Impostor Syndrome

Sometimes the problem that causes burnout isn’t that you’re not seeing results.  It may be that the results you’re getting seem like they’re too much.  You may feel like you’re faking it – that you’re not really as good as other people believe you are.  You may live in relatively constant fear that others will realize that you aren’t as good as you appear to be.

To some degree, we’ve all felt it.  We’ve gotten that lucky shot, and others are amazed at our prowess.  But we’re confused, because we have no idea what we did, and, more importantly, we’re not sure how to replicate the results the next time we’re called on in a similar situation.  It feels like the results were haphazard and unrelated to us, but the results were good, and people attributed those good results to us rather than dumb luck.

At some level, there’s always more to learn.  Those who are concerned about being the best in the world will always be looking for the knowledge or skill they’re missing to advance to the next level.  (See Peak for more.)  So even those with what others would describe as “absolute mastery” of a task or skill might still believe that they’re receiving more credit than they should.  Perhaps the results are being magnified.  Perhaps the results are random and chaotic, and it’s only the great results that folks are paying attention to.

To prevent burnout – or recover from it – you must accept your role in the results you’re getting.  To be sure, there is an amount of randomness in the results.  We control only what we put into things, not the ultimate outcomes.  However, over time, our contributions lead to a cluster of results.  We can accept that our knowledge and skills lead to those results.

Until we accept that our hard work is delivering the results that we need – at least some or most of the time – we can’t see the fruits of our labor and we will eventually become burned out.  We need to not only see our results but to accept them as a result of our efforts.

If you feel like an impostor, there are some sure-fire ways to help resolve it.  First, tell others that you feel it.  Explain how you feel like you don’t belong or that the results that you’re getting aren’t a reasonable representation of your skills and experience.  Even if you can’t admit this to the person who believes in you more than you think they should, reveal it to someone you trust.  Even though this is a frightening prospect, it is an important step in recognizing your impact.  Let them walk you through why the results are appropriate.

Second, map a path out between where you are now and what you’d need to do to not be an impostor – and then walk it.  Much of the time when you map out this path, the truth reveals itself.  The truth is that most people in most roles aren’t trained for them completely.  Surgeons can’t keep up with new techniques – even if they’re at the top of their game.  Technologists are always wondering about new technology that they’ve not heard about.  The exercise may help you realize that no one else has it all figured out either.

Finally, if you feel like an impostor, give yourself some grace.  If you’re not intentionally misleading people, then you’re fine.  You can continue to figure out what is making you successful as you go along.  After all, unconsciously skillful is still skillful – you don’t have to know why or how.