The Imposter Crisis is Coming, Are You Ready?

Woman takes off mask, feeling like an imposter

All the signs are pointing toward an impending imposter crisis. In light of today’s political climate and the social media activity of celebrities, you might think you know what I’m getting at. But I’m talking about a different imposter crisis. Let me start with a personal story.

Years ago, a friend of mine organized murder mystery dinner theatre for birthdays and other events. I helped with a few, including a party celebrating a newly appointed bank president. I was supposed to assume the role of his brother. This was a bit of a challenge since I didn’t know the bank president personally and the only background I had was his résumé biography.

After performing a scene, I was confronted by a couple of bank employees who started quizzing me on details about where my “brother” and I had grown up. It was all in good fun, but I became defensive when I couldn’t keep up the act. Not wanting my cover to be blown, I desperately clung to my story and my behavior made it obvious I was agitated by their accusations. I felt embarrassed and was uncertain of what to do at this point. I finished the evening, but it was difficult to stay in character or enjoy the event at all.

Even if you’ve never performed as an actor, you probably relate to this situation. Every day, we are asked to take on a variety of roles. You may be…

  • a spouse
  • a parent
  • a child
  • a friend
  • a coworker
  • a report
  • a leader
  • a driver
  • a shopper
  • a producer
  • a consumer
  • a counselor
  • a person in need

You could be all of these in the span of a single day. Some of these roles may be natural for you. Others may feel like a stretch. Roles related to your job can continuously slide up and down your spectrum of confidence.

Many times, you may feel like I did in the murder mystery dinner.  A feeling you’re pretending to be someone you’re not with a constant expectation someone will rat you out to the world. This feeling doesn’t mean you’re unprofessional or inadequate. It means you’re human.

In fact, this is so common, there is a term for it: Imposter Syndrome. This form of self-doubt doesn’t appear to be exclusive to a particular gender, race or personality type. We feel like a fraud often when we are trying to do something that’s new to us. Here’s the thing: doing something new is no longer an option, it’s a requirement. The pace of change is ever increasing. With those changes, we are each asked more and more often to learn something new–or even transform ourselves. The graph below is adapted from Geoffrey Moore’s book Dealing with Darwin:

Life Cycle Change Curve

The chart illustrates how businesses, products and technology have to innovate and change in order to move forward or improve performance. But, what if instead of viewing this from the lens of a business or product, you view it as your career? For most of us, this is the new reality and it comes with the additional requirement of learning new things on a regular basis.

What does this mean? It means it’s possible you could continually feel like an imposter. By the time you get through one learning curve, a new one begins. The persistence of this issue could manifest itself in some very real problems for individuals and workplaces.1

  1. To keep up appearances, you work harder (but not necessarily smarter), which leads to burnout.
  2. Self-doubt causes you to give answers you feel your supervisors want.
  3. You use charm to compensate for feeling inadequate. When praised, you feel you received acknowledgment because of charm instead of merit.
  4. You avoid displays of confidence in yourself.

What Can You Do to Avoid the Imposter Crisis?

All of these issues can be devastating to your productivity, innovation, creativity and your ability to collaborate effectively with others. Left unchecked, this can seriously impede your career and prevent you from achieving your goals in life. So, what can you do about it? Here are a few suggestions.

  1. Acknowledge the Feelings

    Recognizing when you’re feeling self-doubt can give you more power over those feelings. Lack of awareness allows self-doubt to manipulate your actions (or inaction) without your knowledge. It’s like a sneaky, little gremlin sabotaging your life from the shadows. Shed some light on him and you take away his power.

    Also realize you’re not alone in feeling this way. Others, even those you may feel are judging you, struggle with the same doubts and uncertainty. They likely think much more about their own inadequacies than yours. A former first lady put it best.

    You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.
    Eleanor Roosevelt

  2. Get Perspective

    In his Inc.com article on How to Overcome Your Fear of Being a Fraud, Chris Desi encourages you to seek a mentor. This should be someone who can empathize with your feelings, share how they deal with self-doubt and encourage you to overcome your fear. Desi also recommends reviewing your past accomplishments. If you received public awards, you can even ask yourself if the judges would have acknowledged you if you didn’t deserve it.

    If you’re still wondering if you’re over your head, take a moment to check your comfort level. In his advice on setting goals, Michael Hyatt gives a great description of 3 different zones of comfort on the “This is Your Life” Podcast. If you feel like you’re in your Comfort Zone, then maybe your goals aren’t not pushing you enough. You should strive to be in the Discomfort Zone. This the place where growth happens because–as we mentioned above–you’re learning something new. But don’t deceive yourself into trying something impossible and ending up in the Delusion Zone.

  3. Be Courageous

While in basic training, Dan Sullivan learned the difference between fear, courage and confidence from an Army Sergeant.

He said, “Fear is wetting your pants. And courage is doing what you’re supposed to do with wet pants.”

Sullivan goes on to explain…

Courage is often depicted as a person feeling absolutely certain about taking action in a situation. That’s not courage — that’s confidence. The difference between courage and confidence is that confidence feels good; courage is doing what you’re supposed to do despite the discomfort and the lack of confidence.

OK, so you’re not running military drills with live hand grenades, but the fear of being seen as an imposter is just as real. It taps into the primitive part of your brain that avoids danger (sensed or real) in order to survive. This is when you need to realize, as Elizabeth Gilbert puts it, fear doesn’t have your permission to drive the car. You can’t avoid him, but you can put him in the back seat.

Like I mentioned earlier, when I the bank employees confronted me about being an imposter I let it ruin my day. Don’t let imposter syndrome ruin your day, or worse, your career. With the oncoming imposter crisis, be aware when it creeps in on you, keep your perspective and stock up on courage to do what you’re supposed to (even with wet pants).

 


 

  1. Clance, Pauline Rose; Imes, Suzanne A. (1978). “The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention.” (PDF). Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice15 (3): 241–247. Retrieved 19 February 2015.

Dustin Staiger is a business and marketing coach in Houston, TX. He addresses team and individual effectiveness, marketing, communications and creativity for smaller, entrepreneurial organizations as well as large enterprises.

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