What If Everyone Sees Through Me?

Career avoidance strategy #597:  Convince yourself you're an imposter and that your accomplishments to date have all been due to luck. Michael Jackson Impersonator

Here's a case study:  a senior recently asked me to look over her cover letter. It was, in a word, understated. When I pushed her to add more about her accomplishments and about skills that I'd witnessed firsthand, she said, "But I'm not sure I can do all that stuff. I'm afraid they'll give me the job and then, like, realize I'm not so great after all."

Ah, yes. The fraud feeling. We think we're pulling some humongous rug over the world's eyes. As if there'll be some big Hollywood reveal when Bruce Willis will jump out, pull an eerily lifelike mask off our faces, and say, Ah ha! See? You are not who you say you are. You are not good enough to do what you're doing. You are just - gasp - you!

Sometimes we even experience this feeling so severely that counseling is in order. When it's that bad, it's called the Imposter Syndrome or Imposter Phenomenon, and 70% of us experience this at least once in our lifetimes.

Regardless of intensity, the fraud feeling takes a toll on our mental health, our sense of fulfillment, and our willingness to go after the "unique and distinctive" work we're supposed to be doing in this world.

Impostors often experience fear, stress, self-doubt, and feel uncomfortable with their achievements. Impostor fears interfere with a person's ability to accept and enjoy their abilities and achievements, and have a negative impact on their psychological well-being. When facing an achievement-related task, Impostors often experience uncontrollable anxiety due to their fear of failure. - Salkulku & Alexander (2011)

So if you want to throw your future for a loop, study up on imposterism. All you need to do is embrace the characteristics of people who feel like imposters:

Huh, sounds like a lot of the things we've been talking about in our class. You really are A+ students in the field of career avoidance, aren't you?

And no wonder. Feelings of imposterism come from two major sources, which just happen to run rampant in Millennnials' young lives:

  1. Parental overprotection, especially from a father. (Hello helicopter parents!)
  2. An upbringing that emphasizes the importance of intelligence. (Hello our entire society!)

So there you go, a foolproof strategy for pushing away a fulfilling career/life, placed right into your lap by your doting parents and an intelligence-obsessed society. Ta da!

But what if you instead want to fail my class?

Well you could overcompensate for feelings of fraudulence by acting like an arrogant prick who can do no wrong, touting your credentials and background to anyone who will listen (and to those who won't.) Heap your resume with skills you've never bothered to perfect (much like Joey on Friends claiming to speak French) and adopt a modus operandi in which you ask others about their lives so you can in turn tell them about yours.

Great for situation comedy. Not for real life.

The other option is to gain self-knowledge (ah, that little thing) by:

  1. Reviewing the many things you've accomplished in your life. Be sure to look far beyond what society deems to be "accomplishments" (e.g., degrees, scholarships, promotions) to the accomplishments that are meaningful to you (e.g., finishing a half-marathon, painting your apartment, watching an entire season of 24 in 24 hours).
  2. Identifying the skills you had to use to reach each accomplishment, especially the accomplishments you care about. These are the skills you likely enjoy using, and that you'd be smart to target in your career search. (Skills needed for 24 in 24 hours? Follow through. Focus. Capacity to overlook incrementally unrealistic plotlines.)
  3. Accepting that luck was not involved in your accomplishments. It might be tempting to chalk your life all up to fate, to some hand-me-down from the gods, but really, not so much. (I mean, a 24 marathon doesn't just happen.)

Whenever I'm feeling like a fraud, I take my self-knowledge and go all 8 Mile on the world. As in, I do what Eminem's character did during the final rap battle:  lay weaknesses on the table before the opposition can. (Little did Eminem know, but psychologists find this to be a powerful persuasive technique.) Instead of putting on a haughty front while worrying that the world will see through me, I tell people up front where my weaknesses lie. I don't undercut myself. I don't undersell. I don't make myself look like a doofus. (I don't think.) But I do keep a healthy sense of humor about my faults and the areas in which I still need work.

So if you don't want to feel like an imposter, get to know yourself. Know what you're good at. And what you're not. Sell the former, because you deserve to. And laugh freely about the latter, because it'll put yourself and others at ease.

Or else spend the rest of your days fearing you'll be "found out," hiding your true talents under a Red Mango bucket (don't you wish they made that?!) or behind a giant dollop of pompousness, and passing Career Avoidance 101 with flying colors. Your choice completely.

Source: Salkulku, J., & Alexander, J. (2011). The Imposter Phenomenon. International Journal of Behavioral Science, 6, 73-92.

Good Reads:

The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids (New York Magazine)

How to Land Your Kid in Therapy (The Atlantic)

Talk about a bad imposter. Dude, you so do not look like Michael Jackson. (Photo credit: Feggy Art)