Impostor Fraud Syndrome

Yesterday morning as I was making school lunches and breakfasts, I was thinking about the concept of Impostor Syndrome (the concept of high achieving people who feel inadequate and/or like a “fraud” in their jobs) and whether people who are truly happy in the work that they do and are able to link it to service of others - feel this or not. Shortly after that, I walked into a coffee house and asked Tamara if she was willing to talk to me.

Tamara said that she had a job right out of college that was fine, but one day she had an epiphany that “if I was going to clock in and out everyday for a paycheck it has to be for something bigger and better than me; it has to be towards serving others.” Shortly thereafter a headhunter contacted her and she has now worked for the past 10 years for a non-profit in a job she loves and is currently enjoying ONE YEAR OF PAID maternity leave to stay home with her two babies. And no, she never suffered from Impostor Syndrome.

Last year, after hearing much talk about the book “Lean Out by Sheryl Sandberg” I decided to pick it up. And it rocked my world... but not in the way I think it was supposed to. I was annoyed, I was pissed, I couldn't grasp how I was the only one who could see that this wasn't about listening to what YOU want within yourself, but how to move yourself forward into the ranks (and I probably should give it another read as I'm sure that isn't her whole message but that's what I took from it). I find it interesting that the “word 'personality' derives from the Latin word 'persona' which means 'mask'. The study of personality can be understood as the study of 'masks' that people wear” (Wilderdom, What is Personality?, April 2007). And most of us at some point, get a job... it can be a job we wanted, or a job we needed, or a job that just filled the time while we figured out the job we wanted; we use our personality, life history, wisdom, skills, etc. and get the job. And then, if you use your personality well, you move up in the ranks and you are awarded for the job that you do and you get caught up in it, because it's a job, it's what you do, that's what you just need to do.... work. And that is where I wonder if Impostor Syndrome comes into play – being really good at a job that doesn't speak to you all, that doesn't resonate with your values or your core being, you always feel just slightly off-kilter because you are. You are meant for greatness, but only you can know at what that greatness entails, it can be working for a company like Tamara, one where your values are met and you are in service to others and doing a job that completes you, or it could be as an entrepreneur, a speaker, a public servant.... the list goes on because each of us has something special within us that needs to shine – it's just up to us to look for it and dust it off, rather than throwing a suit over it every day and drudging to and from the job.

As I've done further research on this Impostor Syndrome, which was discovered by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978, they were oftentimes able to correlate the phenomenon within two distinct family dynamics – either by having a sibling that was labeled the “smart” one and you were labeled as the “social” one; or by being told you were the complete package and could excel at anything you wanted to. In both cases the consequences have been women who are unable to see or accept their considerable accomplishments. Therapy resulted in these women being able to accept those accomplishments, intelligence and just being who they are.

I would love to talk to Sheryl Sandberg, who as the COO of Facebook has spoken of suffering from Impostor Syndrome in her role at FB... but now as the founder of the Lean In Foundation leading and interviewing women, I'm curious if she still feels it, or if now that she is living her values, this syndrome has slid away... as I don't think Sheryl and I will be having a conversation soon, I've decided to do a little more research on my own... so I took myself on as my first case study. I can see myself in the described family dynamics, I was always told I was smart but didn't apply myself enough and that I had a “bullshitter” personality – that I could talk my way through anything. And I definitely suffered from feeling like a fraud in my corporate job, but now, as a veer off into the land of entrepreneurship and working based on my values and trying to serve others – I can't say I feel like a fraud. Sure I feel like I still have a lot of learning to do, but I've chosen a career in which I will always be learning something new and, yes, I can compare myself to others and find myself lacking, deep down I feel I am where I am supposed to be, and I feel good about that. Yes, it can still be hard for me to accept my accomplishments and to believe in my intellectual abilities, but no, I don't feel like an impostor any more in my career choice and I want to help other women move on from it as well. So there is more research to be had, but the question to leave on is if you suffer from feeling like a fraud in your work, is it based on your belief systems or because you know there is more greatness out there for you than where you are currently working your “job”?

Jessica McClure