• Phil Cole

Imposter Syndrome is a Myth

Maybe calling imposter syndrome a myth isn't entirely fair: the description of feelings is accurate. The trouble with how we talk about it, however, is that it leads to the avoidance of learning opportunities.


It is absolutely true that we often feel like imposters. We doubt our abilities to be excellent, particularly in areas where we are new. We believe others can see our lack of confidence and competence, and that they are somehow more prepared or more capable than we are. We feel like we have not earned a position or responsibility.


This is doubly true for new managers and supervisors who believe they are responsible for leading for the first time. (The reality, of course, is that they have been leading for a long time without the label). Leading others is a very visible and exposed position where our every mistake feels subject to public derision.


These emotions are accurately described; what is not accurate or useful is the interpretation that this syndrome is negative or to be avoided. Common advice for imposter syndrome is to recognize that others feel the same and to push through -- to perform the tasks, to take on the role, to lean in and do what seems natural.


This advice is wrong. Here's why.


The feelings of discomfort that we label "imposter syndrome" are actually natural feelings that reveal the possibility of learning. This discomfort is one or more of the markers of learning. These feelings are the beginning of the learning cycle: they tell us that we are dissatisfied with our performance or the outcome of an event.


Without these feelings, learning and growth is impossible. If we never feel discomfort or dissatisfaction - that we are not good enough for a job - then we will never try something new. We will never expend the energy and take the risk that comes with replacing a comfortable, familiar behavior with a new behavior that we have never practiced. Without these feelings, we hide from our imperfections, label ourselves as good enough or fine, and accept the status quo.


This is why the label "imposter syndrome" is risky at best, and a dangerous myth at worst. It mislabels natural and useful feelings as something bad. And the framing (and consequent advice) that these feelings are somehow bad creates pressure to avoid, rather than explore, the two-sided coin of self-doubt and self-improvement. Wanting to be better, even if we are already good, is never a bad thing.


Think about it this way: when are we more likely to try learning something new: when we are comfortable and believe we're doing fine, or when we are uncomfortable and think we could do better?


What we need instead is a way to turn these uncomfortable feelings into something productive. The first step is to recognize and label these feelings - not as imposter syndrome to be pushed through - but as the markers of learning. Once we recognize and name the feelings, then we can use the other learning tools to assess the situation, identify specific goals or outcomes we want to achieve, pinpoint our performance shortfall, and then seek out and incorporate new behaviors into our leadership practices. This functional approach creates a process to use our self-doubt to improve, rather than discount the feelings as a syndrome.


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