Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Imposter Syndrome: Am I who you think I am?


     Once upon a time, I was scared to death of public appearances or public speaking. Then I started being part of plays in school. When I stepped onto the stage, I was no longer Charles Summers, I was Mr. Paravicini or I was the Mayor Munchkin or a member of the chorus in Bye Bye Birdie. Whoever I was, I wasn't myself. Therefore, whatever you thought of that person on the stage, it wasn't about me.

     A person doesn't have to be physically in front of others to feel reluctant to be there. Every time I write a blog, or a book, or a response to a message on social media, I know that I am subject to attacks -- either because they DO understand what I have said and disagree or because they do NOT understand what I have said (and possibly never actually read it beyond a certain word that triggered some type of reaction) and feel the need to use me as a target for a need to vent.

     In the above two cases, I am either deliberately presenting an "imposter" as an overlay of myself or I am leaving open the possibility of being considered an "imposter". 

     But when the concept of "imposter syndrome" comes up, these (though closely related) are not what is meant. This is a situation where your self-image is out of sync with the image others have of you or the role within which you have been placed. The peculiar part of this is that both can be wrong, or both right, or neither right, or neither wrong, or any mix.

     Each one of us is a mix of history, self-concept, externally applied credentials, and projection.

     Most of us enjoy a challenge. We like to do things, to make things, to achieve things that we have never accomplished before. But it is impossible to both have the certainty that we can do it and that excitement of something we have never done before. Lack of certainty requires self-belief in order to move forward. Some have more problems with that. Some do not have "enough" problems with such (they do very reckless, impromptu things -- that occasionally pay off with success).

     The dominant use of the phrase "imposter syndrome" is that of being in a day-to-day situation where the needs change on a daily, hourly, or per minute basis. When needs match up with, or require fewer than, our skills and our confidence in our abilities, there is no problem. When it becomes a new situation requiring untested abilities (and perhaps abilities that need to learned quickly) then it becomes very uncomfortable.

     If the position you are in does not put you into this situation at least occasionally, you are not being challenged and you are unlikely to be able to grow in your abilities and experience. But what is the right amount? Untested challenges 10% of the time? 25% of the time? 40% of the time? At some point, most people will lose confidence in their ability to react, and learn, quickly enough. They are an "imposter" trying to fill a position for which they don't feel they qualify.

     As the saying goes, however, "no person is an island". Each of us is (or can be, some have problem interacting with others) part of a larger group. It does not require 100% self-confidence -- we can rely some (not all) on the confidence that others put on us. We do not have to be able to do everything 100% ourselves. We can delegate, we can cooperate, we can work out mutually supportive deals. That requires the recognition that help is needed and a specific type of self-confidence that allows us to ask for help and recognize that asking is a strength and not a weakness.

     We are all imposters at some point in time -- until we become (at least, in part) the character that we are fated to play.

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