Ever Feel Like A Fake? It Might Be A Good Thing.

Ever feel like a fake? You’re not alone—and it might not be a bad thing. Imposter Syndrome is a condition that affects high performing leaders, founders, and especially generalists, who tend to incorrectly measure themselves against experts (more on that here). They often feel this when they take on new tasks, get a promotion, or make a career move. 

Imposter Syndrome is categorized by five symptoms: a tendency towards perfectionism, overworking, undermining one's own achievements, fear of failure, and discounting praise. I have discussed the causes and effects of these symptoms over the last decade with leaders who have recently taken on new responsibilities, and I have learned a few things I’d like to share from that journey.

First, if you read that list of symptoms and said to yourself, “most of those don’t seem like entirely bad traits,” you’re not alone. Many feel unqualified or unprepared at one time or another and strive to put in the extra energy required to level up. This is a positive sign that you are challenging yourself and it can help drive you towards achievement.

The tendency toward perfectionism, fear of failing, and a humble discounting of praise are not the indicators of an issue—and in many cases are actually traits held by the majority of great leaders. For me, there is one symptom that crosses the line between motivated/hard-working and harmful, and that is the undermining of one’s own achievements.

I point this one out because unlike the other four symptoms, this one faces the past. It discredits the journey. And when we discredit our journey, we're asking the question whether we belong where we are. Except you're still on the journey. So where you are is still changing. Keep moving forward.

If you can’t reflect on your accomplishments and feel some measure of pride, then I recommend discussing your thoughts with someone you trust that can help you gain perspective. Reflecting and absorbing positive strength from your accomplishments will help you build the confidence it takes to keep achieving. Most times when I work with a leader to help him/her see the value of their own accomplishments, we start by committing to one key principle.

The most probable outcome is failure. It is much more likely that you will fail than you will succeed. And that's ok.

How many businesses fail before one changes the world? How many relationships fail before one deeply changes your life? The accomplishments you have are the result of your efforts—in the face of failure. If you succeeded at all, you did something incredible. Go ahead, let yourself feel it. If you need permission, you have it. So please, allow yourself a moment of pride and encourage your peers to take one as well.

Be the voice that helps others see the value in what they are doing. Helping others often allows you to see the value in yourself.

I suggest this for male and female leaders alike. Imposter Syndrome is not, as some have suggested, predominantly something that females experience. It’s true, in my experience, that females more often have the strength to engage in the concerned self-reflection required to talk about it. That’s not an exclusive reality, but it’s the norm. 

If you’re the type of leader that can’t seem to give yourself credit for anything, you need to unlearn that behavior. I’m not talking about diverting praise away from yourself and onto your team where it belongs - keep doing that. But if you judge yourself as unworthy of your position, please stop. How? The same way you learn anything. Practice. Start small by saying it out loud. “I have beaten the odds to get where I am. It is not entirely luck. It is not about the skills I don’t have. It is about what I have gained along the way.”

Second, there is a misconception when it comes to Imposter Syndrome. What you may think you are feeling is a stretch of your abilities, but what you are really feeling is a stretch of your boundariesYou’re more likely overstepping your comfort than your abilities. 

There is no magical skill that everyone thinks you have that you don’t. They aren’t going to find out you don’t have it because it doesn’t exist.

These feelings are in your mind, not the minds of your peers. They are part of your process of achievement. It’s likely your peers feel this same discomfort at times. And the faster you accept that you can simultaneously be worthy of your new responsibilities and learn the new skills required to satisfy them, the more effective you will be in gaining confidence. You can—and have to—do both at the same time. There is nothing wrong with learning on the job.

So how can feeling inadequate be a good thing? The fear of failure is a good thing if you can use it as a catalyst. If the goal wasn’t hard, it wouldn’t be worth striving for! The fear of inadequacy can be a positive force that drives us out of the realm of comfort and mediocrity, and forces us to expand in new ways. Just don’t let it stop you from making the attempt. Yes, you will likely fail in various and uncomfortable ways as you pursue challenges you’re uncomfortable and unfamiliar with. You’ll feel like a fake. But feeling like a fake while you learn is a much better reality than stymying your growth to avoid that fear.

And if you know someone who is struggling to gain confident footing, reach out to them and be the voice that helps them see their value. As someone who works with a lot of high achievers, I can tell you from experience, a lot of really great leaders struggle in the same way with Imposter Syndrome. Take care of each other. I promise you will find value by helping each other gain perspective.

By: Jason Sgro