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Impostors All Around

by Amy O'Donnell | Jan 07, 2019
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Impostor syndrome has become a recent topic of conversation in business. However, psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes actually started researching the topic in 1978. At the time, they focused on women and the syndrome was mostly viewed as gender specific.

More recent studies have shown that 70% of all professionals have felt like an impostor at some point in their careers. Plenty of talented people have expressed that they felt like frauds and didn’t always know what they were doing. Consider this quote from Dr. Maya Angelou, “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh-oh, they're going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they're going to find me out.’”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an impostor “is a person who pretends to be someone else in order to deceive others, especially for fraudulent gain.” It seems unlikely that most of us fit that definition, so what types of impostors are we talking about? Author Valerie Young has divided impostors into groups to help us self-diagnose:

  • The Perfectionists. It probably goes without saying that this group has very high standards for themselves and others. Reaching the 95% success rate is a disappointment. Delegation is not their strong suit because they worry others won’t do things the “right” way.
  • The Superheroes. They really are working hard to earn that cape by trying to be awesome at everything and every role in their life, often feeling that they are the least qualified person in the room and must go the extra mile to prove their value. Downtime is not something they can afford as it can feel as if they are wasting time.
  • The Natural Geniuses. All of us have strengths and gifts, but this group has internalized the perception that if they have to work hard at something, then they must be terrible at it. They are used to excelling without much effort and have straight-A report cards or a collection of gold medals and trophies to back it up. It can also mean that they may avoid a challenge because they don’t want to be seen as not an expert at something right off the bat.
  • The Soloists. Asking for help is not in their nature. After all, someone may guess that they don’t know everything and can’t do everything. They may exclude the input and expertise from others by striving to prove they can do things on their own.
  • The Experts. Knowing everything before starting a project is essential to this group. They may avoid asking questions or worry about speaking up because they fear they will look stupid for not knowing the answer. When it comes to jobs or promotions, they will only apply for the ones where they meet every criteria and may limit their own opportunities.

Did you see yourself in any of these? Perhaps a combination of a few? Well, welcome to the club! Having read far too many articles on this topic, allow me to share the top pieces of advice on how to work through shedding (or at least reducing) your impostor feelings.

  • Accept that you will fail. You are not all knowing. You will not be a rock star at everything. You will need to ask for help, and all of this is completely normal. We hear lots of stories about people who are leaders or successes in their fields, but we don’t always hear about the failures that taught them valuable lessons, the teams of people that helped get them there, and the things they simply aren’t very good at doing. Bear that in mind when you’re setting these high expectations for yourself.
  • Roll the dice and start working on something before you are 100% ready. Chances are, it will all work out fine. Own and celebrate your achievements, even if you think they are only at an 80% success level.
  • Create a “bragging” list by regularly documenting your accomplishments. This will give you a record of what you have done, successes, and areas of growth. This can come in handy the next time you are asking for a raise, promotion, or applying for a new job.
  • Mentor others. It can help you address feeling like a fraud and highlight the areas in which you are an expert.
  • Find a way to receive constructive feedback without taking it personally. This can be tough, but it will help you focus on the strengths you can build on, identify when you were doing something to seek some external validation, and reinforce boundaries.
  • Remember that even superheroes have buddies to call on for help with the big jobs. Asking for help opens the doors for learning from others, putting their strengths to work, and offering opportunities for leadership growth. Doing everything yourself doesn’t work in today’s workplace and will reflect poorly on you. Know when you need to call in Wonder Woman’s skills or Batman’s gadgets.
  • Find others with similar backgrounds and experiences. This can be through an affinity network such as an affinity group, alumni affinity group, or a platform like LinkedIn. These can be great resources for finding a mentor who can share advice on how they handled similar situations in the past, while helping you to hone your intuitive powers.

Feeling like an impostor may decrease over time as your confidence and skills increase, and you find your groove. For some, feeling like an impostor may run a bit deeper because they are a minority in their profession, people like them are not reflected in the management, or they experience discrimination and/or are treated like an outsider. This is where having an affinity network to turn to for advice and perspective on a situation is invaluable. So is documenting your accomplishments, which may help to differentiate a pattern of discrimination from a negative self-perception.

Just remember, with every career shift or life change, there may be a resurgence in your feelings of self-doubt, so take time to reflect, document, and refocus on how awesome you are.

Amy O'Donnell headshotAmy O’Donnell is the Director of Membership & Business Development for the WSCPA. You can contact her at aodonnell@wscpa.org or 425.586.1118.

This article appears in the winter 2019 issue of the WashingtonCPA Magazine. Read more here.

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