The fear that others will discover that you have been bluffing your way through is very real.
Every day intelligent, competent people drop out of school, take jobs far below their true abilities and aspirations, and allow long-held creative or entrepreneurial dreams to wither all in an attempt to avoid detection. These are of course the extreme cases. Most people who identify with the impostor syndrome don’t give up or give in. Like you, they press on in spite of the persistent self-doubt to get the degree, advance in their field, take on the challenge, and by and large succeed, sometimes spectacularly so.
Still the anxiety of waiting for the other shoe to drop remains.
I’ve spent the last quarter of a century talking to people in the “Impostor Club.” I’ve learned so much about them that at this point I probably know these parts of yourself better than you do.
But there’s something else I know. Namely, there’s another story here too. And the other story is that deep down you really do know you’re smart – or at least smart enough. Although you may sometimes hold back or overcompensate for your feelings of ineptness, somewhere hidden deep within you is the equally certain knowledge that you can do just about anything you really set your mind to.
This other story is so well hidden that it can be somewhat unbeknownst even to you. At the same time that you feel like you’re faking everyone out, there exists a parallel secret. Namely, that buried under all the debris of self-doubt is the certain knowledge that you are infinitely capable. In your heart of hearts you know you are no impostor.
Let me explain. A widely reported study by psychologists at Wake Forest University found that sometimes people who “say” they feel like frauds are secretly more confident than they let on. The researchers came to this conclusion by asking undergraduate students to predict how well they thought they would do on a test on intellectual and social skills.
When students were told their predictions would be made anonymously, those who scored high for impostor feelings and those who scored low both thought they had a good chance of doing well. But, when students with strong impostor scores knew their test results would be seen by someone else they tended to lower their self-assessments. This led psychologists to conclude that for some, the impostor phenomenon is really just a self-deprecating strategy intended to take the pressure off. This does not deny that your impostor feelings aren’t real. They are. Even the researchers were quick to point out that it would be “unwarranted to brush impostorism aside as merely a self-presentation strategy.”
Lowering expectations in advance is a common way to save face in the event of a poor performance and take the pressure off. Political strategists worried that their candidate may fare poorly in a debate use this strategy all the time. It makes sense that if you don’t think you can live up to other people’s expectations then it makes sense that you’d try to protect yourself by minimizing expectations. “Better to play small,” you decide, “than to risk humiliation.” Plus, you get extra points for being modest.
But rather than conclude as these researchers did, that such people are in effect “phony phonies,” perhaps what we are really seeing is the other side of impostorism. What the study may have indeed revealed was the other part of you, however small and inconsistent, that secretly knows you are smart, you are capable, you can do it. It’s just that when, like the subjects in this study, you know that your abilities – and therefore “you” – will be measured and judged then you begin to second guess yourself.
That’s when your louder and more insistent impostor story line muscles its way in to say, “Wait a minute, maybe I’m really not that smart after all.” In other words, perhaps what these findings of private self-confidence and public self-doubt really reflect is the competing voices of self-judgment. And, up until now that is, you’ve let the self-doubting impostor side of story has gotten the best of you.
I would love to hear your response to the Other Impostor Secret and the other side of YOUR story!