The term Impostor Syndrome (IS), as defined by Very Well Mind, refers to an internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be. While this definition is usually narrowly applied to intelligence and achievement, it has proven links to perfectionism in the social context and is a psychological pattern we tend to create which leads to nagging doubts about our skills, talents and accomplishments.
Although I’m well acquainted with many of those feelings, for the majority of my career, I never even knew the term existed and when I finally heard it in passing, I initially didn’t put much thought into it. After all, I felt there was no need for me to put any significant stock into something that had absolutely no bearing on me. That misaligned belief changed sometime during the year 2018 when I had the opportunity to work with a career coach for the first time.
The experience of working one-on-one with a career coach, which was an overdue acknowledgement of my personal and professional shortcomings, forced me to go through the uncomfortable, oftentimes painful exercise of introspection and identifying personal saboteurs that were leading to some of my recurring negative work experiences. This conditioned mindset included subversive ways of thinking that prevented me from celebrating successes, being present in the moment and simply enjoying the fact that I was already very accomplished in my career. For me, satisfaction was always fleeting – I had to continue being an overachiever.
Over the two plus decades I’ve worked in technology, I’ve had the amazing fortune to have been an executive leader in the C-suite for multiple public and private sector organizations with billion-dollar annual operating budgets. Yet, in each position I experienced prolonged periods of doubt at certain points of my tenure about whether I was the right person for the job which left me cynical, guarded, sullen and defensive in turns.
I excused those thoughts as the natural outcome of being a former athlete who is naturally competitive, with a self-acknowledged touch of toxic masculinity, and addicted to achievement at the highest level. I fell into the habit of abdicating myself of the responsibility of affecting lasting changes on cultures that needed my influence and even went a step further by lazily dismissing my environments as dysfunctional and blamed the glacial speed of change on bureaucracy and red tape, while still holding myself to impossibly high standards. Of course, I knew that absolute perfection wasn’t possible, but I valued the never-ending pursuit of it nonetheless.
Because of this destructive cycle of thinking I remained in my CIO roles for shorter and shorter durations each time, ultimately because I would quickly become frustrated that things weren’t changing quickly enough and also because I was afraid, deep down inside, that I would eventually be looked at as the main culprit for our collective lack of progress.
I took great pains to mask my feelings of inadequacy and instead doubled down on winning awards and giving public speeches that externally validated my status in the industry as a top-tier CIO. In hindsight, I was fortunate to lead amazing teams of professionals who helped to deliver on incredibly challenging, large-scale projects that ranged from migrating datacenters and standing up call centers to implementing new ERP, CRM and billing systems.
In spite of my hard-earned success at each stop along the way, I still wasn’t satisfied and felt like I needed to do more and more to prove to others that I was worthy of occupying the lofty positions I held. This toxic cycle led to countless nights with little to no sleep, long work days / weeks and resulted in me generally being an unpleasant person to be around much of the time.
This all began to change when my career coach correctly pointed out that many of my actions and much of my thinking were the direct result of Imposter Syndrome. He asserted that I would likely never be satisfied, no matter how much I accomplished, until I confronted those feelings head on and made substantive personal changes. After my useless ego recovered from the realization that even I could fall prey to the fragility of human emotions, I had to acknowledge he was right.
I’ve always enjoyed the challenges of learning something new and resolved to inculcate myself with as much as I could about Imposter Syndrome and the best ways to fight it. I read online articles, listened to podcasts and talked to as many people as I could on the topic and found that it’s far more common than most people are willing to admit; the inner voice telling many of us that we don’t deserve our achievements is itself an omnipresent impediment to openly talking about it and finding effective mechanisms for coping.
I would love to be able to say my recovery was due to a quick fix and that I found some simple, yet brilliant method for resolving my own Imposter Syndrome, but my healing was gradual and took years. As a matter of fact, it’s still ongoing.
However, I have learned to be happy in the moment, cherish my relationships a little more and most importantly realize that I do deserve to be not only in the room, but at the head of the table. I have achieved a great deal in my career, but that alone doesn’t denote my value. It’s based on myriad factors that I remind myself of on a regular basis which is a cathartic process.
Moving forward I’m completely committed to maintaining a positive mindset and avoiding negative ways of thinking that undermine my eventual success. Of course, I’ll still encounter occasional speed bumps, mistakes and hurdles professionally, but the real difference now is that I don’t take those challenges personal because I believe wholeheartedly that I’m qualified, built strong enough and equipped at many levels to confront them.