Imposter syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. 'Imposters' suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.
Growing up, some of the mental levers that I knew buttressed a successful life and career were confidence and self-worth. A good education, hard work and a strong network are obviously important in our growth; but self-confidence is a fundamental ingredient that helps us build the life that we dream of.
So essentially, I tackled life and work challenges using my reservoir of self-belief to navigate difficult situations, negotiate relationships and tackle challenges. For so long, I was buoyed by the support of family, friends, co-workers and bosses that provided an environment where, regardless of the struggles I faced in life or work, I knew that I could count on their goodwill and support. Indeed, when I think about my young self, she had an unwavering belief that people can be relied on, wish others well and go out of their way to support those around them.
This simple belief drove my life and career for the most part of my life. While I faced challenges including people who lied about me and sabotaged my efforts, (especially at work); I usually rose above it and found the optimism that kept me relentless in my pursuit for results. I had never encountered human obstacle that uprooted my trust in the good of humanity… until more recently.
When I started a challenging job in a new organization, there were two people who were significant to the deepest lessons I learned. Both were among those who went out of their way to welcome me into this job. I had dinners at their homes and one even had a parting gift for me. Both articulated their support for me, gave tips on navigating the environment, advice on what works and promised their continued support, whenever I needed. I felt that familiar cushion I had known from my past – a warm feeling of knowing that you have people who have ‘got your back’.
Fast forward, I was struggling to keep things together in a culture that was disjointed, competitive and blaming. I reached deep to find the fortitude to keep going. I envisioned, negotiated, pushed and wracked my mind for every ‘tool’ I would think of to make things work. But despite my efforts, the environment triggered a self-doubt that I had never experienced in my life. I started to question my abilities and beliefs - especially my belief in the ‘good’ in people. I wondered if I was cut out to do the job, questioned my suitability to deliver and/ or create the right solutions.
Amid these difficulties in my work, these two people for some reason fueled these negative emotions. As I grappled with these challenges, it was starkly clear that one of them was sabotaging my efforts and exhibiting typical corporate narcissistic behaviours. It was enervating trying to navigate this unhealthy conduct, supervise the rest of the team and deliver challenging projects. The other person, after delaying action on a critical time-bound project and going behind our backs threw a tantrum during what was supposed to be the final feedback meeting; and then turned the blame around on me and the project lead. In her fury, she told me that she has always found me to be arrogant and wondered why I put on the impression that I knew what I was doing when I didn’t and that she had seen this since she had started working with me.
Now, hear this … it was 3 and a half years since we began working together cross-functionally. As I sat listening to her, willing myself to listen and not respond or defend myself; I could not help thinking: “who thinks that about a colleague, and never makes time to give them that feedback”? (especially as she was supposed to be ‘in my corner’, rooting for me ever since I started the job). All this left me feeling lost and in trying to understand everything, I stumbled on the corporate narcissist and imposter syndrome concepts.
Let us just unpack the imposter syndrome concept for now. Wikipedia and Time report that an estimated 70% of individuals experience impostor feelings at least once in their lives. Aside from the feelings of self-doubt, people experiencing the imposter syndrome may also feel anxious, stressed or depressed. You may feel like you don’t belong, that those around you (e.g. friends or colleagues) are going to discover you’re a fraud and that you don’t deserve your job and accomplishments.
This is deep stuff! Stuff that I am thankful I did not have to experience in full measure. Yeah, I was frustrated, doubted myself to some degree, was stressed but I am so glad that I somehow seem to be wired with a bounce back mechanism. If there is one thing that has kept me on my feet throughout my life, it is my ability to be in the dark and still seek for the light, to doubt but still hope, to feel down but never really broken. So, I rose out of the ashes of the toxic dynamics of my job and I am still standing.
But don’t let this optimism paint an inaccurate story … I did struggle for a while. I think the hurt I felt was because the people who tried to put me down or sabotage my work had initially shown up for me as people I could trust and rely on. So, it all did not make sense and with the pressure from the job, there was period where I shrunk into a ‘safe’ corner. I stopped leaning in, so to speak - I didn’t volunteer to take on new projects, I silenced myself and let others take the space. In a way, I was exhibiting what the naysayers wanted. But over time, the healing came, I realized just how I was diminishing myself and impeding my own growth and fulfillment by letting other people’s opinions determine my actions and my feelings. And as I rose from this self-exclusion, I was driven by Marianne Willamson’s words: “There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine... And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
A few months later, a colleague told me how he admired my strength and fortitude. “If you only knew how much your resilience and professionalism has encouraged us in these difficult times,” he said. I was lost for words.
But such is life – you never really know who is watching you and what impact you have on others. I recently listened to Wes Moore and was struck by his statement: 'You are exactly where you belong … Everywhere that you are, you are not there because of someone’s benevolence. You are not there because of a social experiment. You are not there because someone wants to sprinkle diversity into a room. You’re there because that room would be incomplete if you weren’t there. You’re there because that conversation would be weak if your voice was not included.”
Someone at work in their self-appointed role as ‘supporters’ one time informed me about what other co-workers were saying behind my back – about how I didn’t offer much, about my leadership style that was ‘too democratic’ in their eyes and a lot more. People will say a lot to bring down but stand strong. Not everyone in the world will like you. Not everyone will want the best for you. Summon the strength to confront these situations with the openness to distinguish real feedback from the chaff. In moments like this, I remember that authentic feedback rarely hurts, it is never underhanded and rarely withheld. I believe that feedback should be given in a manner that is building and offers a hand to raise the person above the issue; and if you can’t do that – then you have no business “giving feedback”. As the Dalai Lama says “Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can't help them, at least don't hurt them.”
So, if you are ever put down, pushed aside or silenced, remember that. Don’t ever let other people’s insecurities or judgements about you or how you show up diminish you. It is not arrogance; it is not pride… it is you showing up in the full strength and authenticity that makes you, you. So, be you, do you. Keep shining.
Always rooting for you …
Why does a successful person feel like a fraud? | Portia Mount | TEDxGreensboro
Yes, Impostor Syndrome Is Real. Here's How to Deal With It