Making friends with your imposter
I can count on one hand the number of researchers I have met who have never suffered from imposter syndrome (and I have spoken to hundreds of researchers about this issue). Almost all of us experience a feeling of inadequacy from time-to-time, where we doubt our abilities and accomplishments and feel like a fraud. The experience is typically driven by a gap between how you see yourself and how others see you, and so bouts of imposter syndrome often seem to occur at professional milestones where you would expect to feel secure, such as your first academic position, or when you become a professor. Yes, professors suffer from imposter syndrome too. In fact, in my experience this group actually suffers more acutely than any other because they are now lauded as international experts, and yet they know enough by this point in their career to know how much they do not know.
Getting to the heart of imposter syndrome
If imposter syndrome is created by a gap between how you see yourself and how the world sees you, then to tackle imposter syndrome you have to narrow this gap. You can start from either end. It is tempting to try and start at the “other” end of the gap, to try and change how others see you. You might try and manage expectations and push back on the whole “expert” thing, but in my experience, people just think you’re trying to be humble or think you can’t take a compliment. It is remarkably difficult to get people to actually change their unrealistic views of you.
I have found starting at “your” end of the gap to be much more effective: raising your own self-confidence to narrow the gap. To eliminate the gap altogether would require a narcissistic leap of faith in your own abilities, as the whole problem with imposter syndrome is the unrealistic nature of people’s expectations and belief in you. The task instead is to narrow the gap enough so that you can live with it. When you start at your end of the gap, you discover that your critics’ negative views of you are just as important a driver of imposter syndrome as the unrealistic positive views of those who love what you do. Criticism is baked into academic life, and most of us have had more than our fair share of bruising reviews and “robust” debates. However, it is when we give undue weight to the voices of our critics that the greatest gulf appears between our view of ourselves and the world’s view. All those people in your audience who are about to listen to your presentation might think you’re the authority on this subject, but if they had read your last review or seen you being shot down in flames at that last conference, they wouldn’t bother turning up, let alone listen to a word you have to say.
At the root of imposter syndrome is relational esteem gone wrong. On one hand we bask in the glory of the positive regard we are held in by those who love our work uncritically, while on the other hand, we feel crippled by the knowledge that others have “seen through” us and devalue us and our work through their criticism. Of course, neither view is accurate – they are just the views of outsiders who do not really know our full strengths or weaknesses. But when we value ourselves on the basis of the regard in which we are held by others, imposter syndrome is the inevitable outcome of the conflicting messages we all receive about our work.
Achievement-based esteem is not the answer to this problem. The more accolades you collect, the wider the gap will grow between your view of yourself and the world’s view. The cure for imposter syndrome is the same as the cure for people-pleasing and perfectionism: you need to build your intrinsic sense of worth
Tackling the root causes
When you experience imposter syndrome and let it dominate your actions and your decisions, you're not just being shy. You are actually taking something from the world. There are people out there who need your work. There are problems that your discipline or the wider world needs to solve, and you have something to give. But imposter syndrome holds you back and so you withhold your gifts to the world. Overcoming imposter syndrome is not just for you, it is for everyone who needs what you have to give. Overcoming imposter syndrome is about making the world a better place.
However, there are few of us who defeat this condition once and for all. It will resurface the next time you fail or are asked to do something beyond what you feel capable of. In theory, when we have a strong enough sense of our intrinsic worth, we will be immune to imposter syndrome. But until we reach that point, the best most of us can hope for is to keep it in check. Personally I am still on that journey, and my biggest failures and challenges can still trigger an attack.
A recent bout of imposter syndrome occurred when I realised that my youngest daughter (who was six at the time) knew more about the fundamentals of a research project I was leading than I did. I study environmental governance and have worked in many systems around the world, from deserts to peat bogs, and from arable to livestock farms. I had just brought in the largest research project of my career, and for the first time we would be working with dairy farmers. We needed to introduce ourselves to farmers and thought that a project flyer would be useful, so I drafted something and mocked up a design with some black and white cows on the front page. My colleagues instantly pointed out that there was one major flaw in my flyer. Bulls don’t produce milk. The clue, they explained, was that cows have udders. I couldn’t believe I had been so stupid, and quickly found some images of cattle with prominent udders, only to be told that I had chosen a beef breed that is never used in dairy farms. I asked my colleagues to suggest some photos at this point. When I told my family over dinner that evening, my daughter gave me a despairing look as she slowly and carefully explained where milk comes from. As I listened, I realised that I couldn’t convince my six year old that I knew anything about dairy farming, so how on earth would I ever be able to stand up in front of an actual dairy farmer, let alone a policy maker and have any shred of credibility? The weight of the £1.5M investment in my project suddenly began to feel stifling. How had I managed to con my way into leading a project about something I knew so little about? My colleagues knew plenty, and it was probably their expertise that got us the money, but I was the Principal Investigator and it would be me who would have to stand up at the end of the project and talk about our findings.
As I grated cheese onto my pasta, I saw myself standing on stage at the Oxford Farming Conference, having made a gaff that had left my fellow panellists and audience speechless. The facilitator had lowered their mic and was just staring at me in silence, amazed that I could say something so naive. I would never be trusted with a project of this scale ever again. There would be some kind of enquiry at work and I would be found out for the fraud that I was. I would lose my job, and that would mean I would lose my house. I would have let my family down so badly that they would never forgive me – I would lose everything. Do you remember that I said earlier I have a habit of catastrophising?
Luckily my two older children’s wonder quickly turned into laughter at my naivety, and we all had a good joke about my ability to blag. Of course, I know where milk comes from and you don’t have to be a dairy expert to lead a project about environmental governance in dairy production systems if you’ve got dairy experts on your team. I have teetered on the brink of imposter syndrome regularly over the last three years of running this project. But I have been able to keep it in check so that we are able to do our research and use it to help others.
My approach involves three ways of building intrinsic esteem in the face of imposter syndrome:
Recalibrate how you judge yourself to reframe your worth based on your identity and values rather than the views of others;
Rebalance your internal, invisible power with the external, visible power that is given to you by the world; and
Draw on the previous two approaches to create equally credible, evidence-based alternative narratives to your imposter syndrome narrative.
Reframing enables you to view yourself in a new way, from a different perspective, or to use the metaphor, through a different picture frame. From this new angle, you see the same things that were depicted in the original picture, but you notice new things about them and draw new conclusions about what you are seeing. When you reframe yourself, you are not changing anything about you; rather you are looking at yourself from a new perspective. For example, I recently cycled 10 km in a remarkably slow time. I had pushed hard as I was training for an event, and I was exhausted despite my poor time. I concluded that I was losing rather than gaining fitness, and felt like pulling out of the event. Then I realised that I had confused kilometers for miles, and I had actually cycled 10 miles in a very respectable time. I had still cycled the same distance and felt just as tired, but in that moment, I suddenly felt fit and capable again. As the old Jewish proverb puts it, “As a man thinks, so is he.”
What yardsticks are you measuring yourself against? How often do you use these measuring sticks to beat yourself? Who do they even belong to? If you suffer from imposter syndrome then I suspect that a few of the measuring sticks you are using to beat yourself belong to other people who believe you are falling short. To reframe your view of yourself, you need to abandon these measuring sticks and take an alternative perspective – from the inside out, rather than through the eyes of your greatest critics (or fans).
To do this, you need to take time to look inside deeply enough to get a proper inside-out perspective. Specifically, you need to have a fine-grained understanding of the different facets of your identity and the values that underpin or animate these parts of yourself. Now you can ask yourself whether you acted in line with your values and whether you were authentically yourself, despite the failure that triggered your imposter syndrome. Alternatively, you might consider how proud you are of the way you dealt with the failure, or what you have learned from the mistakes you have made that will strengthen who you are and enable you to enact your values more effectively in future. If your imposter syndrome has been triggered by a challenge that feels beyond you, you can ask if acting in line with your identity and values calls for the courage to try even if you might fail. Alternatively, you can retreat from the challenge with no shame, knowing you are being authentic and enacting your values.
In each case, you narrow the gap between your view of yourself and the world’s view of you. In the first case, you accept that you failed but also see how you succeeded; the kinds of success you typically identify when you know you acted authentically and in line with your values are often worth more to you than the thing you failed at. There might be a gaping chasm between the expectations of your colleagues that you will get the grant or paper and the embarrassment of the resounding rejections. But when I see how I led the bid or paper writing process, the relationships and ideas that were formed, the skills that were developed in the team, or how I helped us all come to terms with the rejection and find a way forward, I know that I know “I’m good because I’m me and that’s all I need to be”, as my daughter put it.
At this point, I suggest you identify a few core elements and see if you can reframe a recent situation that left you feeling like an imposter. For example, empathy and participation are values that inform a lot of who I am and what I do day-to-day, so I reframed my cow flyer experience as evidence that I was enacting my participation principle. I have a longstanding habit of passing anything that will go to stakeholders through my team for comment first, even if I think it is far from controversial, and if I had not enacted that principle, I may be feeling much more embarrassed right now. Because I was able to laugh at myself, the experience opened a channel of empathy with a number of team members, particularly more junior colleagues who hadn’t worked in dairy systems before, and they shared their own doubts and fears with me over subsequent meetings. I might not be proud of my original mistake, but I was proud with how I dealt with it, and I ultimately used the experience to build my confidence on a project that still regularly scares me to this day.
Rebalance your power
The second of my three approaches to tackling imposter syndrome is to rebalance your internal invisible power with the visible power that is given to you by the world. Again, the goal is to narrow the gap between your view of yourself and the world’s view of you. In this case, you do so by empowering yourself, either to counter the disempowering narratives of your critics or to feel and be closer to the levels of power others assume you have. You are given hierarchical power as you get promoted or chosen for prestigious roles, and you are given social power when you get a title like Dr or Prof that others in society recognise and respect. Equally, you may be disempowered by your lack of status in the academic hierarchy or the social standing of your gender, skin colour or sexual orientation in any given context.
Hierarchical and social power is easy to see but hard to change, at least in the short-term, and its effects can be deeply corrosive. The longer you look at yourself through the eyes of others based on their opinion of your position in hierarchies or your social standing, the wider the gap will grow between how you see yourself and how others see you. On one hand, your lack of hierarchical power or social standing can disempower “your” side of the gap, lowering your self-esteem. On the other hand, the hierarchical power or social standing others imbue you with can empower the “other” side of the gap, creating even higher expectations that are even further from reality than before. It was for this reason that I made my acceptance of my previous job conditional on them not making me a professor. There was already too big a gap between how I viewed myself and how the world viewed me, and I didn’t want to make it any wider at that point by creating the expectations that go with a Prof title. In the end, they offered me the job on the condition that I went through the process of becoming a professor, but it took me a whole year after getting the promotion to actually tell people, or put it on my email signature or social media profiles.
Rather than running from hierarchical or social power as I did when I tried to avoid promotion, there is another path, where you narrow the gap by increasing two types of less visible power. Like hierarchical and social power, these alternative power bases only change slowly and with great effort, but they are much more within our control, if we choose to nurture them.
The first is personal power. This is the power of self-awareness and strength of character. It is a quiet confidence, often born of overcoming adversity. It is a reputation for integrity and honesty. It is building others up, and equipping and inspiring them to be their best, rather than gossiping or criticising. It is the creative power to see things differently combined with the courage to do things differently. This type of power is characterised by humility. When I say this, I do not mean submissiveness; rather I mean an honest estimation of your own worth and abilities as well as your weaknesses and failings. True humility is secure in the knowledge that your worth and abilities are good enough, rather than better than other people’s, and your weaknesses and failings are an equally valuable part of you that keeps you grounded and enables you to give more to the world than would otherwise be possible.
If you are listening to this list of personal attributes with incredulity, you are not alone. I am regularly met with disbelief during trainings, when researchers ask how such powers can be cultivated. Surely these are things you are born with. They are parts of your personality. Either you’ve got them or you haven’t. Well, perhaps depending on your life experience, some of these characteristics may come more easily to some than to others. But I believe that personal power is a skill that can be practised, if you are willing to invest the emotional energy and commitment in doing so.
You can cultivate self-awareness through the practice of mindfulness, or you can get help via a coach and/or counsellor, coming to understand your character and building a resilient self-image by facing the demons of your past. You can decide and draw red lines on key issues ahead of time, so when you find yourself faced with important or controversial decisions in the heat of the moment, you stay on the right side of the line. You can choose to build others up in every interaction you have, by making a practice of appreciating and voicing the good you see in those around you. It feels awkward to start with, but even if you have to apologise in advance for embarrassing someone, the embarrassment of a compliment fades fast but the positive effect of your words can linger for years, providing comfort and sustenance in dark times. You can foster creative practice, making creative spaces and collisions happen on purpose. And when you know who you are and the values that drive you, doing the right thing despite the fear becomes the only possible course of action. Humility is founded on self-knowledge.
The second power that can help you close the gap between how you view yourself and how the world sees you is transpersonal power. This is the power that comes from being connected to some greater cause than your own career or personal goals. This power is based on the deeply important purpose that emerges at the intersection between your identity and your values, giving you a clear, value-based sense of direction, even if that directly challenges the status quo. It is these values that imbue transpersonal power with a sense of something deeper, larger, more significant and beyond the sphere of your own life and influence.
You can cultivate a connection to a broader and deeper cause by understanding the purpose that emerges from your unique sense of self and the values that underpin and animate you. Once you understand your purpose, you can hold it in your mind at all times, and make a practice of filtering your decisions through this purpose. In my case, all professional decisions get passed through the question, “will this enable me to help make the world a better place?”. You can keep asking “why” in your teams and meetings. Now instead of diving straight into the agenda or the most pressing issues, you stand back and remind the group of your joint purpose, inviting that purpose to pervade your meeting, subtly influencing your decisions to keep them in line with the big picture, and keeping your team motivated on a deeper level.
Create equally credible, evidence-based alternative narratives
Finally, my third approach to overcoming imposter syndrome is to draw on what you have learned from the first two approaches as you reframe and empower yourself, and start replacing your imposter narrative with an increasingly evidence-based alternative, more helpful and empowering narrative. The first step is to become more mindful of the initial stages of imposter syndrome so you can spot the imposter narrative before it has grown arms and legs. Once you have done that, you can interrogate the veracity of the doubts it is casting over your abilities, and the source of those doubts. Whether or not you are able to dismiss these doubts, you start looking on purpose for the alternative narrative, and shift your attention to it instead. Over time, with practice, you can learn to spot the warning signs early and move quickly into an alternative, more helpful narrative, and avoid being paralysed by imposter syndrome.
It might sound crazy, but I regularly have an internal dialogue with my imposter. I am not denying his existence. There are good reasons why he starts talking to me, usually about my failures and shortcomings, and it is clearly pointless trying to deny that I make mistakes. I don’t like the things he tells me, his defeatist tone of voice, or the way he makes me feel, but instead of getting angry with him, I have compassion. And from that place of empathy, I start telling him a different story that is equally true, based on the evidence that I have achieved things of worth despite my limitations, that people find value in what I do despite my mistakes, and that even when it feels like my failure dwarfs anything I’ve ever done of worth, I am still me, and I still have value. I have made friends with my imposter. I listen to him, he listens to me, and together we’re good enough to keep moving forwards.
What makes a healthy impact culture? / Three shifts in thinking that will enable a healthier impact culture to emerge around you / Overcoming imposter syndrome, people pleasing, perfectionism and fear of failure / Overcoming people-pleasing and perfectionism / Making friends with your imposter / Transcending failure and labels / Read more articles about impact culture