Imposter Syndrome: How to Tell if you're Really as Fake as you Feel

Have you ever been overwhelmed by the feeling that you 'just do not know enough' to stand and be counted in your own field? That it's only a matter of ticking time until you are exposed as a terrible fraud?

You are not alone.

This could be Imposter Syndrome. 

Imposter Syndrome has become a rather trendy term recently with all the pop psychologists and armchair coaches jumping on it to show off their brilliant trending insight. However, as always I'd like to take a much closer look because although Google will yield many results for the term, no-one (at least to my satisfaction) is addressing this from a particularly authentic point of deep understanding - the experience of Imposter Syndrome is far more nuanced than most appear to comprehend. 

Perhaps this is because it's trendy - and so it's talked about in an iterative way. Perhaps it's also because, as you will see, there is a parallel problem that requires understanding real self-doubt, not the kind an 'imposter talking about Imposter Syndrome' might have... 

Now, honestly I'm not meaning to speak in riddles so read on for the true insight you need.

Imposter Syndrome is the crushing feeling that you are an alien or invader in your own playground. That somehow, despite years of study, practice, insight, work, investment, effort, blood, sweat and tears, you are mistaken. That you are quite frankly fraudulent in your identity as an expert or leader in your field/ genre; an imposter.  There is a kind of ironic truism in here that I believe is experienced:  the more you know about something, the more you realise that you know almost nothing! 

I would like to point out the hidden irony here - that in feeling like you do not know enough, it may be the case that you actually know so much that you truly understand the scale and scope before you. That you recognise that you will be a forever learner. That yo have deep respect for your subject and may well be in the position of wanting to know more - but failing to realise you also know more about your subject than pretty much anyone else.

 

To make matters more complicated, in tandem to underestimating your own expertise, you are likely to be simultaneously over-estimating the knowledge and expertise of others. A bi-directional de-valuing of the self and simultaneously, will of course lead to a vast and rapidly growing schism of confidence where you perhaps feel like hiding entirely.

Imposter Syndrome is exhausting and distracting for the individual but also, it is a collective issue because it interrupts and even prevents progress. It can break the individuals who make up a chain of breakthrough, one link at a time. One player down can floor a team. There is also potential for a knock-on domino effect of whole industries crashing just like the stock market does when 'confidence' is lost.

Remember that 'imposter talking about Imposter Syndrome' ? Read on...

In a kind of contrast to Imposter Syndrome there is something we are all familiar with I'm sure, something that has irritated you to your core at some point in your life. It's the subtle basis of many satirical comedy characters such as David Brent (or Michael Scott) from The Office.

It's called the Dunning-Kruger effect (DKE), named after two 90s psychologists, Dunning and Kruger, who researched the link between self-awareness and incompetence in the workplace.

The DKE is where someone who has a little bit of knowledge or experience in something vastly over-estimates their competence to act on it. It’s a genuine belief about themselves, it's not a 'front' for marketing purposes so it's not 'lie' per se. This 'authentic delusion' makes it all the trickier to spot.

What's worse is that it is totally possible for Dunning Kruger Effect to be a collaborative delusion - think of the many self-supporting social circles that only seem to include people who agree. They create a loop of  validation and thus reinforce their beliefs in their imaginary expertise and leadership. The upshot is that the established knowledge is left out of consideration and the genuine expertise denied to the point of being compromised. Drowned out by louder voicer of confidence over content.

"I know that I know nothing"
- Socrates

I'm sure you will have seen this unfold for yourself - perhaps online or in your workplace. 

What if I am that DK Doofus?!

If you are like me, then you may now be worrying... 'what if I am that Dunning  Kruger cringe fest?! WHAAAAA! 

Well, be reassured. I have figured this out for us. I say this with confidence too - confidence that I'm sure isn't misplaced!

Firstly: The DKE is all about a distinct lack of self-awareness.  This means that DKE people are highly unlikely to be genuinely doubting themselves (even though they may claim to have Imposter Syndrome! Remember it's trendy coaching chat and it is possible they meet a real expert and have a wobble!). It's so throughly ironic, right?

Secondly: It is very easy to become overwhelmed by the sudden appearance of loads of ‘experts’ online. Over-valuing others' expertise  - and therefore down-grading your own - is very easy when they are telling you to do exactly that.

Separating the herd and hoard

Imposter Syndrome is likely to be quietly burning away in the form of mounting anxiety (as though it's a secret),in stark contrast to someone who seems to be using it as an advert or accolade of expertise ('I'm so awesome it's shame I doubt myself').

Imposter Syndrome would be manifest in a person's behaviour, fuelled by their thoughts and feelings.  They may be showing up less, becoming hesitant to engage with others or take new risks and opportunities. They will likely be avoiding their planned activities and procrastinate around showing others their work and stuck in endless cycles of editing and checking. Inside their head there would be very critical self-talk too.

Yet many who publicly declare their Imposter Syndrome, don't show any of these signs, rather they seem to even be enjoying it as a label of credibility – rather than a period of extremely personal and professional difficulty. You see, Imposter Syndrome is a personal mix of self-doubt and anxiety in a blend of perfectionism, shame and fear of rejection. Exactly the sorts of feelings that experiencers would likely hide from public view, not draw attention to. 

I have yet to see anyone post on their Instagram that ‘I suspect I’m a fraud and have been operating under the Dunning-Kruger effect’. I wonder… Is this because DKS is maybe actually the real and very uncomfortable issue that is far more common than anyone cares to admit? Will this irony of observation become a kind of martyring trend in itself? I hope not. 

Of course, I am speaking very generally here and there is a tendency for people to seek reassurance on social media but no-one wants to take the real risk of saying ‘I’ve been way over-charging for my actual level of expertise’…. and maybe have it confirmed. 

If you are wondering about how genuine someone's expertise is, ask yourself this:

  • does this person appear to be selling something?

For many business people their sales pitch  – and ticket price – is based upon their appearance as the expert in their field. 

My Top Tips for you!

Firstly, accept that your nagging self-doubt is ironic proof of your ever-growing insight and integrity. It is showing you that you care.

Secondly, drop the word ‘expert’ (or similar), in your self-image. You don’t need it. No-one actually does. There is way too much false importance placed on the word ‘expert’. What does ‘expert’ even mean? Academic? Field experience? Customer success? Money earned? Press interest? Peer approval? (Which can often be about collaborative delusion of shared expertise and when someone breaks the status quo they are stripped of their approval), Number of certificates? Number of accolades? And who accredits these bodies to give such awards anyway?

On asking many different experts, there doesn’t appear to be any one shared vision of 'the expert'. It’s personal. It’s a subjective term. 

There are ideas like Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice (see his excellent book ‘Outliers’) but there is no precise meaningful definition that can uniformly applied across industries and genres. 

As 19th century computer pioneer Ada Lovelace said: 

“I never am really satisfied that I understand anything; because, understand it well as I may, my comprehension can only be an infinitesimal fraction of all I want to understand about the many connections and relations which occur to me, how the matter in question was first thought of or arrived at…”
- Ada Lovelace

Being an expert and having expertise aren’t necessarily the same thing – for example, my expertise spans many genres and fields. I am not expert in any one thing, just like most people aren’t either. I like that I have a ‘portfolio career’ and am an unusual (hard to imitate) figure in the world of psychology, arts and coaching. In fact, I think this is preferable to me as I like variety and value comparative and multi-perspective thinking.

I have learned to let go of the ‘need’ for ten million qualifications and absolute peer approval – because I’m past asking permission to work. I am also ok just 'being with' any self-doubt as it reassures me that I’m not the DK doofus I sometimes worry about too. It also reminds me of my core values (integrity, honesty, growth, inclusion, non-judgement, perspective, kindness) and helps me keep focussed on what matters: growth.

The point here is that in this uncertainty and ambiguity of what it means to be an expert,  we have fertile ground for Impostor Syndrome to take hold and stunt progress and, simultaneously more room for the Dunning Kruger Effect to grow.

This is why that feeling of being ‘enough’ is so elusive to those who actually care about it.

So how to best manage when the cold frost of doubt sets in?

1) Remind yourself to check in with your feelings and emotions, not just the thoughts. 

Feelings and emotions inform us of our personal values. If you are feeling worried, fearful or even sick at the thought of your work being reviewed, then perhaps it shows how much you value your contribution, your relationships to others, your impact. Morgana frequently ponders this about herself too – and despite all her knowledge, success, experience and a unique PhD, she too regularly suspects herself of being a DK dunce.

There are many other creatives I know too,  who are quietly biting their nails and frazzling themselves out instead of releasing their beautiful work. I’m often gently nudging them on with ‘come on lovelies, time to take a little risk on yourself’… just as they are with me.

Interestingly, in all our cases, this experience rears its head most acutely right when we are in the middle of creating – and then again when about to release – something new and potentially impactful, born from a desire to contribute to progress. For me, this timing is an ironic ‘proof’ of Imposter Syndrome, or as close to proof it as we can get. It is in caring about the integrity of impact that suggests we can simply acknowledge the feeling of doubt, and proceed anyway. Positive risk-taking. If your values are being challenged, it is evidence that you CARE.

Just as there are people who never ever doubt their opinion nor question their sanity at times, the non self-aware people are the ones who alarm me. Not the people how doubt themselves. I have deep respect for those who acknowledge that they feel vulnerable at times, lost or in need of more learning. Again, as I see it, this is a congruent sentiment of integrity being held in the highest esteem.

2) Check the facts too. Look to how people around you respond to your work. Who is ringing bells for you? No-one you genuinely respect and look-up to would be supporting you in your gene nor others trying to join you where you are right now, if you were indeed an imposter or fraud or doofus. If you respect these people, then trust that they would spot a true imposter. Uphold your respect for them by accepting their respect for you. The comes down not so much to how good you are rating yourself, but rating your peers and contemporaries as people you aspire to belong with. The people around you, reflect you.

Remember too that after all is said and done, it’s the innovators and adapters who make progress – after the repeaters are worn out and redundant. It is in being bold and daring that growth occurs. Being an expert on the status quo is only useful if you plan to break it.

An expert conclusion...

There is no need to claim to be an expert.

Other people will do so for you. Cite your own expertise and experience because that’s your personal history - and if your work is good then your results speak for you.

Your self-doubt is a necessary part of growth. It is the jagged thorns along the rose of self-awareness.

Hold your values close and observe how they inform you, not hinder you. Nourish yourself with time away from social media, but with good aspirational peers, not ambitious ones. Attribute the respect you have for those people also on to yourself. Trust their respect for you.

Share you experience with those who understand, trust your intuition - it has got you so far! Allow the self-doubt to be and when you share it with your expert peer group, you find you all have so much to laugh about, together in your playground.

Psi for now Ψ
Kirsty

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