Impostor Syndrome is a Superpower

Impostor Syndrome (IS) is a ‘phenomena’ in which an individual doubts their abilities and lives in fear of being exposed as a fraud. Severity varies between individuals but impostor syndrome is perceived as negative. Ironically, as a shortcoming. I propose embracing your impostor syndrome. Your doubt is your strength.

This is my first post in 2019 and I thought, to make a change, I would write something positive.

Forbes released a good piece on this recently “Why Imposter Syndrome Is A Good Thing“. I have meant to write a post on this for some time, so here we go. (Annoyed I spelled it wrong in the tweet but NVM)

What is impostor syndrome?

I can only describe how IS manifests itself in me. It’s not something I feel all the time. It’s certainly not something I am always consciously thinking about but when I do, I have noticed a physiological reaction. If you’ve ever thought you’d lost your phone, then found it in a pocket other than the usual one, you will know what I mean. It’s a kind of dropping sensation in the pit of your stomach. Fleeting but palpable. Like a load of adrenaline has been released in to your system all at once.

Then comes a brief but all-consuming wave of self-doubt. “You’re rubbish”, “you’re going to screw this up”, “you’ve no idea what you’re doing”, “how did you even get this job” and other similarly critical thoughts.

I feel IS most acutely in relation to my management skills. I’m new to line management so this is an area I’m particularly conscious of. I think management is an area where it’s very easy for you (and for others to make you) feel deficient.

What makes impostor syndrome particularly troubling, is the ingrained belief that everyone else knows it, is saying it behind your back and will at some point (they are waiting for when it would be most devastating/embarrassing) expose you for the incompetent fraud you are.

How IS manifests itself in Learning Technologists

I think learning technologists are particularly susceptible to IS. We constantly compare ourselves to other people and institutions. We have awards, qualifications, publications/research and conferences that make us feel inferior. “I don’t have X qualification”, “I’ve never won X award”, “I’ve never written a book/journal/done research” and “I’ve never been asked to speak/keynote at X conference”. These are all measures of success in our world and we presume, if we’re not doing any of them, we’re not worthy of the learning technologist title. Don’t underestimate the value of good, solid hard groundwork. Not everything needs to be innovative or disruptive.

There is also the issue that nobody quite knows what a learning technologist is. We all have different titles, areas of responsibility and levels of technical skills. With such an undefinable role, is it really surprising that we question whether ‘we are one’ or not? There’s no ideal. No shining paragon of how to do this job. Revel in your accomplishments, however small they may feel. That’s the good stuff.

Why we need to re-frame IS

Not everything in life is a problem to be solved. Not everything is a weakness that we need to eliminate to succeed. We need to re-frame IS so it doesn’t control and consume us. IS shouldn’t hold us back. It shouldn’t make us cautious to the point of paralysis. Instead, we should look at it for what it is.

Impostor syndrome is not a fault in an individual.

We should also consider that IS is exacerbated and caused, by external factors. By societal expectations or behaviours. It can be born of workplace culture. It can simply be caused by the way other people treat us. I could name three people right now who I feel consciously and deliberately contribute to my work IS. Some people get a kick out of making other people’s lives difficult. Some people draw their power from dragging down other people. Some people are just dicks. IS should not be framed as a problem of the individual, instead we should be asking why our colleagues, friends etc., feel IS at all. What is causing it? Who is causing it? Is there a culture that perpetuates it? What’s the root cause? IS is being pinned on the individual as something they have to deal with, to avoid the more difficult and worthwhile task, of finding and dealing with the root cause.

Put far more eloquently here by Rosie and Valorie. Great comments follow.

Consider the opposite. What would someone devoid of impostor syndrome be? I imagine they’d be an insufferable egomaniac with little self-awareness. I bet we’ve all met someone like that. I don’t want to be like that.

IS causes a lot of positive behaviours (although they are born in a negative place) that we should embrace.

IS as a positive trait

Here are a few reasons, I think IS is a positive thing.

  • You are empathic, you care about other people and your impact on them,
  • You are able, and willing, to reflect on what you do,
  • You are self-aware, you think about who you are, what you’re doing and what impact you have,
  • You care about doing a good job,
  • You strive to improve.

There’s a belief that without confidence you can’t succeed. There’s some truth in that. You do need the confidence to push yourself to take risks but I would argue feeling IS means you’re already doing that. Confidence can often be accompanied by lethargy. If you’re in your comfort zone, what are you learning? How are you challenging yourself? There’s nothing to be gained in your comfort zone.

If you’re feeling IS, it’s because you’re pushing yourself, it’s because you’re challenged and that is something to be proud of.

If you’re feeling IS, it’s because you care about what you’re doing. Don’t underestimate the value of that!

How to cope with IS

First, embrace it. Don’t try to fight it, see it for what it is and make sure you put it in perspective. Are you really the worst? Are you really that terrible?

Remember, everyone has to do something for the first time. No one’s born with all the necessary skills and experience to do everything in life. So why should you be any different?

Find a confidant. I’m really lucky that I work for, and with, people who I am comfortable saying that “I’m struggling”, “I need support” or “am nervous” about doing something. I’m equally lucky to work for, and with, people who would want to help me not shame or abandon me. I also have a lovely network of other people in similar positions to me who I can go to for advice, help or for a good rant. I think this is so important. Bottling these feelings up won’t do you any good so find someone who you can talk to about it. It really is cathartic!

Get to the root of the problem. Is it you? Or is it something else? Is it a combination of many things? Once you know the root of it, you can see it for what it is.

If you’re feeling IS, go and put your (clean) pants over your trousers/tights.

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