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Imposter Syndrome Might Not Be Your Problem — Are These Issues Happening Instead?

If you feel like you suffer from imposter syndrome, one of these things could actually be true instead.

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Imposter syndrome is an umbrella term used to describe a varied number of feelings and experiences that require closer attention. It’s often presented as the domain of women, but I’ve coached many men who also bring up this “syndrome” they’ve heard about. These people’s experiences are certainly real and significant, but does lumping them together and stigmatizing them really help? Alternatively, might it be worthwhile to look more deeply at the thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors that make up those experiences? 

Another way of framing the question could be this: if you feel like you suffer from imposter syndrome, could one of these things actually be true instead?

You Have a Work-Life Imbalance

In some cases, what someone interprets as “imposter syndrome” may just be the result of unachievable expectations or pure overwhelm. In my work with corporate high achievers, work-life balance is often severely skewed. 

A corporate attorney once told me, “I feel like a terrible lawyer, a terrible partner, a terrible mother, and a terrible board member.” 

My immediate thought was, “Gee, there are a lot of things you do that require superhero-like devotion and performance. Is it possible you’re setting the bar unreasonably high?”

The more obligations and commitments you have, the more important it is to take a look at the expectations — both your own and others’ — that are weighing on you. If you write them all down, how long is that list? Does it seem nearly impossible? I’m here to tell you that it probably isn’t, but it may require you to adjust your attitude and your thinking about time management. Fitting more meetings on the calendar is less important than working smarter — allotting your more precious resource (time) in a way that truly aligns with your goals and values. 

You Make Unjustified Comparisons

Are you comparing yourself to the person who made partner 20 years ago, when he was 30? How many people were in the firm when he did that? What was the market like during that time? We have a tendency to compare ourselves to others (judge how we’re alike) while forgetting to contrast ourselves with the same people (judge how we’re different). We all have unique backgrounds, unique networks, unique home lives, and more — all of which make it self-defeating to resent someone else’s success without really understanding how they arrived at it and equally self-defeating to feel down about our own trajectory. 

The antidote to this is straightforward: Create a realistic and actionable plan of your own, one that optimizes and leverages your strengths and assets and has a built-in accountability factor. This way, you practice comparing yourself to the only person that matters — you.

There Is an Actual Skills Mismatch

Early in my career at AT&T, I was in a systems analyst role. I was the only woman on my small team and clearly did not have the technical expertise of my male peers. I hated being in conference rooms talking about data all day, and I liked to communicate with the system users and other stakeholders. I got rewarded by our boss for doing collaborative work that my peers didn’t enjoy. 

I had a feeling that colleagues resented me because we were supposed to be analyzing data, which, to be fair, was clearly specified in our job description. I, on the other hand, always felt less technically qualified — because I was. A mentor told me that I might enjoy technology sales. I made the switch and found my niche. No more “imposter syndrome.”

If you take a close look at your job description and compare it to what you are getting rewarded for, the two should align fairly well. When they don’t, it can contribute to the feeling that things are off. The solution is to do an honest analysis of your skills and goals, then build a plan to up-level or make a change, if possible. Consider additional education, get a mentor, and explore your options.

You’re Not Sure How You’re Perceived by Your Stakeholders

Many clients tell me about a sneaking suspicion they have that they are underqualified, were promoted prematurely, don’t perform adequately, aren’t perceived well in the workplace, or some other telltale symptom of imposter syndrome. What I usually ask them in return is, “What’s your evidence?”

It never ceases to surprise me when a CEO says they aren’t sure what their board thinks of them or when there is an obvious disconnect between how an executive and their team view each other’s performance. It always makes me ask, “How did it get this far?” which is an easy problem to solve. Get feedback from your stakeholders! Remove any element of mystery surrounding how you are perceived, and then you’ll know where you stand. In many cases, you’ll realize you were worried about absolutely nothing. If there is some truth fueling your fears, on the other hand, then you’ll at least be in a position to make a plan to close the gap. 

You Aren’t at Your Best Emotionally

Virtually everyone I know has some kind of emotional baggage that they’ve carried around for years, and we all need support — either explicit or implicit — in working through these things. It could be burnout, shame, guilt, regret, sadness, depression, addiction … anything you feel is holding you back from emotional wellbeing or from operating with mental agility and flexibility. 

What can you do? Make a commitment to get evaluated by a professional that you trust. I love being supportive and helping all of my clients in every way I can, but to be completely frank, people often come to a coach or mentor with feelings that deserve the attention of a mental health expert or other medical professional. That’s not to say you can’t use both — and any good mentor will gently guide you in the direction they believe will provide the best and most appropriate support. 

The bottom line is that performing in highly demanding roles often requires various types of support at different times. One of the biggest misconceptions I deal with on this front is the idea that someone will be shamed or “othered” just for having normal human feelings! Feelings and emotions are NOT liabilities, and they absolutely do not make you an imposter. 

You’re a Victim of Outright or Unconscious Bias

I saved this for last, because while it somehow trickles under the “imposter syndrome” umbrella time and time again, it is a totally separate and extremely valid concern that really belongs in its own category. If it applies to you, seek support through internal channels in the workplace, through mentors, or through your professional and personal networks. Whatever you do, don’t marginalize your intuition about this topic by telling yourself it’s “only imposter syndrome.”

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