Why Impostor Syndrome Is Good For You

If work is comfortable, you probably aren't challenging yourself.
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This story is part of our monthlong “Work Well” initiative, which focuses on thriving in the workplace. You can find more stories from this project here.

Almost anyone with any kind of ambition has felt at one time or another that they might not belong wherever their individual success has gotten them.

This is what's known as impostor syndrome. First identified by psychologists in the 1970s, it was originally defined as "an internal experience of intellectual phonies, which appears to be particularly prevalent and intense among a select sample of high achieving women," although later studies found plenty of men feeling the same way.

When ambitious people find success, they often (literally) can't believe it. And that inability to believe might actually be a sign that they are exactly where they should be.

On Thursday, The Huffington Post published an interview with behavioral science expert Caroline Webb, and buried near the bottom was a thoughtful response to a question about how to deal with impostor syndrome at work. Her answer deserves a second reading (emphasis ours):

Impostor syndrome is something that a lot of us suffer from. It’s this feeling that you’re constantly out of your comfort zone. I think it goes along with an aspirational approach to your career. If you are interested in personal growth and development, by definition you are always going to be pushing yourself into something which is new. And when things are new, of course we don’t feel as comfortable in our skin as when we are doing something which is deeply familiar to us, and which we’ve been doing for five or 10 years.

In a way it’s surprising that more people don’t talk about it. Because if we’re all doing something new, it naturally is going to feel uncomfortable in many ways. ... [T]hink about what in your existing strengths equips you to approach this new task. It’s a great way of taking yourself out of your comfort zone but not into your terror zone.

Essentially, Webb says that impostor syndrome is not only natural, it's a sign that you're doing something right. In order to grow in your career (or in any kind of thing in life, honestly), you have to step outside what is comfortable. It's scary to do that. So an ambitious and talented person is constantly putting themselves outside their comfort zone, and therefore feeling like they don't belong. That is, in fact, a sign of success.

Impostor syndrome is not rare, either. At least according to the cross section of the world that follows me on Twitter. At press time, over 80 percent of people who responded to the poll below said yes:

It's not gendered, either. Studies of the phenomenon, summarized by Business Insider this week, show that men are just as likely as women to feel like they aren't qualified for their jobs -- they just aren't as likely to talk about it for fear of backlash.

The real question is, if you don't feel like an impostor, is it time to move on?

The Huffington Post’s “Work Well” series is also part of our "What's Working" solutions-oriented journalism initiative.

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