June 10, 2022

I've been thinking lately about imposter syndrome.

More than once, people have told me I suffer from imposter syndrome. Every time, I get annoyed. Yeah, ok... I feel unsure of myself sometimes. But I’m not convinced that imposter syndrome is what we think it is. I’m not convinced we’ve totally thought it through.

Imposter syndrome happens when feelings of inferiority aren't supported by evidence. You think you're less capable or less qualified than you actually are. It's seen as an individual-level problem: if you have it, then it's an issue of yours, and you should do the work to fix it. There's no judgment in that, but there is an assignment of responsibility - along with the implication that you shouldn't feel that way.

But I don't think this is the whole story.

Feeling like an imposter might be a healthy reaction to functioning in a new environment, with new people, in a new role, or under a new set of tasks and expectations. And the type of self-doubt usually associated with imposter syndrome may be a powerful antidote to overconfidence bias – which could be way worse.

Overconfidence bias and imposter syndrome spring from the same source: conditions of uncertainty. Some challenges we are faced with, we know how to handle. We've dealt with them before and we generally know what works. But then there are challenges that are new to us, ones we aren't sure how to handle because we haven't had to deal with them yet. We aren’t quite sure what’s around the bend because we legitimately don't have enough information. We may not even know what success looks like, so we don’t know how to achieve it.

In unfamiliar situations, uncertainty is high. When uncertainty is high, we get uncomfortable. One way to react to this discomfort is to trick ourselves into believing that the uncertainty isn't really there. We believe we can do things that we have no proof of being able to do. We get overconfident. Research has shown that many of us, under many circumstances, overestimate our capabilities. We think we know more than what we really do, and we think we're more capable than we really are.

Overconfidence bias is insidious and dangerous. If you think you’re more competent or capable than you actually are – and you don’t stop to doubt it – you could embarrass yourself if not ruin your life. Overconfidence bias forces us to operate with inadequate information. We fail to consider all potential downsides. We make bad decisions.

And like all biases, overconfidence bias happens under the radar.

Another way to react to uncertainty is to personalize it, to assume that how we feel is more a function of our personality than of the situation we're in. We tell ourselves, “I don't feel qualified. Can I really do this? I have no idea what I'm doing. I must be a fraud."

But is it always fair to say that the feeling of imposterism is a problem? I mean... of course you have no idea what you're doing. Of course you're going to feel like you're faking it. You're diving into something that you haven't done before, and everyone is expecting you to nail it. Maybe feeling like an imposter is a natural byproduct of pushing yourself outside your comfort zone, and maybe that's a great thing.

Besides, doubt is better than overconfidence. If you make friends with doubt, you'll see it guiding you to be thorough, thoughtful, and informed. Healthy doubt has a better chance of leading to solid decisions.

Next time you’re feeling like an imposter, ask yourself: “Am I doing something I’ve never done before? Am I outside of my comfort zone? Am I pushing myself to grow?” Maybe you're just having a natural reaction to an uncertain situation, and maybe you should pat yourself on the back for having doubt rather than overconfidence. Perhaps if you focus less on having a syndrome and more on asking questions, learning, and experimenting, you can become legitimately competent. After all, that's how genuine competence is developed.

I, for one, am happy to live with self-doubt and am OK feeling like an "imposter." It doesn't mean that I feel incapable or have low self-esteem. I just like taking on challenges that may be a little scary, a little risky, a little daunting. And I like to be honest with myself about what I don't know, so I can set myself out to learn it. Why? Because that's how accomplishments happen. That's how growth happens. That's how genuine self-esteem is developed.

In situations of uncertainty, if you focus on learning as much as you can rather than on how deficient you feel, you tend to level-up. And eventually, you become a legit badass.

And how badass is that?

That is all.


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