If you’re not aware of what imposter syndrome is, let me share a quick synopsis. Then I’ll follow up with why I think the term is being abused.
Imposter Syndrome is a condition in which someone feels like they’re not good enough, a fraud, will never be successful and everyone’s secretly waiting to take them down. It’s more than just low self esteem or a lack of confidence. It’s a targeted feeling about one’s own skills or experience that is completely opposite to the objective truth. It’s a real thing and many people have admitted to experiencing this. But, I think people are getting confused and are misusing this term.
I’ve had the experience of working with and being good friends with a few people who legitimately have OCD and ADHD. They’re great people, but the struggle is real. I can see how debilitating these diseases and mental conditions are in their daily life. It makes me very angry when I hear someone having a bad run of attention say they have ADHD. Or, if you want to have some alignment in your life, that’s not OCD: humans just like patterns. I think its disrespectful to dilute these real conditions by people who haven’t become a master of adjective and adverbs. You don’t have this.
I think the same thing is happening with Imposter Syndrome. Don’t get me wrong, this is a legitimate thing and people have it. But, your uncomfortable feeling is not always this. Let me demonstrate with two examples: one that is, and one that isn’t.
Imposter vs Skill-Gap
Jessica has been a web designer for the last 5 years at a specialty firm. She decides to move on and go work for a competitor. They have been recruiting her heavily, everyone know’s she’s good, and she joins the new team. For the next few weeks, she barely produces anything worthwhile. Every time she creates a beautiful design, she second, third, fourth guesses it, and then destroys it. What is she doing here? She doesn’t know how to design things. Everyone can tell it, they see her designs and she just has to destroy them. She can’t believe that she’s been faking it these last 5 years and was never any good.
Sara has been a print and brochure designer for the last 5 years. She’s done a great job and has attracted some interest from a web design firm. She kills the interview and accepts the job. Her first few designs for a website really look like an early 2000’s brochure. She’s having a hard time grasping the web’s never-ending viewport sizes and length of pages. She recognizes her designs really look great if you never scroll, but they’re not web-ready. Actually, her designs are bad: they’re not good enough for the web. She’s afraid that she’s going to lose her job because she’s just not any good at web design.
What’s the difference?
The first example is Imposter Syndrome, in my opinion. Objectively, we know Jessica is qualified to do the job. She’s internalizing a lot of things that make it seem like she’s not capable. She’s self-sabotaging her work and is doubting her every move. She believes she’s an imposter, that her last 5 years meant nothing. This is something that she may need help working through.
In the second example, Sara’s experience is different. She doesn’t know what she’s doing with this new technology stack. That’s ok. Sometimes it’s ok to not know everything, to admit you’re lacking in areas. Her questions about whether she is good enough are warranted and worthwhile. She is demonstrating humility: really looking at her work to see if she can transition. She’ll work through it and become a great web designer. Right now, though, she’s experiencing the pain that we all feel when we are learning something new. That’s not a syndrome, that’s just learning.
You May Not Be Experiencing Imposter Syndrome
When I decided to write this, I was actually a little bit scared. I didn’t want it to be another article written by a dude who doesn’t know anything or to come across like I didn’t believe people’s illnesses. I wanted to demonstrate, with great care, that this condition exists and people do experience it. However, just like ADHD and OCD, it can be bandied about way too easily. You may not be experiencing this. Perhaps, you’re just experiencing learning and growing.
I suggest finding a trusted peer and talking about the experience with them. If they suggest that you’re crazy, you know how to do all of these things, you’re fine - that means one thing. Perhaps it means you might have imposter syndrome. However, if they tell you you’re going to learn it, you’ll be ok, sometimes it just takes time, that’s a leading indicator that you’re just experiencing painful growth.