Feel Like You Have No Idea What You’re Doing? You’re Not the Only One

Author: Scott Duncan

Recently I had the privilege of doing some volunteer work with TupuToa, a phenomenal internship programme that helps Māori and Pasifika students get into careers in the corporate and professional sectors. I spent an evening training interns on the ins and outs of job interviews.

Job interviews are weird. They’re so artificial. The stress of the situation combined with being forced to impress strangers frequently makes someone who might’ve been awesome at the job fail because they didn’t perform well enough on demand. Particularly if you’re just starting out, are inexperienced, or not a naturally outgoing personality.

During our training session, I was struck by a deeply honest statement – a fear – from one of the interns. “I don’t feel confident. I don’t feel like I should be here. I feel like I’m faking it.”

I literally had to sit down when I heard this. I really struck me. On one hand it was fantastic that TupuToa had created a culture of such openness and honesty, where their interns felt like they could be open and vulnerable. On the other hand, though, it was disarming to see that this young woman who hadn’t even joined the workforce yet already had a deep fear of her capabilities.

She had perfectly captured the essence of ‘imposter syndrome’, a feeling of inadequacy, fraud or failure, like you don’t belong in the job you’re in and have somehow tricked your boss into thinking you can do it, when really you have no idea what you’re doing. It’s most common with high achievers who, despite proof that they’re skilled and successful, think they only got to where they are through a series of fortunate events.

Ahhh the ol’ imposter syndrome. I know it well, both in my work with clients and in my own life. I see it all the time: in CEOs who aren’t sure how they got where they are, in mums returning to the workforce, in the mirror…

I’m no psychologist but I reckon imposter syndrome impacts 90% of the population. We feel it all the time: “What if I’m not good enough?” or “What if people find out just how underqualified I really am?”

We might want a new job, and perhaps our dream job pops up on Seek, but we don’t do anything about it because it seems so far out of reach. Or we actually do land a new job but we immediately wonder how on earth we managed it because there had to be far better candidates out there and perhaps the hiring manager was having an off day, but hey, at least we’ve got a regular pay check right? Well, until our 90-day trial period is up …

Sound familiar?

Imposter syndrome not only impacts how people feel about work, it also impacts how they perform. In her book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Imposter Syndrome & How to Thrive in Spite of It, Dr Valerie Young splits imposter syndrome into five types: The Perfectionist, the Superwoman/man, the Natural Genius, the Rugged Individualist and the Expert (read all about them here). Each ‘imposter’ feels like they have a lot to prove, despite having already proven it as evidenced by their position in the company.

To kick imposter syndrome to the curb, start by acknowledging it. If you know you suffer from it, you’ll be more likely to realise when it rears its ugly head. It’s good to be humble, but it’s not good to be afraid of going to work every morning.

Acknowledge that no one is perfect (even if they seem it) – and cut yourself some slack. Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone is still learning in every realm of their life.

Record and regularly remember your achievements. If you suffer from imposter syndrome, having a list of all the amazing stuff you’ve done nearby will help to overcome those feelings of inadequacy.

Most people have some kind of experience with imposter syndrome, which makes it completely normal. The more we can demystify and destigmatise it, the more likely people will start to believe in their own capabilities. I’ve recently been inspired by very personal accounts from the likes of Suzi McAlpine (A Room Reveal of a Different Kind)Craig Hudson (The Great Imposter) and Jenene Crossan (Sucksess) Such courage, such honesty, such vulnerability just goes to show that acknowledging it and talking about it are the two first steps on the journey of dealing with it.

As for that TupuToa intern with the feeling of inadequacy? I‘m pretty sure she nailed that interview.