Ever feel like a fraud when you’re placed in a position of responsibility? When you’re complemented on an achievement, do you brush it off by saying (and meaning!), “Oh, it wasn’t anything I did, it was just luck” or “Thanks, but my part was easy; someone else had the hard job.”? Do you ever look around a room of people and think, “What am I doing here? These people are all smarter/more accomplished/more experienced than I am!”?
These thoughts are the essence of “imposter syndrome.” First identified by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, imposter syndrome is “a feeling of phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” People with imposter syndrome may be “highly motivated to achieve,” but they also “live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds.”
Even highly accomplished people — Maya Angelou, Meryl Streep, Valerie Jarrett (the top advisor to former President Obama, no less!) — have reported feelings of imposter syndrome. Yet we see them as women of consummate confidence. What’s going on? As Katty Clark and Claire Shipman report in their bestseller “The Confidence Code,” building confidence requires hard work, taking risks, persistence and sometimes even failure. In other words, you can’t just decide to be confident, you have to practice the actions that make you confident.
I recently spoke to a young woman who had a prestigious first job in technical development. She came to believe that colleagues hired at the same time had more technical skills than she did. Her manager told her not to worry, that the technical skills would come. Still, she was afraid of sounding stupid or making a mistake. She didn’t ask questions and let others take the lead when writing code. Eventually, though, she realized that she was missing an opportunity. She resolved to take the lead on coding assignments and ask questions when she didn’t know what to do. This young woman steeled her nerve to expose herself in order to build her skills and thus her confidence. Within weeks, she began enjoying her job, feeling better about herself and her skill development accelerated.
Clark and Shipman’s recommendation is to act in the face of fear, just as this nervous but brave millennial did. You may fail, but failure and resilience are kissing cousins. If you’ve failed spectacularly and survived with psyche intact, then you know you can survive anything you try.
Even If you’ve only failed in small ways and survived with psyche intact, then you can push yourself to take ever larger risks. Your confidence will grow and when imposter syndrome rears its ugly head, you’ll be able to put it in its place and get on with the challenge at hand.
Mercer Island resident Carrie George is a leadership coach and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.