Dr. Kassi Klein watched as a well-dressed younger gentleman walked exhaustedly into the room, slumping down into the red chair with a tired sigh. It became immediately clear to Dr. Klein that the man felt defeated and did not want to be there. He told her his story: he was very successful as a businessman and held an impressive track record in his career, yet he felt insecure about returning to work.
“It was hard to understand at first,” says Dr. Klein, “this gentleman was evidently very smart and capable. I ask him, ‘what is holding you back?’”
“The fear of not being ‘smart enough’,” he said when compared to his colleagues. He mentioned how the ‘really smart people’ were certain about their decisions, while he had become aware of his own profound uncertainty about things. It took him longer than his colleagues to solve complex problems on the spot, churning questions over and over in his mind before he felt could say something intelligent. This, Dr. Klein noticed, highlighted the man’s anxiety.
The fear this gentleman had was sabotaging his career progression, causing him great distress and affecting his mood. He wanted help. He had finally built up the courage to ask for it, after feeling ashamed and alone with these beliefs of not being good enough, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
Though it may seem otherwise, his fear was far from irrational. It is something that plagues many men but is not talked about as often as it should.
The Imposter’s Paradox
Research suggests that the more competent and intelligent you are, the more likely you are to doubt your own intelligence. That is, you are more aware of the uncertainty of what’s ‘out there’, and the limits of your knowledge, but how do we address these feelings of ‘not being smart enough’ for men? We hear about similar phenomenons felt by women in the workplace, and new research suggests that men are plagued with these feelings of self-doubt just as much as women.
The key difference is that men, for the most part, just don’t talk about it.
The feeling of ‘not feeling good enough’ can lurk just beneath the surface for many high-achieving businessmen and entrepreneurs. Due to long-rooted social stigmas in men surrounding expressions of vulnerability, emotional openness, and the need to maintain one’s perceived status, many men can feel ashamed to admit internal feelings of self-doubt while also feeling a need to adhere to traditional ‘masculine norms’ of success, strength, and performance. For women, however, these narrow societal standards of perfectionistic competence are not traditionally placed on them in the workplace.
Everyone has their own unique set of worries, but if left unchecked, our harsh inner critic can severely undermine our own abilities and strengths, preventing us from stepping up into more senior roles, taking on new job opportunities, and succeeding in new ventures. It can lead to chronic feelings of a diminished mental state, including anxiety and burnout at work.
Addressing The Imposter Within
According to Dr Klein, the best way to address these feelings is to be consciously aware of those feelings when they arise within ourselves, to recognise the harsh inner critic when it rears its ugly head, and then learn how to communicate and share our experience. Opening up to those closest to us can release some of the pressure we hold to always perform.
The good news is that this psychological state is hardly a permanent state or a medical disorder. The pressure we place on ourselves, based on how we think society might judge us, is often an internal story we tell ourselves and it’s something we can work on to overcome.
To help overcome these feelings, Dr. Klein offers men some expert tips and advice on how to help let go of not feeling ‘good enough.’
- ‘Fake it till you make it’ – rather than waiting until everything is ‘right’ – it’s better to jump straight into action. Instead of viewing ‘winging it’ as evidence of your inadequacy, hone it like a skill that you can use – don’t wait until you feel ‘confident enough’ to start. Sometimes we need to start driving the car before all the parts are put together and actually ‘fake it until you make it’ like a pro. People don’t want ‘fancy,’ they just want ‘real.’
- Break your own ‘rules’ – Recognise that things aren’t black and white. We often create our own rules of how we ‘should’ always know the answer or never ask for help. Sometimes we have to let go of our own rules and actively break them once in a while!
- See ‘failure’ as an opportunity to learn and grow. After all, failure plays a powerful part of achieving any kind of success. So rather than viewing failure as a definitive representation of who you are – see it as an opportunity to improve.
- Realize that feelings are not facts: When we see feelings as facts, we might transform ‘I made a mistake’ to ‘I am a mistake’ and this brings up a lot of shame and unhelpful beliefs. Just because you feel inadequate, doesn’t mean you actually ARE inadequate. Recognize this as simply a feeling, a part of the way your brain reacts to certain situations and uncertainties, and is not necessarily a true reflection of your skills.
- Be a healthy perfectionist. Perfectionism has its quirks, but redefining our idea of what ‘perfect’ means can help you learn to be equally as comfortable being imperfect! Distinguish perfect from ‘good enough’ and the difference between being ‘right’ and being effective. Sometimes prescribing yourself mistakes – that is taking the wrong exit on the way home on purpose or voluntarily making the bed backward can help you recognize your own judgment patterns and not see perfection as a yardstick for measuring your success.
- Ask yourself: ‘Who actually has the power to judge my worth?’ Realise that it’s a choice to give people that power. Sometimes we have to actively ignore society to free ourselves from the fear of uncertainty, so we can embrace the world with more curiosity.
The young and capable gentleman Dr. Klein worked with learnt to face the transient feelings of inadequacy with courage. Instead of holding back, he set his feelings aside from the facts, compartmentalizing the two separately. A kinder relationship to himself created an entirely different person; one who no longer warred with himself, who could lean into the world and its challenges – not shy away from it.
“Eventually, you have to realize that it’s not about winning, or being ‘smart enough’ and that you can control the story you tell yourself,” says Klein, “it makes life a whole lot easier.”
Sometimes we need to be dragged, kicking and screaming back into the real world where nobody’s perfect and uncertainty becomes our constant companion.
Dr Kassi Klein is a Medical Doctor working in Mental Health, and a Lifestyle Medicine Physician based in Australia. She is also a Relationship Coach for Men offering 1-on-1 Coaching.
Dr Klein advocates for men’s mental health – addressing the male stigma around mental health issues and helps males attain optimal mental wellbeing using her knowledge, ongoing learning and clinical expertise.