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Dealing with the Impostor Syndrome

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The impostor syndrome refers to people who fear being exposed as a "fraud". They think that they do not belong where they are, don’t deserve the success they have achieved, and are not as smart as other people think. According to Agile Coach Gitte Klitgaard, many high-achieving people suffer from the impostor syndrome. It hinders people in their work and stops them from following their dreams.

Klitgaard will talk about the impostor syndrome at GOTO Berlin 2016. InfoQ will cover this conference with Q&As, summaries and articles.

InfoQ interviewed Klitgaard about what the impostor syndrome is and why it is important, how you can recognize people who consider themselves to be "frauds", what can you do if you suspect that someone has the impostor syndrome, and the positive aspects about the impostor syndrome, and how to use it to your advantage.

InfoQ: What is the impostor syndrome?

Gitte Klitgaard: The impostor syndrome or fraud syndrome is the feeling that you are an impostor and you are going to be found out soon. More accurately it is intelligent people who fail to internalize their successes despite evidence of it.

My best description is that it is the feeling that one day someone will come tap them on the shoulder and say "Sorry Gitte, you should never have been a speaker; there has been mistake; you are not good enough to do this."

InfoQ: Why is it so important?

Klitgaard: To me it is an important subject because it helped me a lot to find out that I was not the only one feeling this way. Realizing that it is a quite normal feeling has helped me a lot in finding my own worth.

Research estimates that up to 70% of the Western population will suffer from this at some point in life. That is a lot of people that can be helped.

I think it is also important to know about it in our industry; we need people that feel good about themselves, who can take active part in teams, who do not burn them selves up.

InfoQ: How can you recognize that people consider themselves to be "frauds" and feel that they do not deserve the success they have achieved?

Klitgaard: They will be smart people and they will often downplay their successes: "It was nothing", "I was just in the right place at the time", "I was lucky". I don’t think it is always easy to do, but becoming aware that this syndrome is real is a good first step.

For me just the fact of discovering that the impostor syndrome existed and that I was not the only one in the world feeling this way, meant a great deal. I kept having this feeling that the one thing, I was good at, was cheating people into believing that I was good at my work; at my exams; I would justify getting the highest grade in physics at the University to "I knew there were four types of questions, so I memorized the patterns and formulas, so that is why the written exam went well". When people would tell me that I did good, I would say "It was nothing" or "It is quite easy". And I would work my butt off trying to keep up appearances.

Luckily a coach of mine made me aware of it in one of our sessions, and from then on, I could start working on it :)

InfoQ: If you suspect that someone has the impostor syndrome, what can you do?

Klitgaard: Talk to them – and listen to them. I think that is always an important thing to do. Ask them if they know about this syndrome; let it sink in a bit.

Don’t say stuff like "but you know that you are good" etc., because that is the thing- despite evidence, they will not believe it, and they may beat themselves up for not believing it. Support and listening helps.

InfoQ: What’s positive about the impostor syndrome?

Klitgaard: Well some might say that it is good, because it makes people work harder to not be found out as frauds, but I would not agree with that. It can drive people to burnout and distress.

I wouldn’t say that it is necessarily good; however becoming aware that you have the impostor syndrome allows you to work with it and with yourself to get a better life and feel better about yourself.

InfoQ: Where can people go if they want to learn more about the impostor syndrome?

Klitgaard: There’s a description of the impostor syndrome on Wikipedia. You can view the talk that I gave at the London lean kanban days about the impostor syndrome. And there’s a nice blog post about using the impostor syndrome to our advantage.

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