VALERIE YOUNG is a global thought leader on impostor syndrome and co-founder of Impostor Syndrome Institute. In 1983 she designed the first training intervention to impostor syndrome and has since delivered her Rethinking Impostor Syndrome™ program to over half a million people around the world at such diverse organizations as Pfizer, Google, JP Morgan, NASA, and the National Cancer Institute and at over 100 universities including Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and Oxford.

Valerie earned her doctoral degree from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she was the founding coordinator of the Social Justice Education program, a forerunner to today’s DE&I training. Although her early research focused on professional women—over half of whom were women of color—much of the original findings have proven applicable to anyone with impostor feelings. Her book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: And Men, Why Capable People Suffer from Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It has been reprinted in six languages.

Click here now to learn how you can bring Valerie in to speak at your organization.

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