Wait, what? I can’t believe they let me write this blog: overcoming imposter syndrome

What is Imposter Syndrome?


The popular term imposter syndrome describes the “pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity, or fraudulence despite often overwhelming evidence to the contrary.” Anyone can feel this way, and many people do.

In short, imposter syndrome is a pattern—a collection of differences, similarities, and connections.

Imposter syndrome is rooted in difference—the difference between your perception of yourself as a fraud and the objective evidence of your success. Specific variations also shape each experience of imposter syndrome. It manifests differently based on age, gender, race, ethnicity, time, location, and type of achievement.

Despite all of the differences that make a difference at an individual level, seventy percent of people report feeling like an imposter at some point in their lives. Imposter syndrome is a collection of repetitive experiences (similarities) at both the individual and community levels.

Finally, imposter syndrome shapes how you interact with the world (connections), creating both challenges and opportunities. Feelings of self-doubt can unnecessarily hold you back from future achievements and influence how you work with others. Insecurity can negatively impact your relationships and change how you support others. Feelings of fraudulence can limit or enhance how you parent or mentor the next generation.

By naming imposter syndrome as a pattern, we have the power to understand it and transform it.

So What Do We Understand About Imposter Syndrome?

Human Systems Dynamics’ Four Truths tool is useful for analyzing meaning from patterns in which difference is the defining characteristic, such as imposter syndrome. The Four Truths model recognizes that subjective truth (how you see and experience the world), objective truth (what is provable), and normative truth (what a group agrees is true) can all be true at the same time. When we recognize the validity of all three, we can choose which truth is most useful at any given time, without having to give up any of the other perspectives. This insight comes from complex truth—the fourth of the four truths.

Imposter syndrome is rooted in subjective truth. The person who feels like a fake experiences a situation in a way that those around them do not. It is what they believe to be right about themselves, even though there is evidence to the contrary. Imposter syndrome also depends on objective and normative truths. The second half of the definition is believing that evidence of achievement (objective truth) or a group's opinion that you are successful (normative truth) are false.

Additionally, there is a normative truth to feelings of inadequacy. As mentioned above, imposter syndrome is common.

The complex truth is that all of your feelings, the evidence, your community's positive opinion of you, and others' feelings of inadequacy are all true at the same time. We have to decide which truth to focus on in any given situation to establish our complex truth. However, making the shift from one to another is easier said than done.

Now What Can We Do to Fight Imposter Syndrome?

At first, my gut reaction was to look for ways to eliminate the subjective truth—the feelings of self-doubt. Many useful self-help articles take that route, but there is also power in your truth. 

It empowers you to define what success means to you: Is success determined by the outcome, the process, or some combination? What are short-term achievements? What are long-term successes? What is the best way to recognize your progress so that it feels real?

Once you’ve grappled with this, you can track objective measures of success. What do you do with the evidence? How can proof of success be presented believably? How can you celebrate evidence of progress to make it real? How can you make the proof of an accomplishment stick around long enough to propel your next achievement?

Holding your subjective and objective truths as real, how can you employ normative truths that are useful at the moment?

Determine which group norms affect your feelings of inadequacy: For example, is working late rewarded by your company even though it isn’t a fit for you? Are there posters lining the conference room that don’t represent your identity? Does your family’s busy schedule keep you from eating meals together even though it is an essential tradition for you? Naming the normative patterns that trigger your feelings of self-doubt is the first step in being able to change them.

Find someone to talk to about your feelings: The pervasiveness of imposter syndrome is an opportunity. To whom can you talk about these feelings in your personal and professional networks?

Set up trusted sources of feedback: Even when you are plagued by doubt, your network may have a different perception. Whom do you see as a representative of the group opinion? How can you get feedback from that person? What modes of feedback are most believable to you? What types of evidence do you want them to present?

Thank you, if you’re still reading. I love writing, but writing for a public audience brings up my feelings of inadequacy. So, I challenge you: write your own definition of success and be bold as you do. Then, go out and be brave in pursuit of your goals.

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