Harold Hillman: When will they discover that I'm an imposter?

By Harold Hillman

It’s a prevalent worry for 75% of high-achievers at some point in their careers
Like most things that require you to lift your game, beating impostor syndrome is largely about mind-set. Photo / iStock
Like most things that require you to lift your game, beating impostor syndrome is largely about mind-set. Photo / iStock

A big upside to constantly raising the bar on what you can do is that it makes you more capable, which then positions you for bigger opportunities. That's the case for athletes, musicians, entrepreneurs and many people building careers in business.

When you push yourself to a higher level of performance, it tells people that you are not afraid of challenge.

There is a downside to being a high achiever, especially earlier in your career when your aspirations may be bigger than your actual experience. You applied for the bigger job, they loved you in the interview, and now they have offered you the role.

Of course, you're going to take it. But suddenly your heart is racing more out of fear than joy. In fact, you may be really worried that you aren't qualified, even though they selected you.

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Impostor Syndrome

Roughly 75 per cent of high achievers will occasionally struggle with the feeling that they are impostors in their role.

Women are especially prone to these feelings, especially if they feel the pressure to fit in quickly to male-dominated work environments.

Impostor syndrome is particularly prevalent in people who have been asked to 'step up', including first-time chief executives who forget that they are truly qualified to be in the role.

There are seven prevalent symptoms of impostor syndrome:

1. Guarded and defensive.

Because you're afraid that others will see you as inadequate, you're more likely to keep people at arm's length, unwilling to disclose too much, probably coming across as defensive to those who are simply trying to learn more about you.

2. Inflexible.

People who are afraid to be wrong often dig in to a position, rather than allowing themselves a chance to be influenced by a different view that is equally compelling. Those who feel like impostors will sometimes draw more attention to themselves because they're too insecure to budge.

3. Invulnerable.

If you feel like an impostor, the last thing you'll want to do is acknowledge any personal flaws or imperfections. Unfortunately, high-achievers will often assume a super hero persona, where they put more pressure on themselves to be perfect people.

4. Halting.

If you're worried that you're not big enough for the role, people will often experience you as overly cautious and tentative when it comes to making decisions. In fact, you may slow yourself down by getting immersed in granular details that take you away from the bigger picture.

5. Compartmentalised.

This is when you decide that you can't bring a particular side of yourself to work, or to any social group which you have elected to join.

First-time managers often get very serious in their new role, forgetting to bring humour and an energy that welcomes input from others. Women will sometimes 'harden up' to show that they're tough. And it's not unusual for gay and lesbian employees to be less open at work.

6. Little or no humour.

Things don't seem terribly funny when you're worried that your impostor's mask will be ripped from your face at any moment. And you particularly don't like it when people try to find humour in any of your imperfections - also known as being human. You may come across as overly-serious to most people.

7. Compensating.

It's common for people who feel inadequate to compensate - in one of two directions. The over-the-top person is loud and brash and unlikely to yield the spotlight out of fear of being upstaged. The below-the-parapet person is quiet and unassuming, more likely to find a corner of the room to blend into the crowd, very uncomfortable when put on the spot.

The Root Cause

You can see the potential interplay between the symptoms of impostor syndrome. At the core of them all, there is a sense of insecurity associated with being able to meet the expectations of others. What is odd about impostor syndrome is that those dreaded expectations are largely self-imposed.

It's all about how you size up the challenge relative to your own perceived capability to meet that challenge. When impostor syndrome is in full flair, you tend to over-inflate the challenge, where it becomes bigger than it actually is.

At the same time that you over-inflate the challenge, there's also the tendency to minimise your own ability to do the job. When either or both of these factors are in play, your first line of defence is to reach for the impostor's mask.

Beating Impostor Syndrome

Like most things that require you to lift your game, beating impostor syndrome is largely about mind-set.

If you need to be a perfect person, you will struggle with any situation that renders you human. Imperfection is a pre-requisite to being human. But a person who needs to be perfect doesn't see it that way. To them, vulnerability is a weakness.

Here are five ways to re-frame those feelings of inadequacy that come with impostor syndrome:

1. Imperfection is the norm. You are most likely to be successful if you are honest with yourself about those things you don't do well, and may never do well. You can also take a lot of pressure off yourself by helping others understand that you are never going to be perfect. If you were perfect, why would you need them?

2. The right questions lead to the best answers. Perfect people feel pressured to have the perfect answers. Mere mortals are okay to help others find the answer. There are times when you can add far more value if you come up with the right question, which ultimately leads to the best answer.

3. You can't grow without stretch. It's the basic principle behind building muscle. It's also how you build confidence and resilience. Perfect people are afraid of stretch because there's too much risk of not coming across as all-knowing. You have to put a more positive frame on what it means to be vulnerable. You can't ask others to stretch themselves if you're not willing to do the same.

4. Grey is larger than black and white. Ambiguity and uncertainty are far larger spaces than the narrower sphere of black-and-white certainty.

Get comfortable with taking yourself and others into the grey matter, where there aren't easy answers and you're required to sit a little longer in ambiguity. This is real for business success. And it's real for living a successful life.

5. Know your fingerprint. There are times when people minimise certain things about themselves that make them stand out. This is especially prevalent when you're trying your best to fit in and be accepted.

If you stop playing to your strengths in order to fit in, you're depriving the business of your talent. You're also invalidating your uniqueness as the most important thing about you.

Take off the Mask

It helps for people who are thrown by impostor syndrome to connect with others who have gone through similar experiences. Find a mentor who can help you keep the challenge of 'stepping up' in proper perspective.

Most importantly, remember that impostor syndrome is very common for people with high aspirations. So keep it all in perspective. You're not an impostor. Rather, you're a wonderfully imperfect person who may not yet have figured out that 'being human' is okay.

- NZ Herald

Harold Hillman is an executive coach and author. He has a Master's Degree in Education from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Pittsburgh. Previous roles include Chief Learning Officer at Prudential Financial (New York). Hillman came to New Zealand in 2003 to join Fonterra and is now the MD of Sigmoid Curve Consulting Group, where he coaches business leaders and executive teams. He is the author of two books: ‘The Impostor Syndrome’ and ‘Fitting In, Standing Out.’

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