Although not an official term, this idea is one I believe many of us end up living through. Anyone can experience this. However, usually attributed to high achievers this handy term describes that self-doubt which consists of an overbearing feeling that you have no idea what you are doing, and all of this ‘success’ has been a pure fluke.
This is a feeling that I have definitely felt for a least a little (a lot) of my (albeit short) adult life. And one that has been brought back to my attention this week. In the shape of people looking up to me, or seeking my approval, in things I don’t even pretend to be adept at. What authority do I have to lead any way or offer advice in a field I have no natural (or learned) talent? In this instance – gymnastics. Don’t get me wrong; I can perform a mediocre cartwheel, a slightly unstable handstand and understand the principle of a good handful of moves, but can I actually do a backflip? No. The splits? definitely not.
Now don’t get me wrong, You can also have this feeling when you actually are inept and have no idea of what you are doing (in a new job for example); but I don’t believe that you could describe that as ‘impostor syndrome’. The main fact being that you are definitely not an impostor (pretending to be something you are not) if you are in fact, just as useless as you think you are. (that sounds more harsh than intended)
“There are an awful lot of people out there who think I’m an expert. How do these people believe all this about me? I’m so much aware of all the things I don’t know.” (Dr. Margaret Chan, Chief of the World Health Organisation)
Right, Back to my point; that of the high achievers who constantly fear being found out. These people often will lean towards their success being the work of external factors: a helping hand; joint effort; even luck. However if they were to objectively look at their achievements they would see that a combination of hard work, intelligence, consistency etc (all internal factors, luck has no bearing on how hard you work, unless you are inexplicably unlucky I guess).
The issue with these high achievers is their ability to internalise, but their draw to the importance of external factors. The internal comes in the shape of comparison (which links with the external) and the focus on the negatives (the things you haven’t achieved, the things you have failed at). The external is just that: the people/space/conditions you find yourself in.
If we compare the internal struggles of ourselves with what we see on the face of another person we will never measure up (how many people do you know that are good at putting up a front?). Who is to say if the people you are idolising are facing the same internal battles that you are, or if they are as confident/adept/self-assured as they seem?
“Comparison is an act of violence against the self.” (Author Iyanla Vanzant)
How can we compare in a purely subjective way? Whenever we compare ourselves with others we seem predestined to put ourselves last, usually; we are very good at seeing the good in others, and then unjustly harsh on ourselves. Which is a completely ridiculous idea; given that we know our own struggles better than anyone. If we possessed the natural ability to be objective of the self, then we could be such a good tool for our own development and constructive criticism (instead of belittling our achievements’ and dwelling on our failures).
The focus often lies with the negative, give someone 1 bad and 3 good points and typically they will focus on the bad. (This is not proven, but something I have seen a lot, in adults and children) Often a piece of negative criticism will feel like a personal attack, so what happens when we fabricate our own negative criticism? The only way to accept these downfalls is just that, we must own our mistakes; own our gaps in knowledge but then act in a similar way to our achievements. By acknowledging (maybe even celebrating) both our failures and successes, then we can begin to become impartial, not belittling victories, but also not dwelling and glorifying the failure.
Simply, the external factors we often use as a reason for our success, I see as an excuse not to take responsibility. For either the good or bad (a poor builder blames his tools not his lack of skill, some who wins a competition wins because of the mistake of the other competitors, not their own talent… for example). This works both ways of course. As stated earlier, taking ownership of the bad AND the good is an important step.
I guess in many ways, this fear of being revealed as a fraud can actually sabotage our own achievements. Maybe you don’t ask enough questions, or you don’t put yourself up for a leadership role, you never push any boundaries (as in you just stick with what you are good at) all in aid of playing it safe and risking exposure. This could manifest itself as a fear of commitment, ambition and stagnation in a comfortable position. Without risk, listening to that fear, we sabotage what we could be from the inside.
So this strange admiration I was experiencing, I can only assume, was (and is) a result of my outward confidence (even though this is 100% not mirrored internally, I guess fake it till you make it applies here? Note to self – work on this skill) I do fully accept that I am lacking in some abilities, and whilst I do not go above and beyond to avoid theses, I don’t give them the time they deserve, or effort to develop them. However, I don’t give my achievements the prestige they may deserve. So in effect, I guess I sit on the fence. Maybe I can stand to be a little bit more ambitious.
Now this is a very inward, slightly selfish train of thought. That being, regardless of my own inadequacies, the chance to better and encourage another human is present (and should not be wasted). So pursue it I shall. Who knows, maybe I’ll learn something along the way. Maybe this weird monologue that I put down in words has been an exercise in realisation.