Have you ever felt like you don’t belong? Picture one of those times. You were sitting in a meeting, looked around at all the people sitting around the desk and asked yourself: “What am I doing here? When will they finally discover that I am a fraud?”
You felt a short burst of panic coupled with serious doubts of whether you really know anything about the subject that was being discussed. You shot another glance at the people around you, their confident postures and listened to them voicing their views with ease. These guys are the real experts and their expertise must be light years beyond yours.
Yet you felt like this despite evidence to the contrary. You worked hard to get to the position you were in, you studied hard and were obviously a very competent person. Despite all this, you still felt like an impostor, just waiting to be found out.
You might think that you are the only one feeling like this, but you are not. It’s a very sure bet, that some of the people around you are feeling the very same things, feelings of being a fraud and waiting to be exposed as such.
This is actually a very common feeling among many competent people and it even has a name. It’s called the “impostor syndrome“.
I am one of the people that has this impostor syndrome. It has diminished a bit, as I have gained more experience in my present job, but it’s still there, pulling at my brain, giving me negative thoughts and killing my confidence. Previously it was a constant burden, now it pops up from time to time.
I work in IT. It’s more of a strategic position, but I am still deeply involved with the world of information technologies and the development of software. Yet it is a field that I did not study and somehow stumbled into.
I studied something completely different, but ended up in IT positions as if by accident. I started work in a big IT firm, but more in a finance role. Working in that role, I came to see how vastly inefficient some of the processes were and got myself involved in trying to make them more efficient.
I quickly realized that many of these processes could be automated and started teaching myself how to program in order to do so. That was my first real step into the world of IT. This knowledge set allowed me to be hired into a very important position in another organization, where I got involved more in the strategic aspects of IT. From this position, I get to talk to experts in various IT fields. These people have often been working in their area of expertise for 20 or 30 years. Yet I am supposed to work with them, sometimes even to guide them.
When I started this new position, I felt like I had no idea of what I was doing. I felt like a fraud, waiting for my lack of knowledge to be exposed in front of the entire world. Yet I persevered, in the process learning more and more things, and gaining more confidence in my own abilities. There are still a lot of things that I don’t know, but my experience has shown me that there are also a lot of things that I can handle.
It’s actually a similar thing when it comes to fitness. A lot of newbies step into the gym for the first time, look around, see all these big, buff dudes working out and they feel like puny frauds. They ask themselves: “What am I doing here?”
Many times this feeling is the main reason of why they quit.
So what exactly is impostor syndrome? Impostor syndrome is a psychological phenomenon which consists of a person having a collection of feelings of being inadequate despite outside evidence of being competent. While externally the person might project confidence, internally they feel like a fraud.
A person suffering from impostor syndrome has strong feelings of self-doubt and often questions his abilities. He often dismisses his accomplishments simply as luck, or some other similar forces. He feels that for the time being he is able to somehow deceive the others, and is afraid of being “found out”. There are often many low self-esteem issues coupled with this.
People with impostor syndrome can often feel that their own accomplishments are smaller than those of the people around them, either generally or in some particular fields.
It’s not just ordinary people who suffer from this, but even seemingly accomplished and famous people do so as well. For example, supposedly even Albert Einstein suffered from impostor syndrome late in life and doubted his own accomplishments.
It’s very paradoxical that while many competent people suffer from feelings of being a fraud, many incompetent people on the other hand do not have this problem. In fact their mindset follows a totally different psychological effect.
You’ve probably encountered incompetent people who think they are the best thing since sliced bread. It seems as if they lived in their own little world, sheltered from their own ignorance and basking in their internal glow. This effect is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect and deals with unskilled, incompetent individuals rating their skill level much higher than it really is. These individuals rate themselves on a much higher level than they should be.
This effect is named after two scientists who did a study on this precise subject. Here is a definition of the effect from the study: “a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability to recognize their own ineptitude“.
Many incompetent individuals might be ignorant, but that does not strip away from their confidence. In fact they have even more confidence, because of their ignorance. It’s quite paradoxical that really smart people feel incompetent, while the ignorant feel extremelly competent.
One way to explain the differences between these two effects is the way people frame knowledge. People who know a lot tend to focus on the things that they don’t know. As their knowledge level expands, they realize how much more they need to know. On the other hand, ignorant people don’t really care about knowledge and tend to focus on what they know.
If you are a person who is suffering from Impostor Syndrome, you should take a page from the people under the Dunning-Kruger Effect. You should start feeling more confident about your own abilities. You do need a balance and cannot be too overconfident, however a little overconfidence can be beneficial for you.
After all, how many times have you seen the truly competent be passed over by some ignorant overconfident fool. The only thing that the fool had going for him was his overconfidence. Oftentimes that is enough in this world.
So how do you overcome Impostor Syndrome?
First of all you should not undervalue yourself. You should recognize your own competence and become more confident. Here are some steps that you can take in order to overcome Impostor Syndrome:
- recognize your competence and don’t undervalue yourself
- you need to internalize success
- talk to others about it
- have a mentor who supports you
- remember no one is perfect (most likely other ppl around the table are also experiencing it)
- reframe your thinking
- don’t attribute your success to luck, but recognize all the hard work that went into it
- list your accomplishments and failures (and maybe keep a journal describing them)
- adopt a confident posture – position of power raises testosterone and lowers cortisol (stress hormone)
- don’t wait, but act now (if you want to do something, don’t wait for the perfect timing, but do it now)
- don’t wing it, but plan out things (preparation is important)
- use your self-doubt as a way to challenge yourself to improve and use it as motivation to work even harder
- embrace your failures and use them as learning experiences
- don’t always be too modest (being humble is a good thing, but you need to strike a balance)
- impostor syndrome is especially prevalent among introverts, so try to break out of your shell a bit
- know what impostor syndrome is and that you suffer from it (it was actually a big relief in my head when I found out that this thing actually exists)
- on a more practical level, learn some techniques on how to steer away from questions you don’t know the answer to
Whether it is in the gym, or in real life, don’t let self-doubt block your way to success. If you are a beginner in the gym and feel puny next to all those other guys, don’t worry, just be consistent and stick to your routine.
In a few months you will be able to see significant progress. Don’t judge yourself based on others, but instead on the progress that you yourself make. Seeing progress will make you more proud of yourself and more confident to push on and become even bigger and better.