The Imposter Syndrome: A Clue To Why People Stop Living Long Before They Die

Have you ever wondered why your achievements in life reached a plateau when they did - how you were on the path of your dream before something got in the way and stopped the surge?
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Have you ever wondered why your achievements in life reached a plateau when they did - how you were on the path of your dream before something got in the way and stopped the surge?

In 2005, an article in the Harvard Business Review (de Vries, 2005) described "The Imposter Syndrome" a syndrome in which highly intelligent high performers suddenly feel as though they are fake and that everything they have achieved up until now has been fabricated regardless of the absence of evidence to support this. These individuals, after a strong of successes or accomplishments start to fear failure and success, and on account of their perfectionism, start to become workaholics who try desperately to cover up their shame as they increase their conviction that they are fakes. These high achievers who become intrinsically anxious about being imposters also start to bring down the companies they work for. In 2007, Parsons and Pascale extended this idea by describing "The Summit Syndrome," one in which successful leaders reach their peak. After they meet their challenges in the "approach phase," they start to plateau and their desperation increases. After failing to produce what they are used to producing, they fall into a descent of jumping ship, accepting demotions or taking lateral transfers.

In my experience, this kind of hopelessness is not confined to those who reach superstar status. Many who are on their way suddenly seem to lose their bearings and fall by the wayside. It is as if they have run out of steam or simply cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel any more. The people I am talking about are not depressed or overtly anxious. They are not even very conscious of their dissatisfaction at first. But over time, the stagnation of their lives hits them and all they can do is relish the possibilities of the past. Those who continue to relish these ideas sometimes have kids so as to invest them with these same hopes, or they mentor a co-worker whose drive they can identify with, but even these forms of charity never truly get them out of their disappointment. Instead, they grow weary of life, and even cynical perhaps, and the weight of their disappointment saps away their energy and ability to show what is special about them.

I have seen this phenomenon in mid-career people who hate their jobs but simply cannot imagine doing anything else. Instead, they plod on, enraged by anyone who suggests that they look at their dissatisfaction and eager to identify with other people who have given up on life as well. People stop living long before they die.

If you are someone who thought of yourself as being on the path of your dreams at some point of your life, and now find yourself in an ordinariness that only you know erodes the very fabric of your being, what is happening and what can you do about this?

(1) The dreaded solution, in terms of work, is to re-invent yourself while retaining your core competencies. That is, to see if the experience and expertise that you have acquired can be applied elsewhere in an environment that capitalizes on your skills in a different way.

(2) Anchor your dreams again. If the anchor did not take the first time, try again. Your dreams never really leave you despite the mold of cynicism that covers them up. They are floating in your unconscious - always there to remind you of your straying from the path. Make up a "conversion plan" that suits you - even if it is is one or two years from where you are at now.

(3) Face your fears of success and failure. Dig deeply inside yourself to unearth those alarms that go off every time you threaten to emerge from your perceived mediocrity.

(4) Being realistic does not mean settling for the lowest common denominator in life and then living that as if it is your truth. Ask yourself: what is the most I could be doing with my life right now?

(5) Prepare for the boomerang effect: the struggle your unconscious will put up to put you right back where you started. Identify telltale signs that you are moving back to where you are (e.g. You start to feel comfortable with the choices you are making in a short period of time). The core feature of boomerangs is that they never break beyond their propensity to return.
(6) Realize that familiarity, while a balm for all humanity, is also a curse. The initial existential nausea you feel will go away once you become practiced at your new life.

It's my passion to re-ignite the flames in those who are weary - to remind them of their capacity to endure hardship by virtue of the lives with which they have struggled. Nobody escapes this life without at least a taste for this. But some are less lucky - they've stopped living long before they die. If you know someone like this in your midst, have a chat. Maybe you'll both be inspired to change your ways and breathe life into your ageless dreams.

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