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Let's Talk Imposter Syndrome

It's real and we should be talking about this more.

Photo courtesy of 'Science of People: The 5 Types of Imposter Syndrome (And How to Overcome It!)'


What is imposter syndrome? In my own words, it's the disconnect between how I see myself and how others see me. Additionally, it's the fear or anxiety that how I see myself will soon be realized as the true version and I will somehow disappoint or upset those around me.


That's the best explanation I can give for how I have felt before. To answer the obvious question, yes, I have felt imposter syndrome many times before. When have I felt this way? The day an amazing job offer came in, the day I received community recognition for viz of the day, the day I was nominated for Tableau Ambassador and Tableau Visionary. I experience it again the day I move to a new client for work or move to a new team. For me, it's a conflict of confidence.


How do others experience imposter syndrome? 'Science of People: The 5 Types of Imposter Syndrome (And How to Overcome It!' offers several examples. How do they explain what this is? "Impostor syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which you feel like you don’t deserve your accomplishments. You might feel like you don’t belong, don’t deserve your success, or are “out of place.” You might even be constantly worried others will expose you as a fraud."


To me, the common factor for this feeling is FEAR. How do I handle and think about fear? Well, let's step back and talk about the things I value and what anchors me, my faith. I can think of countless times fear is mentioned in verses.


“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” Psalm 27:1

"For I, the LORD your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, “Fear not, I am the one who helps you.” Isaiah 41:13

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” John 14:27

"You shall not fear them, for it is the LORD your God who fights for you." Deuteronomy 3:22

These are just a few. I mention these because for me, fear is something I constantly face and I do my best to remind myself I was not given gifts and talents to fear. I was given gifts and talents to share with others.


Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” In my heart of hearts, I believe this is a big piece of why many experience imposter syndrome. Social media does not help in any way.


I have fallen victim to comparing myself to my peers many times. One example I openly offer I wrote about in my recent Tableau Public viz, 'Alteryx Core Certified'. In this viz, I openly shared I had three failed attempts before I finally passed the Alteryx Core exam. I went a step further and shared my score for every section for every attempt. Why be so open? I wanted others to know this wasn't easy because I know seeing one person success can derail others that are struggling. I have been there. Social media does not tell anyone's full story. In fact, I would guarantee we disproportionately hear about individual failures. When is the last time someone posted, they failed while taking a certification exam?


I would often see people in the community sharing their certification successes. I couldn't help but feel a certain way as passing any certification has always been a challenge, I am terrible at test taking. My working memory is strong with visual references but gives me a blank white screen and suddenly I question what I know. I could talk about this topic for days but for now, I offer it as an example. I would stress about why I wasn't passing certification and I would see others succeed I felt frustrated with myself, I felt like an imposter. If I can't pass, maybe I don't belong.


This topic is close to my heart as I truly believe these feelings are more common than we all realize. I think if we could be more comfortable talking about imposter syndrome perhaps we can reduce the power of some of these fears.


According to WebMD, "Who Gets Imposter Syndrome? In 1978, psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance first described imposter syndrome in high-achieving professional women. More recently, experts have found that it's common among both men and women in many lines of work.


One study found that about 70% of all people have felt like an imposter at some point. Imposter syndrome often affects those who are highly capable perfectionists. Among those reported to have felt this kind of self-doubt are scientist Albert Einstein, athlete Serena Williams, singer Jennifer Lopez, and actors Natalie Portman, Lupita Nyong’o, and Tom Hanks."


How do we handle this feeling? I think that speaks to how as a society we handle and talk about mental health. Things have evolved over the years but there is still tons of work to do in this area. Years ago the thought of talking about how we feel about a promotion or the fear of failure was unheard of. I can remember early in my career hearing advice, 'fake it until you make it'. Reflecting now, that feeds into the problem. Instead, let's talk about it. Why not mention to your team or manager that you are feeling insecure? Why not talk about ways you can grow your confidence more? Is that so irrational?


Now, that we have talked about how people might experience imposter syndrome, who experiences imposter syndrome, and what I understand as the root for myself, what can be done?


A few practical ways I manage feelings of self-doubt, insecurity, or imposter syndrome...


1. Create a folder and save notes of all the small and big wins.

This might sound really simple but this was great advice I was given years ago as a way to support development conversations. Keep a running record of your achievements no matter the size and when review time comes, you have a list ready to go to talk through ways you add value. This is also a great way to handle those feelings of doubt.


2. Seek constructive feedback from peers or a mentor you respect.

This has helped me tremendously. The way I manage self-doubt, is I focus on continuous learning but ask my mentors and peers for feedback. Learning isn't a destination but rather a continuous journey and the more I know, the more confident I tend to feel so I ask questions, even if they make me feel dumb at the moment.


3. Talk about how you are feeling.

I can't stress this one enough. The times in my life and career that I have experienced the most growth, the times I was able to lean into the discomfort, those hard conversations or uncomfortable assignments. This was the way I was able to fill any gaps in knowledge I thought I had.


The reality is we all have gaps in our knowledge which is the number one reason why shared knowledge and finding a community or peers to support us is truly beneficial. I will never know everything about Tableau or data but I do have a background and talents, some similar to others and some different that can offer a unique perspective. My success or the success of the person sitting next to me does not define my value to any one community. I am, and we all are more than just what we know or who we know. Imposter syndrome is real and according to WebMD affects 70% of us at some point.


If you are interested in growing, find a community that celebrates you and supports you, even on days you are struggling. Beyond finding ways to develop myself I have turned my focus to ways I can support others. I think the less I focus on myself, the better I feel. As a previous boss once told me, 'what others think of me, is none of my business'.


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