Do You Have Imposter Syndrome Or Are You Actually Qualified For Your Job?

If you're reading this, you're probably high-achieving. And if you're high-achieving, you probably experience imposter syndrome. See how this works?

Three quarters of Harvard Business School students feel like they got in by some failure of the admission process. Even executives and professors live professional lives "smitten with a fear that sooner or later something is going to happen--probably that you'll make a mistake--that will cause people to recoil in horror and say, 'How did we hire this person? Obviously they're not up to the job.'"

What's the deal? Is no one actually qualified to have any job? If you pay attention to organizational psychology, the answer is no. What these people are experiencing is imposter syndrome.

If you haven't heard about it--or possibly experienced it--before, imposter syndrome is that feeling where, deep down, you can't believe that you deserve the job, title, or career that you've landed. Over at Pacific Standard, Ann Friedman provides the phenomenology:

a nervous undercurrent that runs through your day-to-day experience, unacknowledged, only to crop up in salary negotiations or in small phrases like, “It might just be me but….” or “Not sure I know what I’m talking about….” If you’re pressed to step outside yourself and try to adopt an outsider’s perspective, maybe you can articulate what it is you feel you lack—or admit that you have the same concrete skill set as your coworkers of similar standing. But most of the time, the feeling remains a quiet, hidden thing that you can’t quite express.

As the Harvard Business Review states, folks who always feel like they're imposters are often also perfectionists, people who set “excessively high, unrealistic goals and then experience self-defeating thoughts and behaviors when they can’t reach those goals …perfectionism often turns neurotic imposters into workaholics.”

Let's unpack that a bit further: First, workaholics aren't addicted to work, they're addicted to the validation that comes from success. Second, as the beloved sociologist Brené Brown has told us, if perfectionism is driving you, then shame is riding shotgun.

"We struggle with perfectionism in areas where we feel most vulnerable to shame," the author of Daring Greatly, one of the best business books of 2012, told the Huffington Post. "So we're all comfortable saying, 'I'm a little perfectionistic,' which is code for 'I do things really well'--but I'm not comfortable saying I have shame."

Perfectionism, then, is a way of thinking that says that "If I look perfect, live perfect, work perfect, I can avoid or minimize criticism, blame and ridicule." As she tells Oprah:

Jump to 3:00 for the perfectionism explanation.

When imposter syndrome imposes, let's do this:

See it for what it is: a surreptitious cycle of self-recrimination.

Since you don't feel you're the absolutely most perfect person at your job, you quietly accuse yourself of being a fraud, and then feel shamed for being so phony, and then intensely vulnerable for feeling shame, fueling a need for further self-protective perfectionism.

The task for us imposters, then, is to exercise a little emotional agility and step away from the cycle--and go public with the fact we felt it in the first place--that way our fellow perfectionists can loosen up, too.

Hat tip: Pacific Standard

[Image: Flickr user DaPuglet]

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16 Comments

  • 123db

    I fully understand the concept, and have experienced it, so rather than applying for jobs I know I have the skills to do, I ended up getting jobs below my ability, to make sure that I don't suffer from the anxiety I would get otherwise. It is something I am working on changing! Thanks for a great article

  • BetterMyBestTypes

    But after reading this article, dont thrash your high goals and standards as signs of so called impostor syndrome.

  • dotcalm

    I had a friend tell me she always felt like she was going to be "found out"; she had such an outward sense of self-confidence I would never have guessed she struggled with this issue. I didn't realize how many people deal with this.

    Personally, I know I can/could do the job, but if I had to explain to someone HOW to do the job I'd get nervous that if I sounded inarticulate about how it was done they'd think it wasn't being done correctly.

  • Rick De La Torre

    If you are in a sales job or Administrative or any non-manufacturing job where skills can be difficult to gage, you can thrive as an imposter. I see it everyday

  • Rick De La Torre

    I was an imposter to get in the door at many places & to move up the ladder. But in my field you cannot survive as an imposter. I am a CNC Programmer in a machine shop environment. If you do not have great math/logic & creativity, no need in being an imposter, because you will be found out. Any mistake is magnified when an operator pushes the button & program crashes a 10k part. No room for imposters to thrive in my field. Only potential candidates that have the skills but not the experience.

  • charlie

    this title is wrong, it should be do you have imposter syndrome or are you actually NOT qualified for your job. as it's written, the two instances being compared are the same, not opposing

  • Jessie

    I have this and speak about it publicly but I never considered myself a perfectionist as I thought perfectionists actually produced stellar work which I don't believe I do. Now I realise I'm a denying perfectionistic imposter!

  • Dr Elam

    Wow!!!! Could not have written a better article, I study human behavior and 10 years ago I would have had the opposite in my thinking....how does a guy with my education in up in the car business.

  • Jim

    I shared this with a couple friends -- people with whom I've had this conversation (and to whom I have confessed my own imposter syndrome).

  • jeffzx9r

    Hmmm, disagree. This is just a (neurotic) obverse of the "fear of failure." Obsessing about details and process is what separates superior employees from average employees. The higher the standards and goals you set, the greater the probability such standards and goals can't be met. BUT you achieve more (overall), than had you merely been "average." Maybe the employer is "not up to the challenge?" What I see happen too often, is employers expecting such driven employees to be equally obsessive (and successful) in many areas outside their comfort and skill zone. Strengths are ignored, and bad outcomes result. Shame occurs when you don't understand why you got terminated.

  • Janine

    I agree and disagree. I push for success in my staff constantly but what I see in one of our staff is the perfectionism syndrome. She is so fearful of constructive criticism and can't handle when we discuss that we need things done in a different way, etc. She can't learn from mistakes because she "doesn't make mistakes" everything has to be perfect so so mistakes can ever be made. Because of this inability to learn and grow it is affecting her ability to fulfill her job and as such her position in our business is going to change. If she wasn't so driven to only be perfect but to reach out for goals and ascertain a better quality of work learning from mistakes, she would have been able to prove to us that she can grow and change and prove her worth in the business. A fear of being imperfect is detrimental because you can never step out of what is safe and known. You can't stand on your own two feet and take risks because of your fear of failure.

  • fourmore

    I completely understand the concept, and the next great follow up article is working for someone who suffers from imposter syndrome -- that paranoid person who refuses to acknowledge and/or promote the work of someone who is a potential replacement for the imposter. Another great article could focus on the prospects who don't get jobs because they've interviewed with imposters or those who believe they are imposters.

    I could go on, but I'm sure you get the point.

  • Jill Sessa

    (I see I'm not the only perfectionist that noticed the date, ha!)
    Sharing this article is a first step in getting over the syndrome, right? As someone with an anthropology degree (a couple, in fact!) I always feel like I've snuck my way into a position. Or rather, I believe that such a degree prepares you for everything, but nothing specifically. It's not like having a title of "Rocket Scientist" after having gotten a degree in Aerospace Engineering.
    Another thought-provoking piece, Drake. Thanks!

  • Candice Hudson

    For some reason, the date on this article is Dec. 1. Two, I read your articles almost every day, this has been one of my faves. As a self-proclaimed perfectionist, this makes sense to me.

  • Drake Baer

    Correction appended, Candice! And Jill, I have something anthropological in the works that I think you'll really enjoy--be on the lookout.