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Imposterism and what you can do about it

Earlier this week, I had a moment where I forgot who I was. I received a lovely email inviting me as an ‘expert’ to host a panel with a range of people working across each Career Cluster, and the first thought that went through my head was ‘I’m not an expert’.

This thought was unhelpful, and technically untrue, since, as I’m the one who came up with the Career Clusters, I’m actually the person most qualified to be called an expert on this particular topic. But this isn’t an easy thing for me to accept – I would never use the term ‘expert’ to describe myself, and I am humbled to work with so many incredible and inspiring people in this space that I usually feel like the underachiever.

The thing is, that’s just my Imposterism talking.


What is Imposterism?

It’s an emotional response not a medical syndrome. It was first defined in this way by Dr Pauline Clance and Dr Suzanne Imes in the late 1970s;

“The term “impostor phenomenon” is used to designate an internal experience of intellectual phoniness…”

As Adam Collins puts it: “Pretending to be a syndrome, it really is an imposter.”

Basically, it’s what happens when you feel that, despite evidence to the contrary and other people’s positive opinions, your success is fraudulent or phony. My friend, Marija Jovanovich, is one of the Air Force’s leading test pilots, and she writes about how it took her time to realise that, despite the incredibly challenging environment she was working (and excelling) in, she was still her own harshest critic.

Asana have a fantastic set of resources, and they say that these are some of the most common characteristics of people who feel like Imposters:

  • Self-doubt in your skills and competence
  • Crediting external factors—like luck—for your success
  • Decreased self-confidence
  • Isolating from team members
  • Perfectionism
  • Experiencing overwork and burnout
  • Setting impossibly high standards for yourself
  • Low self-esteem
  • Intense fear of failure

You don’t have to feel all of them to be a victim of Imposterism, and we all feel slightly different, but if any of the above resonate with you then maybe think about what would happen if you let go of those feelings.

Imposterism doesn’t serve anyone. I asked my community for hacks to overcome the way I was feeling, and I’ve compiled the best ones here:


Hack #1 – Lean on the enthusiasm

Rather than questioning your validity to share your knowledge, think about how you feel about the opportunity to talk about your favourite thing. You’ve been given a platform to bang on about the stuff you love and are best at, and people actually want to hear from you, so bring your enthusiastic self to the table.


Hack #2 – Phone a friend

What would a friend or colleague say if you voiced your doubt? Would they think it was valid, or question your sanity? This one is useful if you doubt your own abilities, because we often struggle to see them clearly.


Hack #3 – Accept that you’ll never know everything

Lifelong learning is a thing for all of us – and if you’re an expert in your area and passionate about what you do then there is always more to learn. There’s not some physical tipping point where you’ll feel like you’ve learnt enough to be able to speak with authority, so if you’re waiting for that moment to come you may be waiting a while.


Hack #4 – Follow the facts

If someone else has asked you to join their event, submit an article, or generally be awesome in their space, then the facts show that you are qualified and skilled enough to be there. Likewise, if you have done a significant amount of work in a field and have the relevant qualifications and experience then the facts show that you should be there.


Hack #5 – Reframe the feeling

Sometimes, feeling this way is a sign that you care deeply about the work you do, and an opportunity to critically reflect on your work. The moment of self-doubt gives you a chance to assess your own abilities against what’s being asked of you, and evaluate your skills honestly. This might not stop you from feeling like you’re out of your depth in the first place, but it can help you let go of those feelings and recognise them for what they are – a temporary emotion and not a reflection of your abilities.


Hack #6 – Do it scared

If someone’s asked you to do something, you can just trust their opinion of you and say yes. Feeling unsure can sometimes be a sign that you’re doing something new or unfamiliar, and this can sometimes compound any feelings of Imposterism to create the ‘perfect storm’ of saying no to something when you should have said yes.


Hack #7 – Lower your expectations

Are you being asked to share your knowledge because you are perfect and know absolutely everything, or because you have valuable insights that are worth sharing? You bring your lived experience and perspective to the conversation, and chances are that you’ve been invited not because of your perfection, but because you have something of value to offer.


Hack #8 – Say it out loud

This feels cheesy, but it works. Claim your work, your skills, your experience, and use the titles you have earned, whether they are official or unofficial. If you say it often, you’ll become more comfortable vocalising it to others when needed as well.


And, my own personal hack – Take a step back

I often feel inferior when I compare myself to others, but when I do this it’s invariably because they’ve won an award or been celebrated in some way and I’m seeing all of their major accomplishments in one snapshot, but we view our own accomplishments in real-time, which feels much slower. So, take a step back and try to view all the things you’ve achieved over the past year (or whatever timeframe works for you) in one space. You could write them all down if you’re a visual person, and include the personal achievements and challenges you’ve overcome in the list as well.


One final note

I am feeling anxious right now about publishing this article. Who am I to suggest hacks for something I have obviously not mastered myself? So I’m going to rely on Hack #2 and Hack #6 – get a friend to proofread my article before I publish it (and probably give them a laugh in the process), and I’m going to do it scared.

Image credit: xkcd.com


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