Do you sometimes feel like an imposter or a fraud in your professional life? Do thoughts like, “That was just luck/ timing/ help from others; next time I’ll probably fail,” haunt your professional successes? Does every professional failure or setback make you feel that your incompetence has been “proven” once and for all?
Welcome to Imposter Syndrome. The term was coined by psychologists of the 1970s, and refers to high achievers who appear to be unable to own their accomplishments and live in fear of being exposed as frauds. Some studies have linked the syndrome specifically to high achieving women, while others indicate no differences between the sexes: men and women are equally at risk.
For a job seeker, Imposter Syndrome can be a real obstacle. Even when happily and successfully employed, sufferers from Imposter Syndrome continue to feel insecure about their professional worth and worthiness; that insecurity can snowball when the same person is out of work and needs to actively convince a potential employer that they are the right person for the job. As a career coach, I see job seekers’ Imposter Syndrome all the time.
Some job seekers with Imposter Syndrome even have a hard time owning their professional titles. “Sure, I got my degree and I have some work experience, but can I really say that I am a therapist/journalist/tax lawyer? I’m not as good as so-and-so, and I don’t feel really accomplished.” Having a hard time giving your professional title with a straight face, let alone presenting your talents and abilities, can make job seeking a tremendous strain.
And to make things even more stressful, in today’s interconnected world a serious job seeker can’t afford to confine professional self promotion to job interviews. Every interaction with colleagues, friends, relatives or acquaintances is an opportunity to find a job lead. So the way you talk about yourself in social situations is an essential piece of a successful job seeking strategy.
If you suffer from Imposters Syndrome, this probably sounds like a nightmare. But it doesn’t have to be.
The root of Imposter Syndrome: I’m not who you think I am
At the core of every suffering “imposter” lies the nagging sense that people erroneously consider them more successful and talented than they really are. Since this is a condition that affects overachievers specifically, it stands to reason that those other people who suffer from Imposter Syndrome are not viewing reality accurately, and that they truly are successful and talented professionals worthy of respect. (Of course, many of us will hasten to add that we are different — we REALLY are not as successful as we appear.)
For a job seeker, the first step out of the maze of Imposter Syndrome is to nail down those elements of your professional skill and style that you are honestly proud of, and can own without a doubt. Even the most insecure professionals can discover some things — be they technical skills, personality traits or talents — that they are not afraid to call their own.
To begin thwarting your inner Imposter, focus on those traits, talents and skills, and use them to define yourself professionally. If you are insecure or unsure about your abilities in some areas, despite evidence to the contrary, don’t focus on those when speaking about your professional skills, or just mention them in passing, but emphasize the ones you feel confident about.
If you need to discuss abiltiies that you are unsure about, it can help to describe your skills from someone else’s point of view. After all, it is true to say that your previous employer loved your ability to find creative solutions, or your talent for detailed research. Even if you doubt your own skill, you can truthfully report what others think of you. Just make sure to leave it at that, and avoid the temptation to qualify your boss’s appreciation of your skills with your own more negative assessment.
Finally, probably the best way to fight back against Imposter Syndrome is to think of those people you know who have it too. They are probably fantastic professionals and overachievers. If it’s clear to you that they are underestimating themselves despite all the evidence to the contrary, you may be forced to realize that you are likely in the same boat. Discussing your Imposter feelings with each other can also help both sides recognize that they are more talented than they allow themselves to believe.
Imposter Syndrome is a widespread phenomenon. For a job seeker, it can be paralyzing. But focusing on the skills you are proud of, reporting other people’s opinions about you instead of your own in areas where you feel insecure, and sharing your challenges with other Imposter Syndrome sufferers can help alleviate the problem, and set you on the road to the job that will give full play to your talents and skills.