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Do You Suffer From Impostor Syndrome?

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Have you ever had the feeling that you didn't really know what you were doing, and it was just a matter of time before someone realized it and exposed you as a fraud?

This feeling is known as the "impostor syndrome," and since it was first identified in the late 70s by researchers at the Georgia State University, we've learned that more than 70 percent of the population has experienced this feeling at one time or another.[1]

Today, we finally have an insight into a possible biological basis of the impostor syndrome, and a few effective tools to handle it. The syndrome is simple to describe: People who are, in fact, competent, feel as if they're just waiting for the other shoe to drop, when someone realizes they are not up to this job/position/project and expose them as a fraud.

Interestingly, the impostor syndrome is worst among high performers. When I speak about it at Harvard, Stanford, or MIT, the room goes so silent you could hear a pin drop. And I see the students breathe a sigh of relief as they realize this feeling has a name and they are not alone in experiencing it.

Every year, the incoming class at Stanford Business School is asked: "How many of you in here feel that you are the one mistake that the admissions committee made?" Every year, two-thirds of the class immediately raises their hands.

This feeling is one you'll hear echoed at every stage of success. Michael Uslan, producer of every modern Batman movie, told me that he still gets that feeling occasionally when he's in the studio. "I still have this background feeling that one of the security guards might come in and throw me out."

For some, it has been a direct corollary of career progression -- with greater responsibility comes greater internal doubt as the cost of failure gets higher and higher. Bob Lurie, managing partner for the Monitor Group, told me that he, too, knows what this feels like. "For the first six or seven years of my career, I was the poster child for the impostor syndrome. I was convinced that if I got into a room with senior executives, they would immediately figure out I was a fraud."

So why do we have this impostor syndrome? Like many other unpleasant internal experiences, it may be the outgrowth of our most useful survival mechanisms. Feelings like fear or anxiety are designed to get you to adopt a certain course of action. These feelings are uncomfortable because they're "designed" to be uncomfortable.

The impostor syndrome gets us to work harder, to "cover up," it gets us to avoid taking big risks, it gets us to keep our head down and not be as bold as we might otherwise be. From an evolutionary perspective, this might have made sense at some point. The impostor syndrome can be a great motivating tool, getting us to work harder than anyone else. But at what cost?

There are times when the discomfort of full-blown fear is highly appropriate. If we were in life-threatening physical danger, then we would surely appreciate our body focusing all of its resources toward ensuring our short-term survival. However, in today's world, few situations merit a full fight-or-flight response. In these cases, our instinctive reactions actually work against us.

Have you ever become paralyzed in the middle of an exam or had the experience of stage fright? Like a deer in headlights, you freeze, your heart races, your palms get sweaty. You're desperately trying to remember what you'd planned to say or do, but your mind is blank. Your higher cognitive functions have shut down.

Sometimes, under the effect of stress, the mind thinks we're in a fight-or-flight situation, declares a state of emergency and shuts down what it deems to be superfluous functions. Unfortunately, that means the body is reducing our cognitive abilities just when we need them most. Though it may be hard to remember this in the midst of an anxiety attack, rest assured that this reaction is an entirely normal, natural one that was intended for your well-being.

And this is actually the first step in learning how to handle the impostor syndrome: to destigmatize the experience, recognizing it as a normal, natural, common feeling. You can see it as a legacy of your genetic heritage. Just like the appendix. In some situations, the appendix gets inflamed, and that's called an appendicitis. In some situations, the impostor syndrome flares up. It's no more a sign of your actual worth or competence than an appendicitis would be.

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References:

[1] P. R. Clance and S. A. Imes, "The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention," Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice 15, no. 3 (1978): 241-47.