Behind the Facade: Imposter Syndrome

You aren’t the only one who feels like a fraud who is one step away from being discovered. But how do you deal with it before it ruins your career?

When I started college in the fall of 2001, I set an ambitious path. I enrolled with a double major: one in Vocal Music Performance, and the other in Journalism. I also set a double minor: one in History, and one in Museum Studies. The prevailing wisdom says that college is a time to explore things that interest you, and I took that advice to heart. These are all things that interested me, and so I was going to pursue them all!

It wasn’t long before things started falling apart. I dropped the Vocal Music Performance major after my first semester. I told people it was because I had failed music theory, which was true. I told them I hated taking the class, because to me singing and music performance should be about the emotion something elicits. I had started to analyze music in a way that took all of the emotion out of it, so I stopped. That was in part true.

But the dirty secret was this: failing music theory isn’t the reason I dropped the major. The reason I dropped the major was because I didn’t think I was good enough. Being in choirs, taking vocal lessons, and simply wandering around the music building had put me in a position to hear lots of performers, including more senior students and professionals. As much as I loved listening them, it also brought a sinking feeling into my gut…a feeling that I was not now, nor would I ever be, good enough to share or compete for a place on the stage with these performers.

I didn’t realize until years later that the feelings that caused me to drop the major have a name: Imposter Syndrome. An article from 2010 defined Imposter Syndrome as

  1. A feeling that others have an inflated perception of your abilities.
  2. Fear that your true abilities will be found out.
  3. The persistent tendency to attribute successes to external factors, such as luck.

– Christian Jarrett, Feeling Like a Fraud

After I was able to put a name to it and began my career, I continued to struggle with it. When I accepted my first professional position as a museum curator, I was convinced that being a recent college graduate meant that I was no where near ready to have the full control of a collection a curator had. When the Museum Director left, I was appointed Interim Director. I only threw my resume into the pile for consideration for the Director position after numerous conversations with friends, family and my mentor about whether or not I was capable.

As I evaluate my career and look back over the successes I have had, I also notice the third point from the definition creeping in: attributing success to outside factors. While the Smithsonian exhibit I hosted was a smashing success, I never accepted credit for it and deferred all praise to the team I worked with. When I received praise from my boss in the weekly DCI Newsletter for my accomplishments working on-site with a customer, even as I read her praise, I attributed my success to luck and to colleagues who had assisted me. When I completed my certification in Healthcare IT Workflow Management and Training, I joked with my husband that the program had been so easy a monkey could have completed it.

Last week I took a webinar called The Power of Perception: Leadership, Emotional Intelligence and Gender with Shawn Andrews. It was a great webinar that pointed out that suffering from Imposter Syndrome costs you in terms of dollars and in terms of career advancement; after all the qualities often mentioned as being required for success in the workplace are heavily-male associated.

So what can you do about it? How can you learn to start taking well-deserved credit for your success, without doing a complete 180 and going straight into Arrogant Jerk territory? One big step in that direction is realizing that, just as you harbor doubts about your abilities, others must as well. Remember, we know ourselves inside AND out, whereas we only know others from the outside. If Einstein was also plagued by doubts about his intelligence, then everyone else must be as well. Once you accept that you are not the only one who suffers from Imposter Syndrome, it makes it far easier to minimize its effects and be willing to take the risks you need to take to advance your career.

Singing is, for the most part, now relegated to my car during my commute. I still love it, and in part it has come to represent what I lost because of Imposter Syndrome. In doing so, it serves as a source of inspiration to take the risks to advance towards my goals and fight Imposter Syndrome head on.

For more on Imposter Syndrome, check out this TED Talk by Maryam Pasha

 

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