There’s a psychological condition called ‘Imposter Syndrome’. It was first recognised back in the 1970s. At that time it was believed that only women seemed to suffer from it, but it isn’t sexist - it can affect anyone. Famous high achievers like Albert Einstein, Neil Gaimen, Terry Pratchett and Jim Carrey have all bowed under the condition, and if you are intelligent and a perfectionist the chances are you have too, at some point in your career.
Imposter Syndrome causes people to feel that they haven’t really earned their success. They worry that the quality police will one day storm into their offices, homes or workshops and drag them away from whatever they’re doing while snarling, “We’ve got you. You’ve pulled the wool over people’s eyes long enough! You’re mediocre at best so stop fooling yourself and others.”
The poor devils who suffer from this condition feel nervous and alone. Who can you talk to about it? Surely you can’t tell your boss? Is it something you can share with partners or family members? No.
Sufferers feel like frauds, intellectual incompetents who slipped through the net and are now perched on high ledges waiting for the first stiff breeze to blow them back down where they belong – broken in the gutter.
But these are extremely talented people, clever and capable. They are successful because they have worked for it and deserve it. What can be done to change the way they see themselves? Not much if they internalise their thoughts. The fact is that people who suffer from Imposter Syndrome are usually high achievers who might even start to pull back from success because they see a dichotomy between where they are and where they feel they should be.
Of course there are mirror images of these Imposters, the real imposters who are in a position of success without earning it. Inheritors, favoured colleagues and those who get by on charm but are really all sizzle and no sausage. Such people can impact on everyone around them with profoundly negative effect. Let me explain.
Let’s say you have a sign project and a deadline to meet. The Imposter Syndrome sufferer can see a simple solution to the project and puts it forward during the planning stage. Simplicity is an important part of any success story. KISS, everyone knows it, Keep It Simple, Stupid. Or as I prefer to think of it, Keep It Simple, Success.
Then the real imposter steps in and starts throwing more and more problems at the project. The Syndrome sufferer can see where this will lead but lacks the confidence to step in and deal with it. Time begins to drag. Eventually the real imposter will blame everyone else for the fact that the scheduled deadline was missed while he/she has always been directly responsible for any delay.
I’ve seen the process in practice and it’s sad when it happens, disastrous even. Defeat seems to be snatched from the jaws of victory time and time again. Morale dips, enthusiasm wanes and the whole team suffers. Work is lost and eventually the workshop doors close for the last time. The real imposter will glare at their colleagues. “That,” they will say, “should never have happened.”
There is a positive outcome though. More often than not the Syndrome sufferer’s high quality and standards will have been recognised by his or her peers. They will be snapped up and begin to thrive thanks to the support of like-minded company. The real imposter will eventually be forgotten, becoming little more than a distasteful memory. Dust on the sole of a traveller’s sandal, as they used to say in Persia. If you are an Imposter Syndrome sufferer take heart, you are much better than you think.
If you are a real imposter I’m afraid you’ll never know, but I pity all those around you are very aware of the damage you do.