The Cornered Cat

Lots of new instructors (and some very experienced ones) suffer from imposter syndrome. What’s that?

Impostor syndrome describes a situation where a fully qualified and well-trained individual feels like an impostor or fraud because they think that they have duped the people around them. They have a fear that some day, they will be “outed” as not being as smart or as prepared to do their jobs as others perceive them to be.

(I should add — and this is important! — that sometimes, people feel as though they don’t belong in the job they’re doing pretty much because they don’t. Our industry is flooded with people who really want to teach things they have not bothered to learn. This is a real problem, but a different one than what I’m talking about here.)

Imposter syndrome does not always feel good, but that doesn’t mean it always has to be a bad thing. Embraced and used properly, it can become a strong driver for excellence and continued improvement. In many cases, it’s actually the source of expertise.

Think about this: It’s hard for someone to learn anything when they already know everything. Once someone has decided they don’t need to learn more, they often stop learning. Adult people rarely look for ways to do better tying their own shoes. There’s no need; they already know how. They’re already experts at that. So why bother looking for ways to improve their skills at it? They stop learning because they feel they already know everything.

That’s the experts’ trap.

The person with imposter feelings doesn’t feel like that. They might feel out of place, foolish and weak and untutored. But they do not feel that they know it all. Despite this (and this is where fears of being seen as an imposter lead to actually becoming an imposter in truth), a person with imposter syndrome might stop learning anyway. They might feel so afraid of others thinking they are ignorant that they refuse to learn more where others can see them. They might hide from learning situations and avoid being put in positions where others might realize that they don’t already know everything. They stop learning because they are afraid to be seen learning.

That’s the imposters’ trap.

Instead of getting caught in either of those traps, a brave person with imposter feelings can use those feelings to drive themselves toward true excellence and expertise. In order to do that, they must not ignore the imposter feelings or try to “overcome” the negative thoughts by sheer willpower, stuffing them back inside or telling themselves to shut up when they feel weak. Instead, they can lean into the feelings like a yachtsman leans into the wind, letting the wind fill the sails that speed the boat across the water. Instead of fighting the feelings head-on, they can use that energy to learn and grow and strengthen their  abilities at every opportunity. They can use the fear of being found unprepared help them become better prepared, and they can use the fear of being seen as weak to help themselves become strong.

When a person embraces the imposter feelings as the allies they are, they can help that person learn more, do better, and achieve more than they ever imagined. And along the way, they will have truly earned the respect they once feared others would not give them.

One Response to Imposter

  1. Fred says:

    So wait, are you suggesting that somebody get their foot in the door and then work their back side off to make it, because the thing they want is something that they have a deep desire to do? Huh, sounds like the American dream now don’t it.

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