Imposter Phenonemon

I distinctly remember cycling with my buddy, Todd, on the above ride in 2015.  We were preparing for a 70.3-mile triathlon right before my family was supposed to move back to Kodiak, Alaska.  Todd turned to me on the west-northwest road between New Hope and Hertford to ask, “What is your greatest fear?”  My response was immediate, “Being found out a fraud.”  

It felt completely normal for me to have that fear.  I would learn four years later reading The Happiness Trap, that it may be a sign of an unhealthy self image.  Understanding your circle of competence is a good thing but believing you don’t have one is not.

“Having negative thoughts and feelings means I’m a normal human being.”

Dr. Russ Harris

What is imposter phenomenon (or syndrome)?  The APA has the best definition I could find: “intellectual self-doubt” normally found in high performers.  I had been overcompensating externally for how I felt about myself on the inside for years.  Did I discuss decisions endlessly to gain Deb’s approval or my own? Why would I work a room to make myself feel a necessary part of the group instead of being confident of the useful point of view I was invited to bring?  Rather than diving deeper into areas that interested me, I would would disparage projects whose team did not seek my advice. My self-doubt limited my contributions while I was simultaneously being told by others what a great job I was doing.

Researching this post made me realize an additional aspect of imposter phenomenon: it’s not limited to your professional life.  About a year before my breakdown, I told my wife that my only real contribution to our family was my paycheck.  Really? It only makes sense when you broaden the aperture to the integrated self-work-others view of life:

  • Those suffering from imposter phenomenon attribute their achievements to the hard work or skill of others.  This is sort of true as you grow from being an individual contributor to a leader.  However, the fingerprint of you is still there if you search closely.  I’ve said numerous times that leadership is sometimes simply getting out of the way and now understand that a good leader shapes how the work is done without his or her physical presence. They go from doers to managing a culture of doing.
  • Imposter phenomenon-ers often feel a sense of relief rather than achievement with any evaluations or awards they receive.  This is every sports or project team I’ve ever been on.  My division three club lacrosse team won the New England championships in 1999 and hence invited to the national championship that we were not allowed to attend for summer training even though they allowed us to miss training to support the variety teams (sorry, sore subject).  Was I an amazing lacrosse player?  No.  Did I play crease attack to 1) distract the other team’s goalie and 2) occasionally catch the ball and score?  Yes.  Did I feel like I contributed to the championship?  No.  Did I?  Yes.

Going back to the circle of competence graphic linked above, what happens if your perceptions do not align with reality?  The labels flip.  You get a smaller, inner circle of what you think you know and larger, ring of what you actually do.  You’re still very aware of the boundary, but now, instead of focusing outward and expanding it, you focus inward on what you think you do not and stop growing.  If you’re an emotionally healthy member of MARSOC like my son wants to be, you continually get better and become more useful.  If you’re an unconfident high school wrestler in the 1996 regional championship, you tell yourself you shouldn’t be there, throw the match to avoid trying, and never find out what could have been.

If this rings true, you are not alone.  Plenty of famous people have admitted to Wikipedia (I think that’s how it works) that they feel the same way and imposter phenomenon is more prevalent in minorities.  Here are three tips that I learned through therapy – shout out to Jane:

  1. When you find yourself blaming yourself, practice divergent thinking.  It also helps to picture giving feedback to your self instead of yourself.  Would somone who loves you talk to you like you do?  Talk to your little buddy…in private, of course.
  2. I still bust out my ACT cards at least once a week to overcome my FEAR.
  3. Try your best to view failure as feedback.  

If you’re still reading, a funny story for you.  As Todd and I were making the turn onto that stretch of road I spied a hawk up ahead on the right, just off the pavement.  We drifted left to not bother it but clearly not far enough as it started flapping its wings to get airborne.  As it got airborne, I noticed that it had a snake in its talons.  Tasty lunch.  However, the hawk misjudged our angle of intercept and departed with a constant bearing, decreasing range.  In other words, we were in its way.  As a helicopter pilot, I know what you do when you take off with a heavy load and cannot make the necessary climb gradient – you pickle the load.  In this case, the hawk released the snake at us and flew in the other direction.  True story, a bird threw a snake at me.

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