“In one way or the other, we are all imposters” – Ebun.
Imposter syndrome – we hear so much about it and even encounter it in our personal and professional lives. But what exactly is it?
Imposter syndrome by definition is an overwhelming feeling of inadequacy despite evident success; the last phrase “despite evident success” is super important because it denotes that you have achieved something in the past that makes you sort of qualified, yet you feel unqualified. I consider myself a subject matter expert on this issue. As someone who is an over achiever (Enneagram type 1), I am constantly aiming for things out of my reach and outside my comfort zone, trying to do things that people way more advanced (in years and experience) than me are doing. And this comes with a lot of imposter syndrome. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – rather it is an indicator that I am growing in some way and giving myself the opportunity to gain new skills.
Fig 1: The comfort zone, the weird zone, and the growth zone
The three circles in the diagram above denote a person’s zones of work/performance. The smallest zone, the comfort zone is the zone of neutral performance where you can do your job in your sleep but at this stage, you’re not gaining any new skills. In the growth zone (also known as the learning zone), you are attempting to gain new skills and grow in your craft. As we can see, there is a weird zone that exists between the comfort zone and the growth zone, and this is where imposter syndrome lives. Thus, we can say that imposter syndrome is at the bridge between your zone of neutral performance and your zone of gaining new skills. More importantly, imposter syndrome is a tool that our body uses to alert us that we are approaching the growth zone. Because of how uncomfortable this is, we can choose to retreat to the comfort zone or stick it through just like you are doing with this article and press on to the growth zone.
* Insert mini science lesson *
Speaking of the body, there is a neurotransmitter called serotonin in the human body that is linked to imposter syndrome. Serotonin, amongst all its functions in the body, is responsible for regulation of your mood and also associated with feelings of social importance – status and respect. Your mood consists of how you feel at a certain point in time (or a temporary state of mind or feeling),e.g joy, sadness, etc and so imposter syndrome expresses itself through your mood, hence why you feel the feelings of fear, doubt, incompetence, etc. Research has shown that imposter syndrome is linked to low serotonin in the body. Similar to the way doctor’s prescribe iron supplements when you are deficient, my (non-clinical) advice for dealing with imposter syndrome is to increase your serotonin in levels. Now I am not a medical doctor (yet) or a dietitian, so I cannot prescribe foods and supplements to boost your serotonin levels. I can however give you practical tools that will help boost your serotonin levels when applied. And because as I stated earlier, imposter syndrome is an indicator of a growth opportunity, I can also give some tools to grow in your craft while experiencing imposter syndrome.
Fig 2: Serotonin’s connection to imposter syndrome
Less than 12 hours before I was to deliver this talk, I texted my family group chat “help!!! I feel life the imposter I’m going to talk about tomorrow“. As confident and prepared as I was to deliver this talk, my body recognized that this was a new mountain I had to climb: I had never publicly given this talk to this scale of an audience which consisted of a lot of smart people from different parts of the world. Rather than shaking off the feeling, I acknowledge that I was scared and anxious at that moment. My family members stepped in to remind me of a few things – if anyone could do this it was me, I was more than qualified to speak to people, I had a track record that I could look back on, and they reminded me of how I had challenged myself in the past and come out successful. This was by no means an ego trip – they had listened to my talk during one of my practice runs and knew I needed a serotonin boost. And the best way to give me this was by showing me my past successes. By definition, imposter syndrome indicates that the sufferer has had evident success but still feels inadequate – this was the case for me. Through our conversation, I saw myself through their eyes. The recognition and respect for my work that I got from them helped to boost my serotonin levels almost instantly. And sure, I could have listed out my own achievements for myself but in that moment, I really couldn’t. When faced with imposter syndrome, it is important that you recognize your evident success – this will help to boost your sense of respect for yourself. If you have been presented with a new challenge at work and imposter syndrome shows up, go to your project lead/manager and ask them why they wanted you on this new project. Ask them what they believe is your value-add to the project or what contribution they feel you can bring to the table. The simple fact that you have been trusted with a new challenge should indicate some sort of trust they have in you to deliver, but if they say more things, actually take it all in and observe how your overall mood shifts because of the serotonin boost you will get from this exercise.
As established earlier, imposter syndrome sits at the bridge between your comfort zone and your growth zone and is an indicator that there is room to grow in skills. If you are moving from your comfort zone, you are definitely taking some already crystallized knowledge with you – you already know one or two or many things about the subject at hand. When the fear and doubt creep in, I want you to notice the value of what you already know. Take the knowledge and lessons learned from your comfort zone and find some way (even just a narrow entrance) that it applies to your new project. There is so much value in what you already know, so recognize that and give others the opportunity to recognize it too by sharing your learnings. If you think something might be useful for others to learn from, share it informally, in a one on one, at a presentation, through some documentation, or if you’re like me, you’ll write about it just like I am right now! And I hope you can see how this gains you some sort of respect and social status. Again, two words – serotonin boost!
On the area of growth, if imposter syndrome is your body’s way of telling you “danger, growth ahead”, then we must lean into this growth. A sure way of doing this is to throw yourself into a difficult task. I know this seems counterintuitive because if you’re stepping into the growth zone, you’re looking to gain some skills you don’t already have. But one of the fastest ways to learn something new is by doing. If you come into a new project with a blank slate of knowledge, you are giving yourself the opportunity to approach mastery level in the best suited way for you. So my tip here is to find the unfamiliar waters and step into it. Build your mental models of what you think the solution is, try new methods and watch how you grow in skills by doing this. Even if you’re scared, do it afraid.
The next time you feel like an imposter, be the best imposter there is – embrace the uncomfortable feeling of stepping into your growth zone, recognize your past successes and skills (or get someone to point them out), put your existing knowledge to good use, share your learnings, and step into the growth zone by taking on a difficult task. And remember, we are all imposters, one way or another, some people just have better tools to help them navigate it.