I’m Not a Fake: Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

It was March 2005 in Orlando, Florida and I was working as an inside salesperson for a global HVAC equipment manufacturer. I’d recently applied for an outside sales position in the company’s Boston sales office. After much anticipation, I received a call from the department leader and was told that they had selected someone else for the position. Of course, hearing that disappointed me. “But…” she continued, “we are opening a new branch location south of Boston and our team thinks you would be a good fit to open and manage that branch.”

Boston Freedom Trail marker
Boston
Freedom Trail
marker

Huh? Me? At 23 years old, I had just started my career at the company a few years earlier. I was no manager; I was a salesperson. Had she mixed me up with someone else? During the interview, had I unknowingly said something inaccurate that would deceive her into thinking I was qualified for this position? I had zero experience with operations and managing employees. I was also in another department and knew very little about their products. Surely I was the least-qualified applicant for such a role. I didn’t deserve this offer.

I shared the news of the offer with some family, friends, and colleagues. Some had the same questions as I did, but others confidently told me to go for it. “Do it while you’re young!” and “Move before you have kids,” were common responses. I remember when one colleague, a former Marine, tried to quash my doubts with some words based on his previous organization’s motto. He said, “You can do this, Eric. I know you. You’ll adapt and overcome.”

I accepted the offer and it turned out better than I would have ever thought. But that wouldn’t be last my last run-in with what I would later learn is referred to as “impostor syndrome.”

DEFINING IMPOSTOR SYNDROME

Many who have tried to do something new have struggled with impostor syndrome. It’s a way of thinking that is completely within one’s own head. A person who deals with this phenomenon doubts their accomplishments, lacks confidence in their abilities, and fears being exposed as a fraud. They feel that their success came about by chance or that they have deceived others into thinking that they are more intelligent or capable than they really are. They often suffer from anxiety and stress or even depression.

In 1985 Dr. Pauline R. Clance created a scale to measure the characteristics of fear associated with impostor syndrome. This scale, referred to as the Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale, or CIP, determines both the characteristics of impostor syndrome and the extent of the fear associated with it.

DIMENSIONS OF IMPOSTOR SYNDROME

Clance claimed that impostor syndrome can be identified by six dimensions:

  1. The impostor cycle
  2. The need to be special or the best
  3. Characteristics of Superman/Superwoman
  4. Fear of failure
  5. Denial of ability and discounting praise
  6. Feeling fear and guilt about success

The impostor cycle begins with a person being assigned a task. The individual feels anxiety, self-doubt, and worry. To alleviate those feelings, they respond with either overpreparation or procrastination. When the person is praised for accomplishing the task, they discount the praise. When overpreparing, it wasn’t the personal ability. It was hard, grueling work. When procrastinating, it was just dumb luck. As a result, the person feels that they can be exposed at any point. Therefore, the cycle continues and reinforces the person’s feelings with each subsequent task.

Man stressed at desk
Impostor syndrome results in anxiety,
self-doubt, and worry

The need to be special or the best afflicts those suffering from impostor syndrome in varying degrees. Often the individual also feels an inherent responsibility to others. They can have a strong fear of letting others down. When they fail at a particular task because of an external reason out of their control, they don’t believe that others genuinely understand the circumstances or forgive. They feel that they lacked the ability to deliver even when others have no such beliefs. They are convinced that they will soon be found out and it will all come crashing down.

Feeling guilty about one’s success is another dimension of impostor syndrome. Because the individual feels that they are not successful because of their own doing, they feel guilty for robbing that success from others. Receiving a good grade on a research paper, a promotion at work, a salary increase, or an award makes them feel like they are stealing from someone more deserving. The more effort they put forth, the more success they enjoy, and the more guilt they feel.

ANOTHER OPPORTUNITY FOR IMPOSTER SYNDROME

It was March again. This time the year was 2011. I had been managing my store south of Boston for about five years now. We had grown to a staff of three and were discussing the hiring of an outside salesperson. We were exceeding our revenue and margin goals, and the success enhanced the camaraderie of our team. My manager had recently entrusted me with the responsibility of serving as an interim manager for a much larger store. Its manager had taken a leave of absence to battle with cancer. He had to accept that he would not be able to return to work and resigned.

Man straightening tie
Impostor syndrome causes one to
feel fear and guilt about success

We were all distraught due to the fact that he had worked for the company for many years and was nearing retirement age. He had a wealth of knowledge and his team was fiercely loyal to him. I had been splitting my time between the two stores, but this store was much larger and busier than my store. They churned out about five times the sales with a staff of seven or eight. I had been taking care of the essentials while he was on leave. Fortunately, the year was going well and the store’s success didn’t seem to suffer while it was without a full-time manager.

IMPOSTOR SYNDROME STRIKES AGAIN

After the manager’s resignation, my department leader approached and told me that she appreciated what I had done and that I would be paid an incentive for stepping up when needed. I was grateful, but a part of me felt guilty for accepting the payment while a colleague, really a friend, had to leave the company because of serious illness.

We then had a discussion about whether or not I was open to managing this larger store full-time. Gulp! Me? I compared myself to the previous manager and some of the staff at that store and felt grossly unqualified to manage both the store and the team. “If I took this job, this place would be out of business in a year,” I thought to myself, “At the very least, I won’t have a job.” My manager may have picked up on my trepidations and said we should discuss it again soon.

LEGO Superman
Impostor syndrome dimension: Superman

The next time we discussed the matter, I told her that I was interested. Then we discussed what would need to be done about the smaller store. Somehow during the discussion, I suggested that I continue managing both stores. Remember Dimension #3? Superman. Yeah, I probably had a bit of that complex. I had an employee at the smaller store that I wanted to help grow and lead that store.

Looking back, I realize now that I had fear and guilt from what I saw as abandoning my team. I would now have to spend most of my time at the larger store. The employee I wanted to develop wasn’t quite ready to manage the store on his own and if we brought someone else in, he may not get the chance anytime soon. Or what if my old staff didn’t like the new manager? I didn’t want my success to affect them in a negative way, and I would’ve felt even more guilty if I allowed that to happen.

Contrary to what I had feared when offered the position, neither store went out of business that year. In fact, we had quite a successful year. Some months the numbers weren’t so great and I often felt like I would be discovered. I just knew inside that I wasn’t qualified to manage a single store on my own, let alone two of them. I’ve always struggled with procrastination and over and over I reinforced the belief that I lacked the skills. I just kept getting lucky.

DEALING WITH IMPOSTOR SYNDROME

Man explaining something to woman
Share knowledge
and experiences

Eventually, I stopped feeling so much like an impostor in my new role. At the time, I still wasn’t calling it “impostor syndrome” and I hadn’t come to any self-realization that my actions and mindset were reinforcing my belief that I was a fraud. I did take some actions that I believe directly alleviated my worst fears of being found out.

I began:

  1. Sharing my knowledge and experiences generously
  2. Collaborating with teams
  3. Developing relationships with colleagues
  4. Asking for help
  5. Praising others
  6. Telling people when I didn’t know what I was doing

By sharing my knowledge and experiences, I started to realize that I did have a lot to offer. Even if I had spent years “getting lucky,” I had amassed a wealth of knowledge and experiences along the way. I had also built a solid network. I served my customers well. I’d collaborated on teams with the company. I built relationships with vendors and tried to provide them with valuable feedback. That didn’t all happen by chance.

Once I started managing the two stores, I didn’t have time to do everything on my own and I had to ask for help. I had to rely on my employees to take care of tasks while I was at a different location. They were happy to do so and enjoyed the challenges. They didn’t think I was incapable of doing the work as I had feared. The support they gave freely helped to break down my wall of self-doubt that stood in my way. Also, I didn’t have to do everything.

I also made a conscious effort to recognize others’ accomplishments. When employees exceeded their goals, I made it public. We celebrated wins with lunches and ice cream. Praising others helped me to realize that I don’t have to be Superman. I don’t have to do it all. If my team wins, I win too.

Man in suit giving thumbs up
Praise others’
accomplishments

One final change that I made to my mindset was that I stopped taking myself so seriously. I continued behaving professionally and doing good work, but when I didn’t know how to accomplish something, I admitted it freely. I told people when situations or processes confused me. Even my manager. Even my direct reports. Doing this helped me realize that my colleagues and customers wanted to help me. Most people weren’t rooting for me to fail. They wanted me to win. Sometimes others would tell me that they didn’t know what they were doing either. Ha!

Sometimes impostor syndrome still rears its ugly head when I’m trying something new. But I can recognize it quickly now. I know that it’s all in my mind and that I’m no fraud. And even if it doesn’t back down immediately, I know I’ll adapt and overcome.

1867 words counted

Leave a Reply