Embracing the Imposter Within

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I had a conversation with a newly-hired employee of a fast-growing Human Resources (HR) support firm. I’ll call this new hire John. In that conversation, John told me of his first week on the job and, more specifically, his meeting with the Vice President (VP) of HR. In that meeting, the VP entrusted John with what was, in John’s mind, a very important project. Somewhat reluctantly, John admitted to the VP his hesitance in being (a) thrust too quickly into the spotlight, and (b) not exactly knowing what to do, how to get started, with whom to collaborate, etc. The VP, however, reassured John that he had the necessary skills to accomplish the task and a support network to help him. His first week on the job, the VP made John feel like a million bucks!

John’s story reminded me of a concept titled imposter syndrome (also related to ideas such as impostor phenomenon, fraud syndrome, perceived fraudulence, or impostor experience, among others). Imposter syndrome, while experienced somewhat differently by different people, captures the idea of high-achieving individuals with a history of excellence performance and unmistakable successes while simultaneously externalizing their success to environments, circumstances, and luck. Unable to acknowledge their competence, effort, and persistence as principally influential to their successes, imposters doubt themselves and are quite afraid of others finding out that they are not as good as everybody has made them out to be (Bravata, Watts, Keefer, Madhusudhan, Taylor, Clark, Nelson, Cokley, & Hagg, 2020).

Have you ever felt like an imposter? I know I have. It is also estimated that a conservative 9% of the population has experienced intense imposter feelings (Patzak, Kollmayer, & Schober, 2017). When I first began my academic career in higher education, I did so with just about three days’ notice and the opportunity came about without me having formally applied for an academic position. I met the department Chair on a Wednesday, received a call on Thursday with an offer to teach, started (and completed) an application for employment on Friday, and was in the classroom the following Monday. Within just a few days, I was in class and in front of 50 students who were looking to me to structure their learning and development for the next 10 or so weeks.

Knowing how much my own journey through higher education meant to me, I sure felt the weight of that new position on my shoulders. Similar to John, I had questions regarding my competence for facilitating the learning and development of others — especially having not had, by my estimation, an adequate amount of preparation time to fully execute the role with which I was entrusted. But, also like John, I had champions in the department and, soon, across the college who believed in and helped me find my path. Whenever I felt that I was less than the task at hand, my champions were there to walk me through the options I had. Thankfully, these champions did not do the work for me by giving me their syllabi, course materials, study guides, notes, learning activities, grading criteria, and other teaching necessities. Instead, they helped me process the decisions to be made and the actions to take that would serve me well as I proverbially spread my own wings to fly.

It’s Your Turn!

Take an inventory of your own imposter syndrome experiences. To what extent have you felt that you would not measure up when you had a lot of evidence that you could? How did you handle those feelings? To whom did you reach out for assistance to manage those feelings? What lessons did feeling like an imposter teach you? In future instances of feeling like an imposter, how do you plan on making use of your past imposter experiences and actions to help you more adaptively manage feeling like an imposter?

To really stretch yourself, is there someone in your personal or professional network who you would identify as experiencing imposter syndrome? Is there someone you know who is extremely talented in what they do but may not fully appreciate how talented they are? Is this individual limiting his/her potential by permitting those feelings to negatively affect their performance? In your role, how could you help that individual better manage that experience? Across the next three to six months, enact a plan to work with that individual to increase their performance capacity and use that capacity increase as a way to neutralize the effects of imposter syndrome.

Sources

Bravata, D. M., Watts, S. A., Keefer, A. L., Madhusudhan, D. K., Taylor, K. T., Clark, D. M., Nelson, R. S., Cokley, K. O., & Hagg, H. K. (2020). Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: a Systematic Review. JGIM: Journal of General Internal Medicine, 35(4), 1252–1275. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11606-019-05364-1

Patzak, A., Kollmayer, M., & Schober, B. (2017). Buffering Impostor Feelings with Kindness: The Mediating Role of Self-compassion between Gender-Role Orientation and the Impostor Phenomenon. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1289. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01289

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