Is there an upside to Impostor Syndrome?

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Written by Katie

11/05/2022

It’s been talked to death and yet here it is, Impostor Syndrome, very much alive and well.

What if….. hear me out here, what if there is actually an upside to Impostor Syndrome?

What if it is actually a good thing?

Hot take?

Maybe.

Let’s discuss, shall we?

So what even is it?

To make sure we’re all on the same page, I’ll start by defining Impostor Syndrome.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (the avowed definitive record of the English language), Impostor Syndrome is:

“the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills”

Sound familiar?

That niggling feeling that you sometimes get as you’re minding your business, sharing your brilliance with the world that someone, somewhere is going to point at you, yell “Fraud!” and expose you to all of humanity resulting in abject humiliation, resignation from whatever you’re currently doing and moving to some hard-to-find-on-the-map country under an assumed identity.

I’m being hyperbolic, of course, but it’s a thing.

A very real thing.

And something most people (myself very much included) have felt at some point in their lives*.

Usually just as they’re pushing out of their comfort zone and trying new things or taking on new responsibilities.

You can imagine then, as someone who has multiple passions and is constantly trying new things, how often Impostor Syndrome makes an appearance.

And it’s sneaky. It doesn’t always look the same. It presents differently in different people. In fact, it can even show up in varied ways for the same person. So it’s hard to get a lock on it. 

What does it look like?

A friend congratulates you on your most recent appointment or promotion.

You respond: “I was in the right place at the right time”.

You’ve just attributed your success to luck or some external factor rather than your own competence or skill.

That could be Impostor Syndrome showing up.

You’re in a new relationship that’s going swimmingly.

You start to feel uncomfortable that sooner or later your partner is going to find out that you’re actually not that great of a person.

Then they’re going to zump you (dump you on Zoom, and yes, it’s a whole phenomenon) and you’ll be alone.

Best to preempt the situation and end things. So you start ghosting.

You’re afraid that you won’t live up to expectations or you feel unworthy of affection and so you self-sabotage.

That could be Impostor Syndrome showing up.

Someone compliments you on how polite, well-mannered and delightful your teenagers are (don’t laugh, it could happen!).

You smile and say “we got lucky with these ones”.

You’ve just downplayed a very real accomplishment which could indicate that you’re not able to objectively assess your own skills or competence levels.

That could be Impostor Syndrome showing up.

You just got an A+ on your latest term paper.

You think to yourself that anything less is now unacceptable and drive yourself into the ground to get As all round while playing three sports, chairing the debate team and running your YouTube channel on molecular gastronomy.

You’re in hyper achiever mode and believe that overworking is the only path to success.

That could be Impostor Syndrome showing up.

Any time you beat yourself up for poor performance, subconsciously set goals so challenging that you can’t help but fail, or find reasons not to achieve goals that you know you should be able to achieve?

Say it with me: that could be Impostor Syndrome showing up.

Like I said before, it’s sneaky.

Which begs the question – how could Impostor Syndrome possibly be good?

If you think of it as a warning light on your dashboard, it could signal any one of the following:

You’re having a growth spurt.

I hinted at it earlier. If you’re feeling Impostor Syndrome then chances are, you’re moving out of your comfort zone. You’re developing as a person and you’re challenging yourself.

And that’s a good thing because that’s where growth happens.

You’re keeping your ego in check.

Arrogance and extreme comfort can go hand in hand. If you’re feeling uncomfortable, chances are that’ll keep you humble. That’s never a bad thing.

Your interpersonal skills could be on the up.

A recent study** showed that where the participants felt like impostors, they were more likely to engage in active listening, ask questions and generally exhibit improved interpersonal communication at work. It also showed that contrary to popular belief, there’s no evidence that having Impostor Syndrome impacts performance.

In conclusion

I probably wouldn’t go as far as to say Impostor Syndrome is a good thing.

A more accurate statement is that while Impostor Syndrome is undoubtedly uncomfortable, its existence could be evidence of good things happening in your life and as such, shouldn’t be vilified as all bad.

It is, of course, something that, with the right beliefs in place and coping strategies needn’t be debilitating.

Even as often as it pops up for us multi-passionates. But that’s a topic for another day.

*Published literature shows prevalence for impostor syndrome as being potentially as high as 82% Bravata DM, Watts SA, Keefer AL, et al. Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: a Systematic Review. J Gen Intern Med. 2020; 35(4): 1252-1275

**Tewfik, Basima, The Impostor Phenomenon Revisited: Examining the Relationship between Workplace Impostor Thoughts and Interpersonal Effectiveness at Work,10.5465/amj.2020.1627, The Academy of Management Journal

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