Definition from Wikipedia
Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a "fraud".
I learnt about Impostor Syndrome (IS) several years ago. After having a colleague explain it to me and doing a bit of research I presented a series of conference presentations and panels on the subject in Melbourne, LA and San Francisco. One of the key things I discovered in my research is that it is very wide spread, it effects almost every industry, it is common in both men and women and it effects some of the most famous and accomplished people on the planet. Essentially, Impostor Syndrome can and does effects people from all walks of life.
Like other issues that effect people it also has differing degrees of severity from person to person and can even have differing degrees of effect on the individual from day to day. It is important to understand the potential impact that Impostor Syndrome can have on an individual, but it is also important to understand that perhaps not all the consequences of IS have to be negative. The best way to deal with anything that effects how we function as a human is to understand the limitations that might be in play, but also work out if there is anything you can turn to your advantage.
No one would choose to be blind, but many that have found themselves blind have discovered a new focus on their other senses can allow them to experience the world in unique and valuable ways. This obviously does not mitigate the impact of the blindness, but it allows the individual to focus on a life still rich with experience. Humans can be incredibly adaptive.
People who do not experience Impostor Syndrome may not fully understand the effect it can have on others. The common assumption is that someone experiencing IS just feels unworthy or that their work is not good enough. Obviously, an unpleasant feeling, but does it really effect an individual’s life. The answer to that is yes and often in very significant ways.
If you believe the work you do and the things you have accomplished are far less valuable than they actually are then you are less likely to apply for a job that you might be very qualified to do, you are less likely to ask for a raise that you may very much deserve and in general you can hinder your own career growth. Very few of us have someone else to champion our cause in our careers, we have to seek out promotion and pay rise, we have to sell our skills and ourselves when we apply for a job with a new company. These days often promotion only comes from bouncing from company to company every few years.
I think we all know someone who lacks confidence in themselves or will convince themselves that they would not get the job they just applied for even though they would be amazing at the job itself. The unfair reality of modern business is that we not only need to be good at a job, we also need to be good at the interview skills that get us that job.
The not so Bad
One aspect of impostor syndrome that I have heard about in my industry is that it can keep the ego in check. Often too much in check, but this still has an up-side. I work in the entertainment industry and this is an industry that does have some folk who are very “confident” in their own skills and abilities. There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance and as much as downplaying your skills might undermine a job interview, being overly arrogant will often have the same result. This example is a little bit “silver-lining” the experience of impostor syndrome, but it is still important to understand that not every aspect of it is negative. And some aspects can be positive in certain circumstances.
I likely suffered from Impostor Syndrome long before I even knew it existed. I could not say how long it may have affected me, and I am also aware that certain cultural expectations can influence the extent to which IS plays out in each individual. Australians, for instance, are far more reserved in how they describe themselves compared to Americans, and many European and Asian cultures completely avoid the individual singing their own praises. So it can be tricky to know if “shyness” is from IS or cultural conditioning. Regardless of your background or personal exposure to IS I have realised there is one significant aspect of IS that for me has become quite positive. It makes me work my butt off!
As a consequence of not feeling quite “good enough” or feeling “not as talented” as my colleagues, I have spent most of my life trying to gain ground on those that I perceive as being ahead of me talent wise. As a result, I have pushed myself constantly to improve my skills, broaden my skill-set and basically compensate for my perceived short-comings. I honestly wonder if I would have been so driven if I did not feel that level of unworthiness.
I have ended up as somewhat of a Jack of all trades within my specific field. I think that is a result of feeling a need to learn more to make myself more valuable. Ambition is not a negative trait, it is a force that motivate us to work hard and even excel at what we do. It is not always about money. As I have matured I have discovered a desire to accomplish things for their own sake and less because fame and fortune may follow. That is certainly a consequence of getting older and wiser, but I also think the drive that came from Impostor Syndrome may have contributed.
As I worked to broaden my skills to “compensate” I also discovered more aspects of my career that I enjoy. A broader skill set has allowed me to work on a far wider range of projects than I ever might have and from this I have discovered the joy of working on various things simply for the sake of it. So what might have started as an attempt to be “worthy” has resulted in significant satisfaction in what I am capable of doing.
We cannot affect how we feel, but maybe we can affect how we will respond
Great care needs to be taken when speaking about issues that effect how people function. You would not tell someone with two broken legs to just “walk it off”. But in the same way that time spent in a wheelchair while legs heal may have the benefit of increasing upper body strength there can be “silver linings” to mental and emotional issues. With all things it is how we respond to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. The benchmark is not comparing ourselves with others, but to ourselves.
First I didn’t not know about impostor syndrome, then I understood that it affected me. Later I worried that it I might be handicapping myself, then I accepted that I will be who I will be. But now I realise I am able to take things that one step further and find benefit in a trait that many might see as purely negative.
Impostor Syndrome is a very real thing and at times it can cripple you with self-doubt. Over the years I have composed live orchestral scores, written books, presented at conferences around the globe, been asked to join teams of incredibly talented people and worked for some of the biggest companies in the world. And yet I can still find myself hesitant to apply for a job because my internal voices will try to convince me I am unqualified. If I do end up feeling proud of something I have accomplished that can often be pushed down by those same inner voices for fear of seeming arrogant.
A quick google search will provide a list of incredibly talented people from many and varied industries who also identify with effects of IS. But like most conditions both mental and physical it is how we respond to the effects that can influence the ultimate results.
I do not consider Impostor Syndrome to be a positive. It is not pleasant to always feel your work lacks value, and the lack of confidence can have significant effects on someone’s career. But finding any benefit from such an effect can go a great way to helping the individual cope with the various negative issues. There are various quotes that say “We cannot control how we feel, we can only control how we respond to those feelings”
Stephan Schütze has been recording sounds for over twenty years. This journal logs his thoughts and experiences