About 13 years ago, I was furiously preparing for my very first paid speaking engagement. As an emerging professional speaker, I had little experience with actually speaking to live audiences and I felt so inadequate. While preparing, I repeated to myself “I am SO not the right person for this! And they’re going to figure it out fast!” I was terrified of being discovered as a fraud.
The thing is I did pretty well. At least, that’s what the audience evaluations told me. I was relieved! But the relief was due more to me evading discovery of incompetence than of actually delivering any value to them. I dodged a figurative bullet.
I suffer from “The Imposter Syndrome.” It’s the nagging internal voice that says “I don’t know what I’m doing! I’m not as smart, capable, or proficient as they think I am. And I’m on the verge of being found out as a fraud.”
Do you suffer from this too? An estimated 70% of adults do. Ironically, it’s most prevalent among highly successful people, the over-achievers. Margie Warrell, author of the books Stop Playing Safe and Find Your Courage writes “The Imposter Syndrome is the domain of the high achiever. Those who set the bar low are rarely its victim.”
It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Warrell says that if you hear the voice of the Impostor, you’re less likely to settle for mediocrity, but rather you aim for greatness. This is pretty admirable. But there’s the downside too.
The Imposter tends to dismiss genuine success and achievements as random, accidental, and unrepeatable. Rarely will they own their success, which then fuels the illegitimate fear that their success will be uncovered as fraudulent. When I was promoted from staff engineer to the manager of a large jet engine test facility at NASA, I was jubilant. I had years of experience in the facility, and an impressive list of credentials. I wanted the job. I studied the job. I worked hard to get the job. But when I got the job, I tormented myself with the question “Did they promote me because I was a girl and I fit their quota?” Good grief. Why couldn’t I just believe that they thought I was the best person for the job?
Early in the job, I struggled because the man I replaced was an icon in our industry who left a legacy of excellence in his wake. How could I possibly fill his shoes? My boss, John Schaeffer gave me the best advice: “Maureen, do it your way. I promoted YOU. Not a duplicate of him.”
I had to be assured that John saw something in me that I hadn’t. I had to walk in his confidence before I discovered my own. I had to trust his judgment of my skills.
That was hard. But it was necessary. One of the 1st steps in overcoming that Imposter Syndrome is to rely on the objective observations of others. Many see value and worth in you, and they see that your accomplishments are meritorious. It’s one thing to surround yourself with cheerleaders who encourage you. But it’s another thing to believe them when their belief is buoyed by facts. Facts will prove you are not a fraud.
Most of us may be the occasional victim of the Impostor Syndrome, but you don't have to be its lifetime prisoner. Find your John Schaefer, and you’ll be able to start saying “Yes, I am exactly who they think I am. I have done a lot, I know a lot, and I offer a lot. I'm OK."
Maureen Zappala is an award winning speaker, author and presentation coach. A former NASA propulsion engineer, she founded High Altitude Strategies to help propel teams to peak performance. Despite stellar credentials and accomplishments at NASA, the Impostor Syndrome was her annoying companion, whispering in her head “I don’t know what I’m doing, and everyone is going to figure it out!” This led to her passion of helping women and men silence those condemning voices that stand in the way of embracing their success and advancing in their world. Her website is www.maureenz.com.