Last week, we engaged in some highly critical navel-gazing, as we brutally examined our level of expertise with the help of the Dreyfus model. The point of that exercise is to realistically assess where you are so you can improve; it isn’t meant to “put you in your place” or discourage you from pursuing consulting. This week, I examine some of the dangers of thinking too poorly of your own abilities, as well as why that happens and how to address it.

Now you may be thinking that most of the consultants you know don’t need any help in this area — they think too highly of themselves already. Don’t confuse a portrayal of self-confidence with actually possessing it. The loudest blowers of their own horns often do so because they sense that they need to convince people of their worth — which can be a symptom of poor self-esteem rather than real confidence in their abilities. If you know you’re good, why do you need to assert it?

I’d wager that most of the people who suffer from a low opinion of themselves are the ones whom you would least suspect — those who are most successful. In 1978, two clinical psychologists named Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes created the term Impostor Syndrome to describe a phenomenon in which successful people fail to appreciate their own abilities, ascribing their achievements to luck or their knack of fooling people into thinking that they’ve got it together when they feel instead as if they had no control over their success.

I think that consultants may experience this phenomenon more than those in other professions. Our vocation provides little or no structured advancement or official recognition. Employees receive promotions, pay raises, and perhaps awards to indicate official recognition of their achievements. These set expectations within the company for the opinion that everyone should have about their abilities. We have to demand our own rate increases — clients don’t generally volunteer to do that. We often work on our own, so feedback and assessment don’t occur naturally — we have to seek it out. Furthermore, we often have to operate outside our field of direct knowledge. Sometimes we have to do a lot of research, or try things until we figure it out — but we think that our clients expect us to know what we’re doing.

Consultants tend to be perfectionists. And those of us who are autodidacts are especially susceptible; we don’t have the specific degree or certifications to point to and say, “See — I do know this stuff,” even though our years of experience may have trained us far better than any coursework could have done.

All of this can lead to the feeling that we’re “winging it” and hoping that nobody finds out that we haven’t a clue. So, what’s wrong with having that feeling, besides the knot in the pit of your stomach as if you were landing a B-52 loaded with bombs without any flight training? For one thing, it can make you feel even more overwhelmed than you are, increasing procrastination and possibly leading to burnout. If you start to give those voices credence, then you may start to try to cover up evidence of your incompetence: failing to admit your mistakes and shuttling the blame onto others. If you deny and suppress the feelings of inadequacy, then they can grow larger than life and compound all of these problems.

Tips for dealing with the Impostor syndrome

  • Face it head-on. Admit that you sometimes feel like a charlatan — that you think the impression others have of you is false, and that you feel somewhat to blame for that misconception.
  • Realize that you aren’t alone. This phenomenon affects many highly successful people. Guess what — they aren’t any better than you are. Humans have some sort of hero worship instinct that makes us deify the people that we respect. When people start doing that to you, it’s natural that you should feel like it’s misplaced. So think about all the people whom you think you could never be like, and remember that they’re only human. They’ve made plenty of mistakes too, and probably don’t feel like they deserve their celebrity any more than you deserve yours.
  • Accurately assess your own achievements. Sometimes I like to step back for a minute and pretend that I’m my own acquaintance. If I knew someone who had done all the things that I’ve done, good and bad, what would I think of them? I’d think they were a phenomenal learner and a creative thinker who makes their share of mistakes but always tries to learn from them, and who is often confused by human relationships. That isn’t so bad, is it? If that’s the picture others are getting, then nobody’s getting fooled. If I’m still trying to hide parts of that, then I need to learn a little self-acceptance.
  • Embrace your failures. A failure is not the smoking gun that demonstrates once and for all that you’re an impostor. As the old saying goes, “If you never failed, you never tried.” Analyze each failure to learn what you could have done differently. Recognize yourself as part of the system that needs adjusting. But get off the moral high horse about never making mistakes — that will never happen, nor is it desirable. Fear of failure can paralyze your efforts. As one of my early mentors once told me, “I’d rather you make ten wrong decisions than to take the same amount of time making one right decision.”
  • Don’t blow off praise. If it’s genuine — not just trying to get on your good side — then accept it for what it says. You did something that someone else appreciates. Even if it wasn’t all your doing, you had a hand in it. Accept their thanks with humility.
  • Use self-effacing humor. You can’t possibly believe that you project a falsely superior image of yourself if you’re always joking about your own foibles. Here’s the paradox: people will think even more highly of you when you do. “He’s not only a wizard, but a heck of a nice guy too.” This also sets a tone for yourself, so you don’t take yourself too seriously.
  • Get to work! The best antidote to thinking that you’re a fake is to get things done. Prove that you’re for real.

Have you ever experienced the Impostor syndrome? If so, how did you deal with it?