The Imposter Among Us: How Self-Doubt Helps

This post was written by Hannah Morris, Director of Assessment & Advancement at The Latimer Group. 

Have you ever sat in a room of peers and felt out of your league? Have you approached a major task with a sense that you aren’t ready for or worthy of this responsibility? Have you ever wondered when your colleagues or clients might finally see that you aren’t as good/smart/able/experienced as they think you are?

Not everyone has these feelings. But some of us do; in fact, research has shown that up to 70% of us do. And when it happens persistently, it may be considered “Imposter Syndrome”.

Imposter Syndrome – the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills – was identified (originally “Impostor Phenomenon”) in the late 1970’s and for more than four decades people have been addressing it as a problem and trying to solve for it.

I, too, have looked at it that way. When experiencing it myself, I have tried to ignore and manage those feelings. When teaching and coaching others, I have offered suggestions for how they can ignore or manage those feelings.

And it can be quite problematic. Over-focusing on self-doubt can debilitate us. We can end up causing a shut down of major systems that will lead us to fail, which can then foster more self-doubt.

But then the other day I read Think Again by Adam Grant. And just like the title insisted, it made me rethink a number of things that I thought I knew. One piece of this was about self-doubt and Imposter Syndrome. Grant claims that these feelings, when seen in the right light, can actually fuel success. This idea is supported by recent research done by Basima Tewfik at Wharton, which showed that people experiencing “Imposter Thoughts” were not only as competent as their peers who did not, they put more effort into interpersonal performance, including helping and encouraging others, which made them even more effective and successful in their roles.

So how do we use this insight?

For those of us who are experiencing regular moments of self-doubt, let’s sit with it. Let’s connect those feelings with their positive output. Let’s remind ourselves of how they cause us to work harder, prepare more, listen better, and extend ourselves in the service of others. It is okay to not be perfectly content with how we are right now – as long as we can turn it into productive action by shifting the focus from self-doubt to self-development and keep a firm eye on how it can benefit those around us.

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Hannah Morris

A book about change

The Latimer Group’s CEO Dean Brenner is a noted keynote speaker and author on the subject of persuasive communication. He has written three books, including Persuaded, in which he details how communication can transform organizations into highly effective, creative, transparent environments that succeed at every level.