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Thoughts & Observations of a Free Range Astrophysicist

The face of Impostor Syndrome

Impostor Syndrome

Sometimes competence comes with a price

Impostor Syndrome is real and it’s no fun. But if you come at it properly, it can also be a starting point for a better future.


A friend posted a funny piece on Facebook the other day. It wasn’t funny in the ubiquitous “cat making an idiot of itself” sense. It was more the “laugh at life instead of crying about it” kind of funny. The piece was titled 13 Charts That Will Make Total Sense To People With Impostor Syndrome.

Impostor syndrome comes up all the time when I am talking to coaching clients. I don’t know that I’ve ever worked with a client who didn’t have a little impostor syndrome kicking around in there somewhere! Even the most outwardly successful and self-confident of us sometimes hear that inner voice muttering, “you do know that they are going to find you out, right?”

Impostor Syndrome is a byproduct of competence.

Sometimes I joke that mostly what you get out of a PhD is a thorough understanding of the depths of your own ignorance. At least people think that I’m joking. I’m not. When I defended my PhD I expected to walk out of the room feeling like I had arrived. Exactly the opposite happened. As I accepted handshakes and congratulations with feigned enthusiasm, what I was actually thinking was, “This is it?”

For those unfamiliar with the term, impostor syndrome refers to feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt even in the face of evidence of success and achievement. It takes its name from a sense of being a fraud who found success not through effort or ability, but through undeserved luck.

Ironically, impostor syndrome doesn’t come from lack of competence. It’s the other way around. If you weren’t any good, you wouldn’t have the knowledge and skills that you need to question your own ability! Having impostor syndrome means that you appreciate what excellence looks like. Not surprisingly, impostor syndrome hits academics, professionals and those in creative positions especially hard.

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.

– Bertrand Russell

The opposite of impostor syndrome is called the Dunning-Kruger effect. People who are short on skills can feel superior because they don’t know what real excellence looks like, and they can’t recognize their own limitations.

So a little impostor syndrome is a good thing. I sometimes joke with a client that they should wear their impostor syndrome as a badge of pride. “Hey! I can’t be that bad at what I do. I have impostor syndrome!”

As a coach one of the things that I do is help clients understand and overcome the things that are holding them back. When impostor syndrome makes it onto that list, it’s time to go to work.

Gender matters.

It’s well known that men and women communicate differently. Women are far more likely than men to have friends and coworkers who they talk to about things like impostor syndrome. In fact, for a long time impostor syndrome was thought of as an issue peculiar to high achieving women for the simple fact that they were the only ones talking about it. That is one reason why women often respond very positively to coaching; they are less reticent to be open and honest.

Impostor syndrome affects men as well as women

Impostor syndrome affects both men and women. It can be especially bad for men because they are less likely to open up and talk about it.

But more recent research paints a very different picture. Impostor syndrome is at least as prevalent among men as it is women, and can be worse for a man. Women are likely to get a lot of benefit from sharing their problems with others. In the mean time, men just keep it bottled up as thoughts of shame and inadequacy bounce around inside their heads with no place to go.

This also poses a problem for women in nontraditional fields. A woman looks around and sees all of these guys projecting an often-phony air of self-confidence and thinks, “I’m alone – it’s just me.”

You can’t just will Impostor Syndrome away.

“Doctor, it hurts when I do this.” “So don’t do that!”

OK, you have impostor syndrome. You are competent and used to being able to accomplish what you set your mind to. Just build up your resolve and make the decision. “No more of this!”

The only problem with that approach is that it doesn’t work. If anything it’s liable to make your impostor syndrome worse. And when it fails, now you have something else to beat yourself up about. Let me give you a little demonstration.

Your nose itches. You know it does. Feel it there on the front of your face. How can it not itch? Just don’t think about it, OK? Thinking about how much your nose itches isn’t going to help. You don’t need to scratch it. It itches, sure, but that’s all in your head. Just stop thinking about it. Whatever you do, do not think about how much your nose itches!

Did you scratch? Yeah, that’s about how well telling yourself to not have imposter syndrome works, too. Impostor syndrome is an itch that can be very hard to leave alone.

Look around on-line and you will find lots of suggestions for how to manage impostor syndrome. Much of that advice is along the lines of, “tell yourself this,” or “tell yourself that.” But if you want to get serious about it, you’ve got some real work to do. My thoughts below are based in part on the literature, but more strongly on what I have seen work in practice.

Get out of your head.

Impostor syndrome lives in your own head. It thrives in isolation. It runs around and around in circles, picking up steam as it goes, and drags you along for the ride. You can’t do much without stepping outside of that loop and taking a look at just what you are dealing with. Getting the upper hand on impostor syndrome is all about metacognition.

Women share their problems

Women are more likely to discuss impostor syndrome with friends and coworkers. That’s a healthy thing.

That brings me to one of the most powerful questions in any coach’s toolbox. It’s a question that you can ask yourself right now. “If you were sitting across the table from yourself, what would you say?” To answer that question you have to step outside of yourself and take a look at the situation from a different and more detached perspective. That shift alone can make a huge difference.

Here is another challenge that I’ve used to help clients change their perspective and add some context. “Pick somebody who you really think has his or her shit together. What would you say if I told you they also deal with impostor syndrome? Because odds are that they do!”

That realization can and usually does come as a shock. It’s one thing to feel like you are all alone surrounded by a sea of easy, judgmental competence. It’s another to realize that there are lots of other people in the pool with you, regardless of how well they cover it up. Just knowing that gives you a leg up.

Separate the facts from the stories.

Impostor syndrome boils down to a mismatch between the facts of our lives and the stories we tell ourselves about those facts. But stories are just that; they are stories, and stories can be rewritten.

When I think that I see some impostor syndrome lurking there when working with a coaching client, I’m likely to ask them what is on the surface a very simple question. “What are the facts?” Most of the time when a client starts to answer that question it takes them about two seconds to jump from facts back to stories. “What are the facts?” “Well, overall things went well, but really…”

So I stop them there. “Hold on. The ‘but really’ isn’t a fact. That’s a story you are telling yourself about the facts. So again, what are the facts? Let’s write them down, shall we? You said that overall things went well, so let’s start there.”

There are a lot of facts that can matter. The value that a client brings to their job or profession is a very important fact. A history of achievement and obstacles that have been overcome are important facts. Perfectionism and unreasonably high self-expectations play a major role in impostor syndrome, so it is important to pin down what others consider reasonable expectations. The list goes on.

Metacognition is key

Dealing with impostor syndrome is a metacognitive process that begins with getting out of your own head and separating the facts of your life from the stories that you tell.

We might have to go around that loop a few times. But eventually clients start to learn to distinguish between facts and stories. As they begin to look more clearly at the facts, the stories that they have been telling themselves start to lose power.

Take control of the narrative.

The facts laid out on the table are the ammunition needed to battle impostor syndrome directly. The next step is building new stories around those facts. But this time the stories are more accurate, more respectful, and are built with care and intention.

The itch of impostor syndrome is hard not to scratch. Impostor syndrome is a habit of mind and it doesn’t let go easily. But with the facts in front of us, when a client’s narrative starts to go south I can stop them. “Where did that come from? Show me something in the facts that support that negative statement.”

What emerges from that process is a more legitimate story, supported by all of the evidence, in which the client is acting more effectively and better meeting reasonable expectations than they previously believed. Once that story is in place, it is something to go back to.

Telling a different story and internalizing the different story are two different things. Getting to that point takes time, effort and practice. But as a client gains experience separating facts from stories, then taking control of their own internal narrative about those facts, it’s a new ball game. Instead of feeding impostor syndrome, the client is on the way to developing new habits.

None of this keeps impostor syndrome from rearing its head, but it does provide tools to recognize it and disarm it when it does.

Where is there room to improve?

Notice that there was nothing in what I said above that involved rose-colored glasses. You didn’t set out to paint yourself into a picture filled with rainbows and moonbeams. You set out to take an honest look at the facts and build fair, honest narratives about those facts. When you do that you are going to find some places where there really is room to improve, guaranteed.

In some ways, that’s the best news yet. You can’t get very far without an honest awareness of the things that might be holding you back. Once you have that awareness you have a place to focus your efforts. Now instead of putting your energy into beating yourself up over being an imposter, you can put that energy into doing things that will actually help you move forward.

What started as an effort to get a handle on impostor syndrome has become the start of a roadmap to take you from where you are to where you want to be.

It’s really hard to do all of this alone.

Impostor syndrome is a loop in your thoughts. Step outside of the loop, separate facts from stories, then take control of the narrative that you tell about yourself. That process works. But it is unlikely that you will be successful if you try to go it alone.

Have the conversation

Evidence and experience show that you can’t deal with issues like impostor syndrome on your own. Whether you work with a coach or talk to a coworker, open up and talk with someone.

Stories that seem compelling when you are alone in your head don’t fare so well in the cold light of day. It is a lot harder to get sucked back into impostor syndrome when you are talking to someone, answering questions, saying things out loud, and writing things down where you can both see them.

Humans are a social species. Regardless of what you are dealing with, it makes a huge difference to have the support of someone who knows the facts, believes in you, and doesn’t judge.

A coach can help a lot. A good coach understands the process, is trained to listen, and will ask the kinds of questions that keep you focused on what you are trying to achieve. And when working with a coach you don’t have to apologize for making it all about you. It is all about you and helping you get from where you are to where you want to go!

Impostor syndrome won’t go away on it’s own. Even if you don’t work with a coach, find someone to talk with regularly and get busy doing the work. There’s no time like the present.

Impostor Syndrome ^ Sometimes competence comes with a price  © Dr. Jeff Hester
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Over his 30 year career as an internationally known astrophysicist, Dr. Jeff Hester was a key member of the team that repaired the Hubble Space Telescope. With one foot always on the frontiers of knowledge, he has been mentor, coach, team leader, award-winning teacher, administrator and speaker, to name a few of the hats he has worn. His Hubble image, the Pillars of Creation, was chosen by Time Magazine as among the 100 most influential photographs in history.
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