Manifestations of Impostor Syndrome

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Maybe you’ve heard of it before, but impostor syndrome is the feeling you’re not good enough despite the fact you are. Langford and Clance defined it as “an experience of feeling incompetent and of having deceived others about one’s abilities”[1].

I’ve experienced this. I still do experience it. I know I experience it. I’m powerless to stop it. All I can do is accept it and try to work around it and power through it. I’ve got some strategies I employ to help overcome it, but that isn’t the topic of this article, perhaps I’ll write about them another day. Instead, this article is about how impostor syndrome manifests for me, in the hope it can help you to recognise when it affects you and enable you to acknowledge it and try to overcome it.

# Causes

Before I get into the manifestation of impostor syndrome, let’s take a quick look at why it can happen in a high performing individual.

For me a significant cause of impostor syndrome is that I surround myself with people who are more skilled than me at the topics I’m interested in. I know I do this, I actively seek these people out, and I find them because I constantly want to improve. I focus on the aspects of these people that I want to replicate, that I look up to, and that I strive to emulate. I filter out the negatives, they can’t benefit me. This leads me to seeing all these people as better than me, despite the fact they most likely have just as many failings as I do, and they look up to others in the same way I look at them. When I assess my abilities I always do so relative to the people I know who are the best at that topic.

Another cause of impostor syndrome is that I ask for, accept, and take on feedback. I often ask others to provide critical feedback to help me improve. I find most people, when pushed for feedback, will start with a brief comment about the positives, but once they realise you’re asking for more depth than simple platitudes, they focus on the negatives.

For me, these two situations create a mindset that leaves me feeling that I am underskilled. I have a broad range of experience, I know a lot of things to a reasonable depth; but in every field, I know of people who can make me look like an amateur. These are the people I look up to, the people I respect, and the ones I want to emulate.

I also find my interests vary as I become skilled at something. As my knowledge on a topic increases and I find it easier to understand, talk about, or action, I start to lose interest and begin focusing on the next challenge. I love to learn, I love a challenge, this means I will never be at the top of my field; instead I have a good overview of a lot of related fields.

# Manifestation: The Meeting

So, how does impostor syndrome manifest for me? Well the first manifestation relates to meetings. When I talk about a meeting I mean anything involving small groups, perhaps up to around 15 or 20 people.

Until recently the manifestation of impostor syndrome in meetings meant I was abnormally quiet. I would listen and observe in meetings, but I would rarely have input. If I had an idea or a comment, I would wait to see if someone else mentioned it, often others would say something similar, sometimes I would leave it too long and the moment would pass.

As I’ve actively worked to overcome this manifestation I’ve managed to suppress it, but I still suffer from it. These days I am much more vocal in meetings, I will actively seek input, I’ll be the person who volunteers to go first. This may seem like I’ve overcome impostor syndrome in this situation, but nothing could be further from the truth. During meetings I actively listen, I think ahead, I try to think outside the box; I’m so busy making sure my input is valid and relevant that I don’t have time to start doubting myself. As soon as the meeting is over the doubt appears with a vengeance. I question everything. Was that comment correct? Was that idea useful? I shared an idea and it was bought down by someone else, why did I even say it?

# Manifestation: The Presentation

My presentation skills have displayed some interesting manifestations of impostor syndrome. I’m generally fine with small groups of 2 or 3 people; I can present to groups over over 250 people, but in between I suffer a lot of doubt.

Giving a presentation to 2 or 3 people feels like a conversation to me. I also know that in such a small environment, if they aren’t getting value from the presentation they will tell me. In general, such a small group would either have selected me to talk to them, or I’ve chosen them as people I can help to educate. In the former situation I trust their judgement in me, in the latter I trust my abilities to select a suitable audience.

For groups of more than 250 people I’ve never been responsible for scheduling the presentation, someone else has always selected me for it. I trust that they know their craft and have selected me as they think I am the best person to educate the group. Maybe some in the group know a lot more than me, some know a similar level as I do, but as I’ve been selected for the presentation I can convince myself that many in attendance will know less about the topic.

The groups between 3 and 250 people is where I face the biggest challenges of impostor syndrome. Presentations to this size of group are usually to special interest groups or to department or company wide groups. In special interest groups I am rarely, if ever, the most knowledgeable on a subject, I feel that others with more knowledge should be presenting. For a department or company, I am rarely the expert in a subject, others have more in-depth knowledge. I will generally recommend someone else for a presentation in these situations, although recently I have found methods to start trying to face my fears.

The job search is the most challenging manifestation for me. I’ve been self-employed and managed staff, I’ve worked in customer service, I’ve mentored team leads, I can think logically, I’m passionate about agile and enabling teams; but I struggle to find a job I’m willing to apply for, I almost always apply for a job that is at the same level or lower than my current role.

I know a part of the manifestation is caused by the excessive use of elaborate or convoluted descriptors in job advertisements, but a part of it is my impostor syndrome telling me I won’t be able to perform at a role, despite having done almost all of the functions previously.

# Effects

So, how has this impacted me life? Well, after a 20 year career I feel my journey has stalled. I’ve missed potential promotion because of my silence in meetings. I’ve had limited exposure to presentations, and limited ability to market my skills because of this. I look at job advertisements and wish I were capable of getting a job like the one described.

I’m actively working to overcome these feelings, but it is an exhausting experience to go against what comes naturally. If you’re finding your self-doubt is stopping you from progressing, seek out a career coach or a mentor; they’ll be able to help you assess your real skills, and help you to find ways to prevent some initial doubts becoming ingrained impostor syndrome.

# References

  1. Langford, Joe; Clance, Pauline Rose (Fall 1993). “The impostor phenomenon: recent research findings regarding dynamics, personality and family patterns and their implications for treatment” (PDF). Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training. 30 (3): 495–501. ↩︎