Imposter Syndrome Distorts Our View of Competence

People suffering from impostor syndrome have a twisted idea of what it means to be able to do something. When caught up in it, they create a ‘competence ideal’ that is both unattainable and unsustainable: not only will they never reach this ideal, but it feeds the creation of yet more imposter feelings.

Valerie Young introduces us to five such twisted and destructive competence ideals in her book about the impostor syndrome, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women. To ease their condition, a person must let go of such unsustainable ideals and replace them with new lines of thought that will free us from the shackles of our mind.

Perfectionist

“In order for me to be really competent, I must be able to carry out everything perfectly all the time. My code must be faultless, tests, or production must be bug-free, code reviewers must never find any defects, and I never mess anything up.”

If this is your standard of competence, then you are a perfectionist. If we keep demanding perfection when we need competence, then we will never meet those standards. We will constantly fail by our own standards and the impostor syndrome will continue.

New thoughts for a perfectionist

  • Perfectionism can prevent you succeeding.
  • Sometimes ‘good’ really is good enough.
  • Not everything deserves a 100% input.
  • Your perfectionism impacts on others.
  • Embrace the imperfect.

Natural genius

“If I was truly competent, this should all happen effortlessly and I would know all this without having to constantly train. I should learn things at my first attempt, remember everything, and effortlessly find answers to demanding problems. I should not have to google this simple thing.”

If the standard of competence is natural genius, a person doesn’t allow themselves to fail or practice. This delusional standard of competence is created in a culture that idolises the super genius. The fact that this talent for working with seemingly effortless ease first required practice and several mistakes being made is conveniently forgotten.

New thoughts about natural genius

  • Grit surpasses talent
  • Adopt the growth mindset.
  • Challenges allow the possibility of growth.
  • True success takes time and work.

Expert

“If I was really competent, I would have three degrees and a PhD in this. I would know all the latest languages and keep constantly up to date with latest developments in the field. I can’t claim to know how to do something unless I have first memorized it perfectly from start to finish and have ten years of experience in it.”

Those who link competence in something to having a ridiculous number of degrees in it, are never satisfied with anything. There is always another online course, book, or credit to do to be fully competent, and there is nothing wrong with further studying. This ideal can become harmful when you think less of your own skills simply because there are a hundred unread articles about the subject.

New thoughts for an expert

  • There are many ways to become an expert.
  • There is no end to knowledge.
  • Knowing the limits to something is also a form of competence.
  • You don’t need to know everything, just be clever enough to find the one who knows.
  • You can still feel confident without knowing everything.

Rugged individualist

“If I was truly competent, I wouldn’t have to ask for help from anyone for anything ever.”

Rugged individualist feels that if someone helps them just a little bit, they can no longer claim real credit for their work – it’s not worth anything. For this person, competence means you don’t require any help or advice. A competent person manages on their own.

This standard of competence makes a person dig a hole for themselves and to do most things the hard way. Rugged individual forgets that being able to gather an efficient team around them and being able to ask for help are also forms of competence. Rugged individual forgets that once you’ve reached a goal, people will not be any more impressed by the fact that you got there on your own – hanging by the skin of your teeth.

New thoughts for rugged individual

  • To do a job well, you need to recognise any help you might need.
  • Competent people are able to ask for help.
  • Intelligent people surround themselves with those who know more than they do.
  • Your work does not need to be groundbreaking to be good.
  • Competent people know it is completely ok to build on the work of other competent people.
    • Stack Overflow FTW!

Superhuman

“In order to be truly competent, I must manage everything alone. I must produce perfect code ahead of schedule and within budget while also being able to develop internal projects and processes. On top of this, I must be a perfect dad, partner, and friend, train four times a week and I’m building a summerhouse at the weekends. When the kids have a school fair, I will bake.”

Superhumans are a cross between perfectionist and lone ranger, only it’s not just at work that they are lone ranger perfectionists, but in every field of life. In the superhuman world-view, a genuinely competent person is able to do everything perfectly all the time. The result is, however, a constant feeling of inadequacy that can also result in complete exhaustion.

New thoughts for the superhuman

  • It is OK to just say no.
  • Delegating responsibilities frees up time and allows others to contribute.
  • Once you slow down and cut down on your workload, you can focus on the really important things.
  • Playing the superhuman sets a harmful example to others – especially children.

What next?

Even if you recognise certain aspects of yourself in one or more of these models, there is probably one above all the others that is the competence standard you usually set yourself up against. How would it feel to let go of this unsustainable yardstick? What else could you use your energy for, if you gave up trying to live up to these unattainable ideals?

The simplest thing to do is to start acting against your former ideals, by taking a small step in the right direction. Ask for help, delegate responsibilities, say yes to a thing that previously you felt you weren’t competent enough to do. Once you start acting differently, you’ll start thinking differently, and once your thoughts change so will your feelings, and the impostor syndrome will loosen its grip.

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