Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Dirty Little Secret of Many Successful Men and Women: Impostor Syndrome

I received an e-mail this morning from a friend.  His message caused me to re-order my priorities for the morning and address his concerns in the form of writing this White Rhino Report Blog piece.  For the personal concern and question that my friend posed are ones that I have heard many times.  My friend works in academia, but the phenomenon he describes can be found among successful men and women in all walks of life. Let me share anonymously an edited version  of my friend's e-mail and question: 

"I just had a meeting with my boss.  He was quite happy with the progress and pieces I've put together so far.  But somehow I managed before the meeting to work myself up about it all and convince myself that I'd be told to start over from square one and none of it would be good enough.  I've had this with other things in academia, telling myself that I'm not good enough and afraid someone will say 'that [professor], nice guy but he really should have stopped at the Masters [level] where he would do no harm.'  I think I left [my previous school] partly out of fear that I wouldn't be able to compete with the other students there, even though I'd just won first place in a grad student competition.

I read an essay by another person who teaches at a university, she diagnosed it as
'Impostor Syndrome.'  The sense that even though you have accomplished things, it is only a matter of time till you fall on your face.  I almost get a sense of paralysis at times, as though it might be better to just not do anything and fail that way. It is strange since I know my value comes from God, not what some other person tells me.

Any thoughts?"

My courageous and self-aware friend nailed it:  Impostor Syndrome.  It has taken me awhile to recognize how widespread this syndrome is among successful individuals.  Most of us have come to accept the fact that the most common  fear among adults is a fear of public speaking - greater even than the fear of death.  But among very successful women and men, a more common and deeply-rooted fear is that one day someone will come up to them, point an accusing finger and shout: "You have been discovered; you are a complete fraud.  You have no business being in your position of power and influence and authority!  Who do you think you are?"

In my business as an executive recruiter, and in my private life, I am privileged to be surrounded by persons who have achieved great success in a broad variety of fields - business, academia, government, military, film, stage, professional athletics, religion, art.  Many of these individuals have become close friends, and many have achieved the highest level of success possible in their fields.  Yet more often than I would have thought possible, in quiet and vulnerable moments, these women and men will ask me - either explicitly or implicitly: "Am I doing OK?" "Did my speech suck?"  "Was my performance passable?" "Are people following me because they have no other choice, or because I am a good leader?"

The Cal Tech Counseling Center has an on-line definition of Impostor Syndrome that summarizes well what I have seen demonstrated among many high achievers:

Impostor Syndrome

Cal Tech Counseling Center - Impostor Syndrome Impostor syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in face of information that indicates that the opposite is true. It is experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence. 

It is basically feeling that you are not really a successful, competent, and smart student, that you are only imposing as such. 

Some common feelings and thoughts that might characterize the impostor syndrome are: "I feel like a fake" "My classmates/professors etc. are going to find out I don't really belong here," "Admissions made a mistake," etc. The impostor feelings can be divided into three sub categories:

1.  Feeling like a fake: the belief that one does not deserve his or her success or professional position and that somehow other have been deceived into thinking otherwise. This goes together with a fear of being, "found out", discovered or "unmasked". People who feel this way would identify with statements such as: "I can give the impression that I am more competent than I really am."  "I am often afraid that others will discover how much knowledge I really lack". 
2.  Attributing success to luck: Another aspect of the impostor syndrome is the tendency to attribute success to luck or to other external reasons and not to your own internal abilities. Someone with such feeling would refer to an achievement by saying, "I just got lucky this time" "it was a fluke" and with fear that they will not be able to succeed the next time.   
3.  Discounting Success: The third aspect is a tendency to downplay success and discount it. One with such feelings would discount an achievement by saying, "it is not a big deal," "it was not important." One example of this is discounting the fact that they made it here, which is really a big success.  Or saying, "I did well because it is an easy class, etc."  Or, you might have a hard time accepting compliments. 

I have no silver bullet, magic pill, or panacea to offer.  I know that many of us are haunted by tapes that play in our heads - accusing voices from our distant - or not so distant  - past.  
  • A mother who was never quite satisfied with our grades.  "All A's?  Didn't Johnny get an A+.  Why didn't you?"
  • A father who rejected your choice of major or of profession: "How will  you ever make a living?  Who hires philosophers?  How many actors do you know who are actually paying the bills?  Do you expect me to support you for the rest of my life?"
  • A teacher whose approval you were never able to win: "You certainly are not the student that your big sister was when I taught her!"
  • A boss whose style of managing does not match your own: "I suppose that this report on our project is acceptable, but I would have done it differently.  Can't you put in some more PowerPoint slides?"
  • A  well meaning relative who is worried about your future as a Renaissance Man/Woman.  Aunt Hattie sees you as someone who seems to wander in many different directions at once: "My child, you simply must learn to focus on one thing, or you will never amount to anything!"
And no matter how hard we try to erase these tapes, the echoes still rattle around inside of our heads and hearts and souls.  The only way to silence these ghostly voices is to replace them with newer and more affirming messages.  Whether those new messages are imprinted through counseling or through a network of healthy and loving relationships, it takes work to flip the switch and begin to accept the reality of our success.

To close, let me steal some wisdom from a new musical I recently reviewed: "SHIDA," written and performed by the astonishingly gifted Jeannette Bayardelle:

White Rhino Report Review of SHIDA

In  the play, Shida has reached bottom - tapes are playing in her head from years of abuse and a downward spiral  Having once experienced early success in life - getting accepted into NYU after growing up on the streets of Queens - she has given into the destructive voices and has almost died from an overdose.  Her friend Jackie sings to her this new message of hope and affirmation - gently at first and then bellowing out the message so it cannot be ignored:

"Shida,  Shida, Shida, Shida
You're a fighter - a survivor - an overcomer
You're a winner.
Don't you forget who you really are;
Don't be blinded by the wound or the scars . . . 
You've been blessed with the gift of a brand new day!"

Shida The Musical Musical - Listen to four of the songs - SHIDA excerpts

In his e-mail earlier today, my friend included the phrase: "I know my value comes from God."  I would be remiss if I did not at least briefly mention that there is often a spiritual dimension to the process of replacing the accusatory tapes with more affirming ones.  My theology tells me that God is everlastingly at war with forces of evil - personified in Satan.  Scripture describes him as "The Accuser," and he will often whisper - sometimes shout - words of doubt and accusation.  God's words of Grace, acceptance and affirmation are among the most powerful tools and antidotes for the symptoms of Impostor Syndrome.  You may not share my theological persuasion, so I encourage you to grab onto the spiritual antidote that you find most effective.  "Just sayin' . . ."!

I would welcome comments from those who read these thoughts of mine - and of my catalytic friend.

God bless.


1 comment:

Zac said...

Really loved this, thanks for the insights as always Al. I'll be taking them with me on the Camino!