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Is it Impostor Syndrome or Incompetence?

Is it Impostor Syndrome or Incompetence?

What’s interesting about Impostor Syndrome is that it has its most profound effects upon high-achieving individuals. Many ambitious, conscientious, and capable people struggle to internalize their success, leading them to see themselves as frauds. They worry that they will be exposed as not truly qualified for or capable of performing the roles they hold.

Impostor Syndrome is a common phenomenon, but it’s an experience we don’t often share with others. For one thing, many don’t even realize there is a name for it. Each time I deliver a workshop on Impostor Syndrome, attendees share with me that they’re relieved to hear that there is a term for what they’re experiencing. Beyond that, these feelings are often shameful. We carry around our insecurities and anxieties like a deep dark secret that, if exposed, will bring us down.

Impostor Syndrome often strikes at times of transitions. As you step away from a comfort zone in which you’ve thrived, you become keenly aware of all of the new things you don’t yet know. Our natural tendency to focus on our deficiencies, rather than our strengths, leads us to conclude that we’re not prepared for or capable of what lies ahead. Instead of reminding ourselves that we were once new to our last roles and overcame similar challenges then, we focus on what feels different this time around.

[Related: Four Universal Career Challenges Holding Women Back]

Impostor Syndrome also disproportionately affects those who feel different or marginalized by the dominant culture. This is why so many women in traditionally male-dominated fields experience these feelings. As women, our natural tendency when we feel different is to ask, “What’s wrong with me?”

When I speak on Impostor Syndrome, I’m often asked an interesting question: “How do I know if it’s Impostor Syndrome, or I’m really not competent in this area?” This question reinforces the critical importance of balanced self-awareness. Ask any woman what her weaknesses are and she’ll have them at her fingertips. Ask her what her strengths are, however, and she’ll pause, unclear how to effectively respond to the question.

Balanced self-awareness requires that you take honest inventory of your strengths and weaknesses. When all you see is what you don’t know, it’s easy to conclude that you’re unfit or unprepared for the responsibilities of your role. But when you balance that against all you do know, as well as the enormous toolbox of resources you’ve pulled from to effectively navigate these situations in the past, you’ll see that you nearly always have what you need to be successful.

[Related: Four Ways to Ditch Modesty and Speak Confidently About Your Achievements]

Now, that doesn’t mean that there may not be specific areas where you truly don’t have skills yet. Of course you didn’t step into a new role or situation with full mastery of its responsibilities. If you did, then you are overqualified and it’s a waste of your time and talents. 

Set aside the anxiety and ask yourself:

  • What are the highest priority skills I need for this role?
  • Where might there be some gaps?
  • How can I efficiently fill these gaps while continuing to demonstrate success in the areas where I have strengths?

The upside of Impostor Syndrome is that it’s a clear signal of growth. You don’t experience Impostor Syndrome when you’re comfortable. So, congratulate yourself for stretching yourself and remember – you’ve been here before. You’ve got this!

[Related: Feeling Like a Fraud at Work? You're Not Alone.]


Kim Meninger is an executive coach and consultant who specializes in women’s leadership. She is passionate about helping women in traditionally male-dominated fields to build their confidence, visibility, and influence.

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Bridget Brown-Williams

Thanks for this article. That's what I've been feeling for the past few months, ever since I started my new role. Now I know what it is. Thanks.

September 10, 2019

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