Impostorism: It’s (mostly) Okay if You Feel Like a Fraud

feel like a fraud

I’m a loser
I’m a loser
And I’m not what I appear to be

John Lennon

As a SQL Server or other IT professional, do you ever feel like you’re doing it with smoke and mirrors? Do you fear you’ll soon be exposed as a pretender? Do you feel like a fraud, merely acting in your role? You’re not alone.

Professionals of all stripes — even legendary musicians — often deal with feelings of inadequacy, fear, shaky confidence, and being unworthy of their accomplishments. Let’s dig deeper into this issue.

feel like a fraud

Impostor Syndrome

This internal sense of being phony is called impostor syndrome (or phenomenon), or impostorism. 1843 magazine, a sister publication to The Economist, recently shared an article on the topic. Clancy Martin, the author, describes impostorism as “the sense that we are always posturing, that our accomplishments are in some way undeserved, no matter how consistent the evidence to the contrary.”

The term comes from the first study (quite old now) on the concept, by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. This study focused on high achieving women who, “despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments,” consistently felt like “intellectual phonies.” (Dr. Clance has also developed an Impostor Phenomenon Scale you can use to evaluate yourself.) 

I can admit that I sometimes feel like a fraud, a phony. Even though I consistently receive high praise for my work, and several of my projects have won awards, there’s still a little voice questioning my ability to perform. It has been most noticeable after transitioning to a new role. For example, transitioning from a manager to a director left me questioning myself. Not my talent and skills per se, but my leadership and knowledge. When you’re in a leadership role and people look to you for the answers, it can be difficult to live up to that expectation. Martin expresses it this way:

The strange thing is that the more expert you become in a field, the stronger your feeling of impostorism. As a younger academic, I was less aware both of my own imperfections and my strategies for disguising them. But the older I get, the harder it is to believe my own bullshit. Becoming an expert has actually made me even more prone to impostor syndrome. People really think I know something now. Sometimes the expectation of others feels overwhelming.

How to cope if you feel like a fraud

Our rational selves know that achieving a certain title, such as vice president, doesn’t necessarily mean we have experienced everything that may be associated with that role. Really, it just means your superiors believe you have what it takes. In other words, there is always a first time for everything.

For example, you’re likely to have your first difficult conversation with someone on your team as a manager. As a director or VP, you’re likely to have your first budgetary responsibilities. In the C-suite, you’ll probably have to be more strategic than ever, giving up the trees for the forest. Or, as it relates to SQL, there’s a first time to deploy an Availability Group or migrate to Azure or restore from backups.

While you may recognize these realities, it’s true that your direct reports or superiors may not. They may not appreciate that you are, in a way, still learning on the job. (It’s good to keep learning, right?) You won’t always have the answers or know which path to take. This is where vulnerability comes in. That can be tough when we’re supposed to already know it all and be an “expert.” Our natural inclination is to justify our position, emphasize our experience, and project a (pretended) “I got this” attitude. After all, if we show weakness, we could be mocked, shamed, ignored, demoted or fired.

And yet…would we really? There may indeed be companies that demand perfection or something close to it from Day One. But would you really want to work for such a company?

Wouldn’t you rather work with other real humans, where you don’t have to always know exactly what to do, where you can ask for help and admit you haven’t done something before? In other words, wouldn’t you rather work somewhere normal where you feel safe to share? Except with jobs where lives are at stake, failure should sometimes be “an option” (or, at least an outcome that isn’t seen as the end of the world). 

Expert Voices

Business guru Simon Sinek has a short video on this very idea. He says companies with unsafe environments are all about lying, hiding and faking. Further, he says companies can’t thrive based on those “qualities.” As Sinek outlines in a TED Talk, companies succeed when leaders establish a culture and environment where their people feel safe and protected.

Such an environment fosters engagement, creativity and innovation. Why? Innovation carries the risk of failure, but if you feel safe even when you fail, what couldn’t you do? You may look to your superiors to establish this kind of culture, which is fine. But remember: Your team is looking to you to do the same for them.

Educator Brené Brown, an expert on shame and vulnerability, explains as much in this clip from 60 Minutes. In her words, companies with leaders who view vulnerability as weakness can’t expect “great things,” especially companies that depend on creativity and innovation. She also shares this exceptional advice:

When you feel at risk, when you feel exposed, don’t tap out. Stay brave [and] uncomfortable. Stay in the “cringey” moment. Lean into the hard conversation. And keep leading. Stay brave. […] I’m not saying you need to disclose; I’m not saying you need to weep uncontrollably to show how human you are.

The Good News

The good news, from where I sit, is that SQL professionals frequently ask for help. That’s probably because the SQL community is so eager to give it without shaming. I’ve been a marketing consultant for SQL Solutions Group for six years and I’m (still) constantly impressed by how much sharing there is amongst SQL pros. From SQLSaturday and user groups to Twitter and hundreds of blogs like ours, the camaraderie, knowledge sharing, support and encouragement are powerful. Let’s keep it going! And, if you deal with feelings of impostorism, share with us how you’ve addressed it. Be vulnerable with us so we can benefit from your experience!

In closing, one admission: It’s true that some people really are frauds in their jobs. Some people can, somehow, fake it, at least for a time. But, when you feel like a fraud, that isn’t the same as being one. 

Looking back at the time when he wrote the song “Help!” for the movie of the same name, John Lennon says, “I was subconsciously crying out for help.” Needing help and guidance now and then doesn’t mean you don’t deserve your position. Remember that.

When I was younger, so much younger than today
I never needed anybody’s help in any way
But now these days are gone, I’m not so self-assured
Now I find I’ve changed my mind and opened up the doors

Help me if you can, I’m feeling down
And I do appreciate you being round
Help me, get my feet back on the ground
Won’t you please, please help me

John Lennon

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