Imposter syndrome: Intuition in disguise?

Do you ever get that sinking feeling that, any day now, you’re going to get caught out as a total fraud? That your peers are going to realise you can’t walk the walk and that it was only by some weird twist of fate and ill-deserved good luck that you’ve got to where you are now?

A new job. A new promotion. More responsibilities at work. Big projects. You think that your manager is going to realise they’ve made a terrible mistake in putting this trust in you and will soon give you your marching orders.

This is the horridness that is ‘imposter syndrome’. It’s an irrational and demotivating sensation that you’re not good enough to do your job (or even in any context outside of work). You come up with all sorts of unfounded suspicions that everyone around you, especially your boss, is talking about your lack of competence, that the positive feedback they give you on your performance is just them being nice, cutting you some slack for doing such a rubbish job, and that by giving you fake recognition, you might be motivated to do a better job.

I can’t tell you whether you’re right or wrong as I don’t know your situation, but I can tell you that thinking this way is incredibly and ridiculously common – I can’t tell you the amount of senior people I professionally admire who have told me they feel like an imposter, contrary to their professional accomplishments!

I felt it big time when I secured a big promotion with a giant pay- and responsibility-leap. A couple of years down the line, I still feel this every now and then (although not as often and not with as much impact) and it’s only after reading Mastery by Robert Greene that I have a better understanding on why I think this way and how this can help me when doubt creeps in again.

Greene dissects the lives of history’s geniuses, or ‘masters’, so to understand how they became such influential contributors to science, art, sport, language and innovation. These people weren’t born masters, most didn’t even do well at school. I won’t give away too much (as it’s worth a read if you haven’t read it already), but the author talks about inclination and intuition, and how these form the basis of why masters are so great at what they do: they respond to a natural inclination (a fascination with patterns in nature like seashells, for example, or expressing themselves through music) and submit and immerse themselves into this inclination, so that many years later, the skills they developed and slogged over become intuitive.

This got me thinking – can imposter syndrome therefore stem from intuition? Having collected a deep understanding of a particular topic or issue from a wide variety of somewhat passive and seemingly insignificant experiences, failures and successes over the years, they developed an intuition. They just know how to do certain things without clear rationale. They can’t explain in words why a certain decision or unconventional method is a good one, but it is. They no longer consider their skills as a conscious asset, but their knowledge becomes a part of them. As the knowledge has been slowly absorbed into them over a long period of time, they are mostly quite modest of their brilliance – they don’t consider themselves as special or exceptional as they never went out of their way to accomplish such a deep expertise.

The topic of imposter syndrome has been written about so much with really interesting and credible insight, and having read this book, I can’t help but think this might be one extra way of seeing, and hopefully addressing imposter syndrome. The skills we possess become so engrained in us over time that, despite the initial struggle and hardship we experienced in gaining and developing these skills (whether this is passively or proactively), they are now just part of us. We no longer see them as an asset or as a skill that we can demonstrate.

And this is where I think it becomes dangerous imposter syndrome territory. You downplay your skillset and expertise because you overlook your intuition – developed from these very things – as ‘just common sense’ and not a part of your professional repertoire. You find it hard to rationalise your thinking, the way you intuitively do things, your inclination to go about a situation in a particular way. You run the risk of forgetting that this intuition is based upon years of experience, experiments, successes, failures and hard work.

The result? You feel like you have nothing to offer, at least in terms of a particular skill that you overlook, and you question your abilities. You might feel you’re in over your head with certain decisions you need to make at work, or certain tasks you need to do, simply because you’re subconsciously blocking the intuition you’ve developed and instead seeing it as a brand new professional obstacle to tackle. This obstacle is most likely made up of a number of individual components and tasks that, once broken down, you can intuitively and competently do individually and therefore, in turn, collectively. The ‘new’ and seemingly unachievable obstacle could simply be a sum of achievable tasks you can intuitively do.

Generalisation plays a big part here too. As humans we favour generalisation – it keeps our busy brains happy when processing huge amounts of data and stimuli. To help you challenge your generalisation objectively, you should look at when it flairs up the most.

Do you feel this way just as you’re starting a new job? Your brain generalises ‘new job = not knowing what to do properly’. Looking at this objectively, there are things you’ll need to get to grips with, as with any new job, but consider if these are easy things to get over or not. Are these skill-based and if so, do your previous accomplishments suggest you can do it? Or are they skills you don’t necessarily possess but are the exact skills you wanted to develop anyway so to progress your career?

Do you feel this way when speaking with someone more senior and, for example, have asked you to do something differently? Your brain generalises ‘more senior = more intelligent than me = I know nothing’. Looking at this objectively, they will intuitively have some good ideas on a way to address a particular problem; objectively, this doesn’t mean your ideas aren’t good. They just have the intuition (based on a greater amount of experience than you) to do things a certain way that might not have been obvious to you. Should you have known this, excluding hindsight? Would it have mattered greatly if you did it your way?

Do you feel this way when you receive feedback? Your brain generalises ‘received feedback = I’m wrong = I know nothing’. Looking at this objectively, this is one of the best ways to develop yourself as a professional. Put your ego aside and accept that you may do things differently to other people, and in more extreme cases, you may make mistakes. Receiving this feedback means you can work on any gaps and better yourself for next time. If you hadn’t have received this feedback, no matter how much pain it would saved you, you would have been denied an opportunity to improve and become better at what you do. Do you repeat these mistakes and continue to fail? Or do you learn from them and avoid making them again? This is a natural way of learning and not necessarily a reflection of your competence.

This doesn’t give you the green light to rush into decisions gung-ho without thinking it through first, depending on your intuition that might not even be there, but you need to assess your imposter syndrome.

You may not come to a black-and-white definitive answer as to whether your imposter syndrome is founded or not – sometimes there isn’t one. But challenging your generalisation, properly assessing your accomplishments and understanding when your doubts flair up the most will help you realise that the skills you feel you lack may be disguised as intuition.

Just as an aside, I experienced a big bout of imposter syndrome when thinking about launching The Avid Doer. What pushed me into finally doing it was when I listened to an amazing episode of the podcast ‘Stand Out Get Noticed’ from Christina Canters. I dropped her a quick email to let her know how much she motivated me and then she did an episode about my email! ‘How do you see yourself – and is it holding you back?’ is the episode that helped me push ‘publish’ on my website, and ‘Are you feeling like an imposter?’ is the episode she made based on my email.

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