October 16, 2018

5 people who are prone to impostor syndrome and 4 ways to fight it

Is there a gnome on your shoulder?

That’s a serious question.  Let me explain.

Many of us have gnomes on our shoulders.  These strange little creatures feed on our doubts and insecurities.  They question our competencies and snicker at our failures.  They reflect not our best selves, but our fears that we are no more than our worst selves.  And they are the source of impostor syndrome.

Now can you feel the gnome on your shoulder?  Or perhaps it’s no longer there but you remember a time when it was?

If so, you’re not alone.  And even if you’re among the few not affected by these feelings, you’re likely surrounded by people who see themselves as “impostors.”

Seven in 10 people have experienced at least one episode of impostor syndrome in their lives.  It happens in the business world, the academic world, and I know it happens in the medical world.  I recently gave a talk very similar to this post to a group of extraordinarily competent women in medicine and science, and there were many self-labeled “impostors” among us.

I can’t write you a prescription to cure it, but there are tools that will help you quiet — and maybe even have a little fun with — your own gnome.  It starts with understanding the issue.

The origins of the “impostor syndrome” idea

Impostor syndrome was first described in 1978, and the concept was thought to be primarily experienced by women.  That thinking was later revised, and of course today we know that men and women are both affected, and commonly so.  You can take a test to determine whether you’re affected, but I’ll bet you already know the answer.

What type of “impostor” are you?

Plenty has been written about impostor syndrome, but I particularly like the descriptions offered by Valerie Young in her book Secret Thoughts of Successful Women.  She outlines five types of people who are prone to impostor syndrome:

Perfectionists:  Any small mistake makes perfectionists question their own competence.

Experts:  They need to know every single detail about something before they will act or speak up about the topic; they are afraid of looking “stupid.”

Natural geniuses:  Things generally come easily to these individuals.  When they have to work at something harder than expected, natural geniuses see this as a signal of incompetence.

Soloists:  They prefer not to ask for help and are unable to delegate.

Superwomen/supermen:  They push themselves to work harder than everyone around them.  If a superman or superwoman isn’t t working, he or she feels like a fraud.

Do these descriptions resonate with you?  You might have a gnome on your shoulder feeding these insecurities.

Fighting impostor syndrome

The feelings of self-doubt aren’t just hard to stomach.  They can be a source of tangible harm.  Impostor syndrome may lead people to unknowingly sabotage their career development, stagnate in unfulfilling jobs and decline opportunities for growth.  To grow — and to grow to enjoy your well-deserved career success — you must find a way to make whatever peace you can with the gnome on your shoulder.

Recognizing the issue:  Understanding that impostor syndrome is real and has real consequences is an important first step.  Understanding this experience is common is another.

Sharing experiences:  Talking with others you trust about your experience can be eye-opening.  Statistically speaking, you’re likely to find someone right away who has been right where you are.  A mentoring relationship is a great tool to find your way out of this negative cycle.  Also, consider mentoring someone else.  Often the experience of sharing knowledge and helping someone else grow can be so affirming.  In addition, a psychotherapist can help you untangle the roots of your impostor syndrome.

Taking action:  Sometimes the gnome on your shoulder appears because of a real, consequential challenge you are facing.  It might be a stretch period in which you are testing your capabilities and learning that you need some new skills.  Try to listen — skeptically — to your gnome.  It might be nudging you in a direction that is ultimately helpful.

Laughing about it:  The great thing about a phenomenon like impostor syndrome is, since we’ve mostly all been there, it really is one of those uniquely and completely human experiences.  You’re trying to balance a lot in a high-pressure society.  It’s hard.  Of course you’re going to experience doubts.  If adding “fight impostor syndrome” to an already lengthy to-do list is causing stress, try to have some fun with the idea instead.  My gnome-on-the-shoulder metaphor is no accident.  When I feel doubt creeping in, I envision facing my gnome head-on and without fear.  I strike up the band and dance with it.  And I tell the gnome that “I’ve seen you before.  Thanks for the signal that I’m growing.  I’ve got this.”  Then the gnome seems to toddle off to its cave and take a rest.  And those doubts seem to lose some of their power.

Have you experienced impostor syndrome?  How do you handle the gnome on your shoulder?

Last updated October 16, 2018

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