By Valerie Young
Last week I delivered a keynote presentation to 250 university and corporate professionals in Baltimore. They were there for a conference on how to encourage more women and people of color to enter and then succeed in the field of engineering.
My presentation was titled, “How to Help Students Overcome the Impostor Syndrome.” I was not the least bit surprised that the people I helped most were the adults in the room — most of whom have PhDs!
Sheila Edwards Lange, Vice President and Vice Provost for Minority Affairs and Diversity at the University of Washington and keynote corporate sponsor rep Wayne Robinson, Talent and Recruiting Manager for Nucor. Sheila is getting ready to introduce Wayne who is getting ready to introduce me.
The Impostor Phenomenon (more commonly known as the Impostor Syndrome) was first identified by psychologists Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes in the 1980s. Impostor feelings involve more than a simple lack of confidence. After all, everyone experiences bouts of self-doubt from time to time and especially when attempting something new. But for impostors, self-doubt is chronic. It’s normal to be upset by a bad performance. The impostor experiences shame.
It’s also possible to doubt your abilities without believing that you ultimately succeeded because of some sleight of hand or that you’re fooling others. For instance, you could have normal jitters before getting up to give your first speech. If you do well, this in turn makes you feel more confident about speaking in public the next time.
But the impostor doesn’t think this way. Because no matter how well you did or how loud the applause, you always think you could have done better. Or you dismiss the success all together thinking, “Oh, I just had a good audience.” In other words, doing well does not result in any real bump in confidence because you don’t feel you earned the success in the first place.
Your perceptions of what it takes to be competent, has a powerful impact on how you measure yourself and therefore how you approach achievement itself. And if you feel like an intellectual fraud, then there is an excellent chance that you have been operating from a definition of competence that is so grandiose that not even a certifiable genius could ever hope to attain. And it’s time to change that.
The first step is to determine your dominant “Competence Type.” Are you…
- The Perfectionist. For you everything must be flawless. To be less than perfect or to have an off day, an off-presentation, an off-anything, is simply unacceptable. For you, the competence equation is Success = Perfection.
- The Rugged Individualist. For your achievements to be legitimate you believe you have to do and figure out everything yourself. If someone helped you get the job or if you were part of a team, in your mind your contribution no longer “counts.” For you, the competence equation is Success = Solo Achievement.
- The Expert. You measure your competence on how much you know. And there in lies the rub. You will never “know it all.” So you will never see yourself as fully competent. For you, the competence equation is Success = Knowing Everything.
- The Natural Genius. Competence is measured in terms of ease and speed. The fact that you have to apply yourself or that some things come more easily than others “proves” you are not a bright as others. For you, the competence equation is Success = Innate and Effortless Genius.
- The Extremist. You know you are capable of greatness because, like all of us, you’ve experienced those flashes of brilliance. As such you expect to maintain that level of thought and action all day, every day. So when you have those “I felt so stupid” moments you are very unforgiving. For you, the competence equation is Success = 24/7 Genius.
- Superwoman/Super Student. You measure yourself based on being able to juggle and excel in multiple roles. In addition to over-achieving in your work, you hold yourself to impossibly high standards in all aspects of your life… home, parenting, relationships, physical appearance, academics, community service. For you, the competence equation is Success = Doing it all.
Any one of these Competence Types can sabotage your dream of profiting from your passion. Why? Because working on a dream, any dream, means being willing to:
- Ask for help and advice (a lot)
- Not know all the answers (ever!)
- Make mistakes (constantly!) and learn from them
- Experience the highs and lows of feeling super smart and super dumb (get used to it!)
- Recognize that perfection is often impossible and rarely necessary (to say nothing of over-rated!)
- Know that no one — including you — can do it all (nor should you try!)
Jennifer White wrote, “Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead.” Woodrow Wilson said, “I not only use all the brains I have, but all that I can borrow.” And Will Rogers reminds us that, “Everyone is ignorant, only on different subjects.” If your definition of competence is holding you back, then make today the day you begin to foster a healthier, more realistic definition.
If you’d like to learn more about the Impostor Syndrome and how you can feel as bright and capable as you really are, click here. You and your dream of profiting from your passion will be glad you did!