Imposter Syndrome is the crushing feeling that you are somehow fraudulent in your identity as an expert or leader in your field/ genre; an imposter. Under-qualified to comment, act or be regarded as credible despite a wealth of insight and experience – despite your expertise. You feel overwhelmed by the feeling that you just do not know enough and will of course, be exposed as a fraud. There is a kind of ironic truism in here that I believe is experienced: the more you know about something, the more you realise that you know almost nothing! This to me, is a mark of respect for your subject – and your potential to go beyond what is ‘known’.
As 19th century computer pioneer Ada Lovelace said:
“I never am really satisfied that I understand anything; because, understand it well as I may, my comprehension can only be an infinitesimal fraction of all I want to understand about the many connections and relations which occur to me, how the matter in question was first thought of or arrived at…”
In this often crippling application of self-doubt, there is often a further miscalculation occurring. That you also over-estimate the knowledge and expertise that others possess too. A de-valuing of the self and simultaneously, an over-valuing of others creates a wide chasm of self-doubt that is very hard to bridge.
Imposter Syndrome leads to suffering in the individual but on the wider scale it is a collective problem as it leads to great ideas being kept in the dark, potentially brilliant innovation, exploration and adaption curtailed. What if someone right now is holding in their hands an immediate cure for Covid-19, but they will not release it from their grip because of Anxiety? What if it’s not the cure itself but it’s a crucial step that must be made on the journey to it’s discovery? What if we are in a culture that elevates the hum-drum and shames bold attempts? What if..?
Now to complicate matters… but this needs to be discussed…
Imposter Syndrome isn’t the only concern. In contrast to Imposter Syndrome there is the Dunning-Kruger effect (named after two psychologists, Dunning and Kruger whose work on cognitive bias and the role of self-awareness in incompetence goes back to the 90s). The DKE is where a person with a little knowledge, insight or ability in something vastly over-estimates their expertise or abilities. This is not just about how they ‘sell’ their identity to others – it’s a genuine belief about themselves. Even more alarming is that it’s quite possible for Dunning Kruger Effect to be a collaborative delusion. False expertise can be manifested from a self-supporting social circle – a collective of self-approving experts all lending each other the validation they seek in a loop of imaginary leadership. I’ve seen how damaging this is in three industries: competition over collaboration in performing arts, ‘grey’ academia (maintaining the status quo rather than seeking knowledge) and the confusion of the coaching industry.
E.g. in burlesque theatre, the scene largely prevented itself from emerging as a successful industry because so many ‘experts’ appeared in such a short space of time. It became the norm for complete newcomers to become ‘professionals’ in a matter of weeks – advertising themselves as teachers, producers, and ‘international’ performers of many years experience. Others simply rebranded from a different genre to burlesque. With so many grandstanding on a platform that was yet to stabilise, the proverbial gusset was ripped out of the burly knickers before it had a chance of standing ovation on the bigger showbiz stage. It has taken years for the industry to recover from this. I estimate that the genre is about ten years behind where it could have been today in terms of it’s economy and social influence, at least here in the UK.
I talk about the Dunning Kruger effect often because it scares the crap out of me. I often think that if I looked it up in the dictionary, I’d see my own face looking back at me. I’m no ‘expert’ on anything in particular and I often wonder if I am a DK doofus leading not only myself but other people astray, with my over-inflated sense of self and imaginary insight. I then think perhaps I have no business in helping others work through Anxiety and ascend in their personal development. But then I also wonder… what if this all means it’s actually Imposter Syndrome? And that I might be holding back on something that really could help others?
I have pondered this a lot. The result is that I have enough gumption to share what I think are insights because there is nothing to lose for anyone, by me taking a risk on my own self-esteem. Either I find out that my writing this has been helpful or, I don’t. Either way, I learn something. No biggie.
So I wanted to share my thoughts with you – in spite of (and because of) the many doubts I’m experiencing right now as a write this. Because maybe… if I’m not a complete DK dunce then there is a chance that my tips will actually help someone going through this too – and who knows, maybe that someone might release, share or devise the cure for Covid-19 or end the plastic solution problem or… [insert your dream contribution to the world right here].
Here are my thoughts:
I have noticed a growing propensity for social media proclamations of individuals having (and even ‘suffering’) Imposter Syndrome – as though it is some kind of validation of expert position. I find this strange. I wonder just how much of it is ironic wishful thinking inspired by a trend – but furthermore, what if it is actually the Dunning-Kruger effect in disguise? “Oh you know, I’m just such an expert that I doubt myself all the time”.
DON’T PANIC! I have got this figured out. I think…
Now, the DKE is all about a LACK of self-awareness so someone exhibiting this is unlikely to be genuinely doubting themselves in the first place – and would not suspect an over-estimation in themselves. However, what if they should have an unexpected, real and singular moment of doubt? Perhaps in meeting a very real ‘expert’, bumping in to a career ceiling or professional barrier in their work? Are they likely to perhaps assume Imposter Syndrome is present?
So, the point here is to recognise that this is occurring and not be overwhelmed by the (false) appearance of so many ‘experts’ online. Over-valuing others’ expertise (and down-grading your own) is very easy when they are telling you to do exactly so.
So…. How to spot the difference?
To me, Imposter Syndrome is more likely to be quietly, even secretly, demonstrable as Anxiety – not as an advert of expertise. It would be largely unseen in a person unless you know them well or, in confidence they discuss their feelings, maybe sharing in a private peer group. It would be evidenced in their behaviours and thoughts such as hesitation to engage with others or take opportunities, procrastination around their work, critical tone of self-talk language and avoidance of criticism (like compulsive editing and re-editing and re-re-editing…).
Yet many who publicly announce or discuss their Imposter Syndrome, show no signs of hesitation or self-doubt, quite the opposite. Of course, that doesn’t mean that they definitely aren’t experiencing it, sure, because people deal with Anxiety and self-doubt in different ways but it really makes me wonder if (and why) it is being used a label of credibility – rather than a period of extremely personal and professional difficulty that tends to come with other complex feelings of shame and fear of rejection. Feelings that experiencers would likely hide from public consumption, not draw attention to.
I also find it interesting that no-one pipes publicly up and says: ‘I suspect I’m maybe a fraud, so I think I have been operating under the Dunning-Kruger effect’. I wonder… Is this because DKS is maybe actually the real and very uncomfortable issue that is far more common than anyone cares to admit?
There is an undeniable tendency for people to seek reassurance through social media but no-one wants to take the real risk of saying ‘I’m not as awesome at this as I assumed’ or ‘I’m an intellectual oaf’ or ‘I’ve been way over-charging for my actual level of expertise’…. and maybe have it confirmed.
Furthermore, in making such statements it creates doubt in the reader or listener (potential customer) – it’s directly damaging to identity and professional image. Whereas declaring ‘I’m a self-doubting expert’ reinforces the idea of ‘expert’ in that identity. So, could that be a motivating factor? Sales?
Ask yourself, does this person appear to be selling something? For many business people their sales pitch – and ticket price – is based upon their appearance as the expert in their field.
How to manage your experience
- Firstly, accept that your self-doubt is a wayward (and unhelpful) sign of your ever-growing insight and integrity. It is Anxiety reminding you of your vast insight and deep core values.
- Secondly, let go of any need to hold on to the word ‘expert’ (or similar), in your self-image. You don’t need it. No-one actually does.
What is an expert anyway? There is way too much false importance placed on the word ‘expert’. What does ‘expert’ even mean? Academic? Field experience? Customer success? Money earned? Press interest? Peer approval? (Which can often be about collaborative delusion of shared expertise and when someone breaks the status quo they are stripped of their approval), Number of certificates? Number of accolades? And who accredits these bodies to give such awards anyway? There are ideas like Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice (see his excellent book ‘Outliers’) but there is no precise meaningful definition that can uniformly applied across industries and genres. On asking many different experts, there doesn’t appear to be any one shared vision of the expert. It’s personal. It’s a subjective term.
Being an expert and having expertise aren’t necessarily the same thing – for example, my expertise spans many genres and fields. I am not expert in any one thing, just like most people aren’t either. I like that I have a ‘portfolio career’ and am an unusual (hard to imitate) figure in the world of psychology, arts and coaching. In fact, I think this is preferable to me as I like variety and value comparative and multi-perspective thinking.
I’ve said before and I will say it again: I’m no expert in anything – and that’s actually the way I like it. I have learned to let go of the ‘need’ for ten million qualifications and absolute peer approval – because I’m done asking permission to work and try and do things. I still have self-doubt but I see this as a good thing, because it reminds me to keep working and trying and doing things – and the self-doubt reassures me that I’m not the DK asshat I worry about. It also reminds me of my core values (integrity, honesty, growth, inclusion, non-judgement, perspective, kindness) and helps me re-centre on those each time.
Besides, I have plenty of expertise – and this is demonstrated in the facts of my history and ability to work and try and do things.
The point here is that in this uncertainty and ambiguity of what it means to be an expert, we have fertile ground for Impostor Syndrome to take hold and choke progress and, simultaneously more room for the Dunning Kruger Effect to grow. This is why that feeling of being ‘enough’ is so damn elusive – at least it is to those who care about it.
- Remind yourself to check in with your feelings and emotions, not just the thoughts.
Feelings and emotions inform us of our personal values. If you are feeling worried, fearful or even sick at the thought of your work being reviewed, then perhaps it shows how much you value your contribution, your relationships to others, your impact. I have a collaborator who frequently ponders this about themselves too – and despite all their knowledge, success, experience and a unique PhD, she too regularly suspects herself of being a DK dunce. There are others too, quietly biting their nails and frazzling themselves out instead of releasing their beautiful work. I’m often gently nudging them on with ‘come on lovelies, time to take a little risk on yourself’… just as they are with me too.
Interestingly, in all our cases, this experience rears its head most acutely right when we are in the middle of creating – and then again when about to release – something new and potentially impactful, born from a desire to contribute to progress. For me, this timing is an ironic ‘proof’ of Imposter Syndrome, or as close to proof it as we can get. It is in caring about the integrity of impact that suggests we can simply acknowledge the feeling of doubt, and proceed anyway. Positive risk-taking. If your values are being challenged, it is evidence that you CARE.
Just as there are people who never ever doubt their opinion nor question their sanity at times, the non self-aware people are the ones who alarm me. Not the people how doubt themselves. I have deep respect for those who acknowledge that they feel vulnerable at times, lost or in need of more learning. Again, as I see it, this is a congruent sentiment of integrity being held in the highest esteem.
- Check the facts too.
Look to how people around you respond to your work. Who is ringing bells for you? No-one you genuinely respect and look-up to would be supporting you in your gene nor others trying to join you where you are right now, if you were indeed an imposter or fraud or doofus. If you respect these people, then trust that they would spot a true imposter. Uphold your respect for them by accepting their respect for you. The comes down not so much to how good you are rating yourself, but rating your peers and contemporaries as people you aspire to belong with. The people around you, reflect you.
Remember too that after all is said and done, it’s the innovators and adapters who make progress – after the repeaters are worn out and redundant. It is in being bold and daring that growth occurs. Being an expert on the status quo is only useful if you plan to break it.
- So here is the hack – there is no need to claim to be an expert.
Other people will do that. Cite your own expertise and experience of course because that’s your personal history and if your work is good then your results speak for you. Let go of the attachment, move forward and upwards as you embrace the wealth of learning – and a life of experience – that’s always before you, as well as behind you.
Your self-doubt is the jagged thorns on the vine of self-awareness. True imposters will come and go and they will be identified by their transience, their inability to grow and nurture others as they do – not by their self-doubt. Hold your values close and observe how they inform you, not hinder you. Nourish yourself with time away from social media, but with good aspirational peers, not ambitious ones. Attribute the respect you have for those, also unto yourself. Hold space for those who acknowledge that they feel vulnerable at times, lost or in need of more learning and offer them the gentle loving encouragement to try and to do. Because self-doubting people are the ones who have the most capacity to grow toward the light – and simultaneously grow the garden for others to share in.