Be the Impostor

Be the Impostor. Written by Allison McWilliams for the Huffington Post, October 31, 2017.

The impostor syndrome is real. It happens to all of us, whether we’re kids trying to fit into a new school group, young adults trying to make it into the Man in suit and tieworld, or seasoned professionals who seem like we should have it together, but in reality, don’t. The honest truth of the matter is that none of us know what we’re doing, not really. There is no magic moment that happens when you will think, “Aha! Now I’m a professional/adult/expert/success.” In fact, as you age, to some degree it gets worse (sorry about that), because people expect you to be the competent professional/adult human being. In your head, meanwhile, you will be somewhere around age 22, thinking about all of the things that you’re going to do and be when you grow up. You can see where some of the challenges with these conflicting mindsets can creep in.

There are some markers, of course. These include things like buying your first home, getting married, having kids, getting promoted, graduation, and so forth. These accomplishment moments are, in some ways, signals that you’ve done something, you’ve crossed some sort of imaginary threshold that’s puts both yourself and others on notice. But the reality is, that threshold is imaginary, and it really doesn’t mean anything. You, as a person, won’t be any different on the other side. And, because most of us don’t reach a certain place and just stay there, life is a series of impostor moments. You will change jobs, change relationships, change locations, have all sorts of things happen that will put you back into that impostor place. It’s normal.

The stress of feeling like an impostor comes from two sources. It comes from other people making us feel like we don’t belong, belittling us, giving us subtle clues that we don’t know what we’re doing. And, sometimes because of these other people (but not always) it comes from inside of us as well, when we give ourselves subtle little clues that we don’t know what we’re doing, that we don’t belong, that we’re “just” a student/entry-level employee/woman/whatever. Both sources can be completely damaging and demoralizing, and can keep us from moving forward in productive and positive ways.

There are some really great methods to get over the impostor syndrome, ranging from reflective practices like journaling, to finding a mentor, to employing positive self-talk. All of these are important and useful. But I would like to argue here that perhaps there is value in embracing your impostor status. If we all have our moments of feeling like an impostor, then maybe instead of trying to “get over it” we should instead “walk into it.” What can our impostor status allow us to do?

  • See things with fresh eyes. The great part about being the “new kid” is you have the opportunity to see an organization in ways that no one else does. You can take note of the norms of behavior, practices and procedures, and those unwritten “we’ve always done it this way” rules that tend to hold individuals and organizations back. It doesn’t take long to move from outsider to insider. Embrace the opportunity to look at things from a perspective that few others will have, and share your observations with those in a position to learn from them.
  • Ask the “stupid” questions. In a similar fashion, being the impostor means we sometimes censor ourselves from asking important questions. The next time that you feel tempted to start a sentence with, “This may sound stupid, but,” or “I may not know what I’m talking about, but,” censor that part of the sentence, and then ask whatever it is that was going to follow. Chances are, whatever you are wondering, someone else is, too. Being the impostor gives you the freedom to ask all of those questions, to seek out advice and counsel, and to ask for help. You don’t have to be the expert or to have all of the answers, because no one expects you to.
  • Be comfortable with discomfort. We like to feel like we know what we’re doing, like we know our place and where we belong. But there is immense value in being uncomfortable every once in a while. It’s not a place that we should stay forever, but for brief periods these can be invaluable learning opportunities, and can shake us out of our normal routines and ways of seeing the world. Recently a young professional shared with me how he changes his parking location every few months because it forces him to enter his workplace from a different direction, which therefore forces him to engage with new people. What a lovely way to get comfortable with discomfort!
  • Stay in a place of learning. Finally, embracing our impostor status requires us to embrace our status as learners. We aren’t the experts in the room. We don’t have all of the answers. We aren’t perfect and infallible. None of us are. Accepting our roles as impostors means that we accept that we have a lot to learn, from just about everyone we meet. It forces us to remember to approach others from a place of humility and gratitude, rather than one of arrogance and isolation.

There are, without question, challenges and negative aspects to feeling like an impostor. But it’s possible, with a slight switch to one’s mindset, to turn that negative into a real positive and even into a competitive advantage. The next time you find yourself wanting to “get over” your impostor status, try instead to embrace it.