Far From Perfect: The Reasons Behind Your Impostor Syndrome

Part of the frustration and desperation behind perfectionism is a need to keep the magic trick going. “People think I’m smart, and accomplished, and confident. When is someone going to peek behind that curtain, yank it back and expose the real me? I know I’m not all that great. It’s ‘only me’.” Another biggie is “I got lucky this time, but my luck won’t continue forever.” Have you ever had one of these conversations with yourself?

You’re not the only “me” out there. And not to sound redundant, but much like with perfectionism, a tremendous number of people suffer from the Impostor Syndrome— more than you might imagine. Studies show that most of us, both men and women, suffer from “Impostorism”, which is Amy Cuddy’s name for the Impostor Syndrome. I got a glimpse into this common form of human suffering as I did a nationwide tour for a client to help their employees understand the true challenges and rewards of confidence. The pre-workshop assessment revealed a statistic that I first thought was out of whack but was in fact accurate: 70% of this fleet of impressive motivated professionals experienced Impostor Episodes.`How could it be possible that these overachievers were not confident in their seemingly demonstrated and sustained achievements? Well, just as a belly ache could be the result of many possible illnesses, Impostor Syndrome is the result of multiple challenges rising from within you, from around you, and due to your human ability to adapt. Let’s explore.

“It’s Only Me. No Big Deal.”

While distilling down perfectionism, one of the realities revealed is that we’re harder on ourselves than anyone else would dare to be. We also tend to discount our accomplishments. For instance, when we’re gifted in an area, we deprive ourselves the realization that we’re special. We assume “since I can do it, anyone can”, and (even more threatening to confidence and adding gasoline to the Impostor’s fire), “if I know this, everyone must”, which severely erodes confidence.

Add to our tendency to be negative to ourselves the fact that once we achieve something, after the excitement wears off, we’re back to living our very unglamorous lives. This phenomenon is called Hedonic Adaptation, and you may recognize instances when you’ve experienced this. Remember when you got a promotion and a raise and it was exhilarating, and then before long, things felt just normal again? How about a new home or car? Same exhilaration and then almost in an instant, not so exciting anymore. Think of Hedonic Adaptation as the different honeymoon periods of your life. You receive an award and become honored and recognized by your community, and then you forget about it. The reinforcement of your impressiveness recedes as new challenges and anxieties about the future enter the picture. You’re left being “OK”, but not great.

Too Concerned with Looking Forward, Never Looking Back

The other personal disservice is looking at our lives and careers in the wrong direction. We’re always told to keep our eye on the future. But when we’re consumed with looking forward at what’s still left to accomplish, we feel inferior because there’s such a long road ahead. It’s soul-crushing to realize that people are entranced, running on that hamster wheel of life, never taking a moment to reflect back on how far they’ve come, how they’ve slowly amassed expertise and elegance in managing their business— not perfectly, but resourcefully and thoughtfully.

Comparing Ourselves to Others

Impostor Syndrome is also myopic. We attempt to compare ourselves to others while only seeing mere slivers of others’ lives. We don’t witness their times of doubt, sadness and disappointment— only our own. And thanks to social media, the pictures that others present regarding their lives can be inauthentic facades focusing only on the celebratory moments. It brings to mind the quote, “Be kind to everyone you meet, for each is fighting a great personal battle”. Strangely, you’d never guess that many who seem most accomplished, confident and in-control may be falling apart inside.

Apples with Oranges

Filling another’s career shoes can prompt us to create unrealistic parallels. Recently when Alice, a cherished colleague of mine got a promotion, it puzzled me that she did NOT sound terribly excited about her new opportunity. Turns out, Alice was concerned because the woman she was replacing was well-regarded and had mastered the position, hence her promotion. After learning that her predecessor had been in the position for 10 years, I asked Alice for permission to reframe the scenario. I told her to imagine the admired woman 10 years ago, as she first assumed the position, and how much she must have learned over the ensuing decade. When I made the analogy of a recently bottled wine versus a fully-mature wine, I could hear Alice audibly sigh in relief!

Following this overview of why people experience the impostor syndrome, I will dive in with you in my next article about how you, yourself can begin mitigating these tendencies and show up like you absolutely belong.