Mike Myers once quipped that, “At any time I still expect that the no- talent police will come and arrest me.” Myers is just one of the millions of accomplished people who feel like impostors, fakes, and frauds. At its heart, the impostor syndrome, as it’s commonly known, refers to people who have a persistent belief in their lack of intelligence, skills, or competence. They are convinced that other people’s praise andrecognition of their accomplishments is undeserved, chalking up their achievements to chance, charm, connections and other external factors. Unable to internalize or feel deserving of their success, they continually doubt their ability to repeat past successes. When they do succeed they feel relief rather than joy.
If you believe that up until now you’ve somehow managed to fool people into thinking you’re smarter or more talented than you “really” are then what’s your number one fear going to be? Being found out, right? Perpetually waiting to be “outed” as an impostor is stressful and exhausting. So naturally you have to find ways to manage the stress of being found guilty of the crime of impersonating a competent person.
There are a number of ways “impostors” unconsciously protect themselves from being found out. For example you may avoid asking questions or otherwise keep a low profile in meetings for fear that if you spoke up people would see how little you know. Another way to dodge those you believe have overestimated your abilities is to make yourself a moving target. So in college you regularly switch majors or research topics or you become a perpetual job hopper or career changer —not as a logical career move but as a defense mechanism. I once read about a hospital president who was in the habit of moving on every three years because that was about the amount of time he figured it would take the current board to be on to him.
With so many people feeling perpetually caught between a clock and a hard place these days, there’s one protecting strategy that’s easy to miss – over-working. But if deep down you believe everyone around you is inherently more intelligent or capable, then it makes sense that you may try to avoid detection by relying on extraordinary effort to cover up your supposed ineptness. To be clear: This is different from good old- fashioned hard work. No one gets to where she is without working for it, and that includes you. What we’re talking about here is, for example, obsessing about every aspect of a minor presentation or studying and restudying material you have already mastered, behavior that is driven by the belief that the only reason you’re successful is because of your Herculean effort.
It’s a hard cycle to break because in addition to protecting you, this strategy actually contributes to your success. When you stay later, work harder, or practice longer than the people around you, obviously you have greater chance of doing well. So in that regard, diligence does “work.” However, the anxiety that fuels your behavior remains untouched. That certainly was Joyce Roché’s experience. The former president and CEO
of Girls Inc., grew up one of eleven children in a working- class family. After earning her graduate degree from Columbia University, she quickly became a rising star at Avon and Revlon. To go so far so fast in the 1970s was remarkable for any woman. It was even more so for an African American.
Looking back on the fourteen- hour days she put in as she ascended to senior management, Roché realized that the reason the glow of success wore off so soon was that “somewhere, deep inside, you don’t believe what they say . . . The threat of failure scares you into these long hours. Yet success only intensifies the fear of discovery.”
Once you’re on the workaholic treadmill, it’s terribly hard to get off because you believe it’s the sole reason for your success. It’s also self- reinforcing. Since you do over prepare, you often turn out a stellar performance — which in turn reinforces your drive to maintain that perfect record.
You may be left to wonder, Who doesn’t feel overworked these days? If you’re having trouble telling whether your own pattern of over-preparation and hard work is simply what the situation calls for or if it’s doing double duty to cover for your impostorism, apply the gut test. If it’s telling you, “That’s me!” trust that it is.
Trust too that if you do identify with the impostor syndrome you’re not doomed to living life trying to outrun the no-talent police. Some years later Roché was asked to contribute to a book called What I Know Now. In her letter to her younger self she offers some pointed advice that could just as easily be directed at you: “Stop. It. Now. You’re not an impostor. You’re the genuine article. You have brainpower. You have the ability. You don’t have to work so hard and worry so much. You’re going to do just fine. You deserve a place at the table. So relax and enjoy your success.”
Do you ever feel like you’re an ‘Impostor” in the workplace? Do you know someone who feels this way? Share your story in the comments below.