Getting Over Impostor Syndrome
A Philosophically Practical Guide
Margo Gasser awoke one morning after uneasy dreams to find, after several years in her career, she was an impostor at her job. To be sure, her job was going well; and nothing much had really changed, apart from having to deal with the cumbersome technological interfaces of remote working. In fact, with remote work it was easier to hide behind the scenes. Temporal disjunction and physical distance actually made it easier to present deliverables, almost as if she was a wizard with extensive knowledge and power.
But she felt more like the Wizard of Oz. A sham.
“What happened to me? It was no dream,” Margo thought. “I’ve been doing my work well for several years. Or, was I only the beneficiary of good luck? mere appearance?”
As the clock ticked and the faint dawn light mustered itself through birdsong, Margo began to believe in these thoughts more and more. “Does anyone else know but me? Someone must! I bet Wallace in L&D does. He never liked me.”
* * *
Sound like a scenario from your life story?
Do you suffer from impostor syndrome?
Impostor syndrome is:
the fear and anxiety that come with the belief that you’re not really experienced or knowledgeable at what you do, that others are more capable of doing the work, and that at root, you’re really a fraud or not deserving of your privilege and position.
Impostor syndrome is a real thing for anyone who
has taught themselves certain skills or knowledge to do their work/be in their career;
has launched into a new role based on their ability to learn quickly;
has been type-casted into a role via the perception of others,
has been criticized and put down persistently by people in power, or
suffers from a specific disability about which no one knows and which can be viewed as negatively impacting their ability to perform professionally.
In my consultation work at Philosophy2u, I’ve come across many individuals in rather high-level positions who believe themselves in some way or another to be impostors and therefore fear exposure. It can be debilitating when it combines with other anxieties or is exacerbated by extenuating life-circumstances. And although it is typically considered as a psychological phenomenon, in this article we’ll consider a philosophical understanding and remedy.
For those philosophically curious, I’ll be drawing on a specific branch of philosophy called hermeneutics, which deals with relations of personal identity through language, action, and stories. (Here’s a short primer video on hermeneutics.)
The Only Impostor Is the Ideal
As humans, we are psychologically motivated by ideals—whether they be people we admire, end-states we wish to achieve, or some feat we’d like to see biographically inscribed in our life story. The problem with ideals is how they can dominate the way we think and live, and therefore drive us towards erratic, anti-social, or pathological behavior. Ideals, when taken the wrong way, can be oppressive and distorting.
According to one philosophical perspective, this is because ideals tend to be without limitations. In other words, they are vicious enablers which encourage and perpetuate bad behavior without end.
Here's a typical schema for how they work:
we begin with a fixed notion of what it would mean to achieve what we want;
yet as time unfolds, the ideal is no longer fixed, it's consumed one's life; like a bacteria colony, it has come to occupy most of our mental and physical space.
The ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, observed this about the ideal of accumulating wealth. He referred to it as “wealth-getting” and said of it that people mistake it for a genuine good. It may be necessary to have some wealth, but to be focused on acquiring wealth as a goal of life is to be mistaken in what the good life consists. On Aristotle’s account, the good life consists in engaging in activity whose doing achieves something definite and definitive.
Let me unpack this a bit.
Definite = the action accomplishes something (accumulation of wealth does not count as accomplishing something; it’s more like distraction and preoccupation).
Definitive = the action affirms some good or principle in accomplishing something.
An example would be helping others in need. Performing the action not only achieves helping someone who needs help (definite); but it also affirms a philosophical principle – one ought to help those in need (definitive).
What’s even more interesting . . . This way of describing action as achieving a definite end is a way of saying it is limited and therefore complete. It’s an odd idea for us moderns, but Aristotle and other ancient Greek philosophers saw limit as a good thing. Think of limit in terms of balance, moderation, and completeness.
In contrast, wealth-getting is often unlimited, simply by the fact that people preoccupied with making money tend to want to make more and more money. On this view, many wealthy people are often unhappy because they are unlimited in their want for more money.
So how does this apply to ideals?
If the ideals we entertain are unlimited, then they are going to transform the way we think, live, and perceive others in a way that will inevitably be detrimental. They will make us feel like impostors because we can never live up to the expectations they set.
To put this another way: ideals are the impostors when it comes to purporting to be helpful to how we live our lives.
Let's opt, then, for another way of conceiving ideals.
Ideals as Heuristic
Instead of all-consuming and pathological, we can think of ideals as rough estimates about how we would like to be. In other words, they are heuristic or indicative.
An analogy from Plato may help illustrate this point better.
Ideals that are indicative and heuristic light the landscape and our way like the sun. We bear in mind how an ideal illuminates how we would like to live without being consumed by the idea that we can ever be elevated to as to be that ideal (high in the sky).
In contrast, if we take the ideal as a target or goal we have to achieve. That is more akin to looking straight into the sun. It blinds us in our actions and understanding.
By those lights (no pun intended), no one should feel an impostor because one is not being measured against achieving an ideal. Instead, one is informed by a rough estimate of how we would like to be.
Philosophy as Practice
So how can all this philosophy be applied in practice?
Let me break this down at the individual and organizational levels.
Focus on being open and flexible. Knowing your limitations means you’re more aware of having to adapt, learn, and soak in as much experience and knowledge as appropriate.
Establish your network of good people inside and outside the business. Good people help to extend knowledge and experience, often in ways you'd never expect.
Find your strengths. People admire strengths, but at the same time . . .
Admit your weaknesses. Ok, this very much depends on the specific culture in which you work. I get the fact (unfortunately) that some areas of business think a macho/invulnerable person is the paragon of success. Blah! Stop watching action films and believing they are real!
My point here is that humility goes a long way when coupled with being good at what you do.
If you’ve made it this far and found the foregoing account and analysis persuasive, then we’ve started to change the conceptual landscape. We have redefined what it means to work and function as a capable human being. We have indicative ideals which we understand to be general notions that frame and guide us.
At the same time, while such ideals guide us, they are always open to questioning and revision.
Conceptual shifts only really work when they can be practiced continuously by the respective community.
Each organization and business will have different needs and challenges. In general, nonetheless, successfully initiating Step 2 involves transforming the culture of the workplace.
Learning, adapting, and even failing are seen as positive steps contributing to a stronger, more resilient, and more capable person and organization.
Growth is communal; no one can develop and grow on their own. As philosophers know, real and substantial growth comes by engaging with others in a variety of ways.
Leadership works by example; there is nothing more powerful than a capable and humble leader. Their actions and accomplishments speak for themselves, yet they know they are no different than any other person. All humans are subject to misfortune, fragility of life/health, and constraints beyond their control. (There’s a whole other article in how the real enemy of employee and business success is hubris. Thanks, Greg Bardsley, for the conversation on this.)
A easy way to get things rolling:
use existing team-building exercises to emphasize equally failure and success (failure as a step toward success in a broad sense; success as limited by failure due to changing needs; see bullet point 3 below);
set aside time for teams to have problem-solving seminars which can showcase knowledge, experience, and learning together.
Recognize. Reflect. Reconfigure.
Take the time to recognize individual and team struggles and successes.
Take the time and space to provide staff with the real opportunity to reflect on what they’ve learned in and apply them in different directions (personal development). Work is about living life better.
Take the time to consider what needs to be changed in view of oncoming challenges. Just because you’re succeeding now does not mean you will, given future changes. Biological adaptation may be random, but organizational adaptation needs to be forward-thinking and anticipatory.
* * *
Philosophically and practically, there is so much more. But the moral of the story is that being an impostor is an existential condition with which we generally cope because as humans we’re all limited in some way; and as humans, we tend to set rather lofty goals for ourselves (and others).
Being limited (as I've set out above) can be a spacious and settling remedy.
Limits are boundaries as well as doorways to new modes of being and understanding.
About the Author
Dr Todd Mei is a self-confessed impostor, having taught himself philosophy, finance, and economics before becoming an academic professor and then consultant. However, he firmly believes that his wide range of experience in both good and bad occupations, combined with his philosophical research and teaching, make him an "ideal" consultant on meaningful work. When not researching, writing, and advising, he plies his impostor talents in windsurfing and surfing.