The Impostor Syndrome at Work

An aircraft illustrating complexity of work that can also trigger the impostor syndrome
U.S. Air Force F-16A/B Flight Manual

My latest assignment saw me crash land into a maddeningly confusing trio of parallel projects, each of which came with more abbreviations than an aircraft handling manual. They were complex, demanding, and had forced me to understand a torrent of new information. They also placed a severe strain on my ability to handle high stress, all the while I was trying to become accustomed to an industry I knew nothing about and to which I came as an expert on things UX.

And if that were not enough, I also kept questioning myself:

Am I good enough?

Can I handle this?

What if I can’t?

What will everyone say should I fail?

This concoction of rampant fear and feelings of inadequacy does not offer a fertile ground for meaningful work. Stretching the fertile ground analogy further, my situation resembled a farm needing tilling while the farmer (me) stood at the edge, afraid to even begin the work for fear that the shovel would break, that the sun’s too hot, that the ground’s too dry and hard, that there’s not enough water, that the seed is damp and stale, and that he’ll end up laughed at by the curious audience that had gathered to watch him work.

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Women tilling. (by Clark Hulings)

Not a fun place to be.

Of course, the curious audience is much more than just curious. It’s invested. It has a stake in the farm. It’s made up of, quite literally, stakeholders. It has a reason to want the farm to flourish. After all, that’s why they hired a consultant-farmer to come in and do the hard lifting. They, more than anything, want to see him succeed.

But, to the farmer, all those eyes seem ominous. Full of scrutiny and judgment, as if waiting for something to go wrong so they can point the finger and scream profanities at the poor, misunderstood farmer.

Which, of course, is not the case. The project was challenging, and the client needed help. Hence them hiring me. Something in my skillset and my character convinced them I could provide that help. If anything, it’s a compliment and evidence of good-natured trust placed in me. But, coming there, it seemed as I needed convincing of my ability to justify that trust.

What am I doing here? Do they know I’m barely scraping by? What if I mess this one up and the project(s) fail?

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In the 1970s, psychology professor Pauline Rose Clance noticed a tendency of women in academic environments to belittle their worth and achievements. They continuously feared failure and felt like frauds. No matter how successful they were, or how long and accomplished their career, they pinned their success to luck instead of to their own effort and merit. In other words, they felt like impostors, someone who’s just about to be seen through, exposed, and sent home. Clance called this the impostor phenomenon — characterized by an inability to internalize accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud, neither of which seemed to disappear with more success.

The same kind of self-debilitating patterns were later on found in men, and the impostor phenomenon was no longer thought to be a gender-specific trait. Instead, it became evident in general human psyche — a persistent feeling of inadequacy.

Consulting, and working in fast-paced tech environments in general, is nothing if not stressful. The constant need to be up to date, agile, an abbreviation ninja, iterative, one step ahead, and on the bleeding edge can, and does, cause people to question and second-guess themselves. 
 
And it should.

It seems to me it’s only normal. Tech and consulting are full of challenges unlike any seen before, and it’s OK to turn to introspection and reflection, to ask yourself — can I objectively do this? It seems above all else a human trait, that allows us to pause before running headlong into something. If there weren’t such a mechanism, we’d all just be boastful talking heads with no regard for humility and no grasp of reality.

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Talking heads.

But the mechanism can spiral out of control. It can turn from an objective consideration (what I can do vs. what I’m supposed to do) to a paralysing feeling of inadequacy where everyone else’s cool exterior seems more capable, more successful, and more deserving than I am. Think of the women Clance interviewed — they were all successful, driven, high-ranking, and respected. And yet, they felt like they had no right to be where they were.

Oliver Sacks, a well-known neurologist and author, once read a book titled “Human Brain and Psychological Processes” by Alexander R. Luria and was filled with immense admiration. He, a successful pioneer in his field, also began to doubt his ability to produce anything of value:

“…for as I read it, I thought, what place is there for me in the world? Luria has already seen, said, written, and thought anything I can ever say, or write, or think. I was so upset that I tore the book in two (I had to buy a new copy for the library, as well as a copy for myself.” 

Oliver Sacks

Neil Gaiman, a prolific writer, imagined a man in a dull suit knocking on his door in the middle of the night and proclaiming:

Well, I’m afraid we are on to you. We’ve caught up with you. And I’m afraid you are now going to have to go out and get a proper job.

Neil Gaiman

Both of them, like me, like those women in the interview, and like the metaphorical farmer were terrified of the audience, forgetting to notice that the audience is also terrified of some other audience which fears yet another audience — the cycle goes on, and it’s difficult to stop, even if for just a moment, to notice that the person next to me is likely going through the same thing I am.

A human being is hardly ever alone.

So how to pause and face the impostor phenomenon?

Say it

Next time, tell yourself you’re going through a bout of the impostor syndrome and it will immediately become a little less difficult.

Talk to someone when it becomes too much. Find people whom you can confide in. Thoughts, and emotions, are much less scary once they’re out in the open. Sharing will help you learn how to appreciate progress without constantly having to put yourself down.

Allow growth

Feeling that you’re not up to the task means that you’re challenged, that you’re growing, learning, managing, handling, failing, and getting up (don’t forget that last bit). The impostor syndrome, if nothing else, can serve as a road sign that says in bold letters: here, go this way, this is where you’ll grow.

People are not out to get you

Acknowledge that people are either interested in your success or disinterested in you completely, both of which takes some stress off of your shoulders. Either they’re willing to help, or they’re not. Very rarely, if ever, will they actively work against you. This is especially true in a professional setting — you are hired to help, and people around you want you to succeed.

Don’t ride your ego

You are not as important or crucial as you think you are. This is not an insult, but rather a reminder. We can often go mad, thinking that things revolve around us more than they do.

Understand that no one is perfect.

It’s a cliche for a reason. There’s no point in putting people on a pedestal while downgrading yourself. We’re all here for a brief moment and it’s better to live it than to squat on top of a pedestal or kneel below it.

Remember your worth,

because it’s precisely the same as everyone else’s. No more and no less.


MARIN MIKULIC