How to handle self-doubt, imposter syndrome and feeling like a fraud

Today’s topic is something that is surprisingly common among highly competent people: self-doubt, lack of confidence, feeling like a fraud or an imposter. Video below or scroll down for the text version. Highlights

  • A life-changing story from my past
  • This is a thing! It has a name!
  • A great technique for handling self-doubt when it arises

I once swapped out a hard drive on location for a client. She was totally impressed that a WOMAN could do such a thing.

In 1999 I was sitting in a classroom alongside 20 other mid-life career changers.

We were all embarking on a 9-month intensive program to obtain a Networking and Internet Systems Analyst Diploma and Microsoft Systems Engineer certifications. Both of which are every bit as geeky as they sound.

On this first day, we were asked to introduce ourselves by sharing a bit about our background. We were also asked to rate our degree of computer experience on a scale of 1 to 5. One meaning little to no experience, 5 being expert level.

I gave this self-rating a lot of thought.

On the one hand, I had been programming computers for 15 years. I knew 3 programming languages. I had assembled computers from parts, I was familiar with quite a few software programs and I was a quick study when it came to learning new “computer things.”

On the other hand, there were a lot of things I didn’t know. I knew nothing about Apple products or mainframe computers. There were a lot of programming languages I didn’t know – and I knew nothing about the big systems we were about to study over the next 9 months.

I gave myself a 3/5.

Why are these newbies rating themselves as experts?

I once read part of a book on the subject – so clearly I am an expert!

We went around the room. Quite a few people identified themselves as newbies and rated themselves a 1 or 2. There were a couple of other 3s and a surprising number of 5s.

The instructors probed each of the 5s – wanting to know more about their expert-level background.

The 5 guy next to me explained that his dad had bought a new mouse and he installed it for him. “It worked on the first try!”

A 5 across the room said he knew “quite a bit” about Microsoft Word.

Another 5 proudly stated that he had owned his very own computer for 2 whole years.

When the introductions were complete, it was a toss up between me and another fellow as to who had the MOST experience. He also had rated himself a 3.

We had a little discussion about this at lunch: why on earth did these total newbies rate themselves at expert level?

He shared an observation that changed my life.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”Only the competent doubt their competence. How to handle self-doubt, imposter syndrome and feeling like a fraud.” quote=”Only the competent doubt their competence.”]

Only the competent doubt their competence

I got an A…why do I feel like an F?

The minute I heard that, I knew it was true.

The ratings in the room proved it out.

If you’ve ever been in a discussion or argument with someone who holds a strong opinion despite no knowledge of the subject at hand, you know it too.

Or you could just look around and see the people who are running things. Clearly, confidence does not correlate directly with competence!

It has a name: Dunning-Kruger

Later I learned that this is an actual psychological thing – a cognitive bias called the Dunning-Kruger effect.

People with low ability (the incompetent) mistakenly believe their ability is greater than it is – because they don’t know enough to know that they don’t know. So they can’t objectively evaluate their actual competence or incompetence.

Conversely, people with a high level of ability (the competent) not only know what they don’t know – they also incorrectly assume that what is easy for them is also easy for other people. A double-whammy. (That’s a technical term!)

[click_to_tweet tweet=”Struggling with self-doubt or feeling like a fraud? If you ever doubt your competence, it’s a sign that you ARE competent!” quote=”If you ever doubt your competence, it’s a sign that you ARE competent!”]

So what do you do about it?

Get out of your bubble and get perspective

Wow! You are amazing! (We need to surround ourselves with people like this!)

As high achieving people, life long learners on a quest to reach our true potential – we tend to associate with others we can learn from.

We follow experts in our field who are better than we are, we read books, we take courses.

When you surround yourself with people who are at a higher level, it can give you the perception that EVERYONE does what we do and knows more than we do.

The cure for this is to talk to the people who are NOT experts in your field: your clients and potential clients Рand people who are just getting started Рand look at your skills from their perspective.

Too often, we let these feelings of self-doubt, of not being good enough, of not being ready yet – keep us from sharing our knowledge and wisdom with the world.

We need the deep thinkers, the life-long learners, the COMPETENT people to step up, speak up and contribute their gifts.

This is how we’ll change the world.