The Best Imposter Ever

Imposter syndrome – we hear so much about it and even encounter it in our personal and professional lives. But what exactly is it?

Imposter syndrome by definition is an overwhelming feeling of inadequacy despite evident success; the last phrase “despite evident success” is super important because it denotes that you have achieved something in the past that makes you sort of qualified, yet you feel unqualified. I consider myself a subject matter expert on this issue. As someone who is an over achiever (Enneagram type 1), I am constantly aiming for things out of my reach and outside my comfort zone, trying to do things that people way more advanced (in years and experience) than me are doing. And this comes with a lot of imposter syndrome.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – rather it is an indicator that I am growing in some way and giving myself the opportunity to gain new skills.



Fig 1: The comfort zone, the weird zone, and the growth zone

The three circles in the diagram above denote a person’s zones of work/performance. The smallest zone, the comfort zone is the zone of neutral performance where you can do your job in your sleep but at this stage, you’re not gaining any new skills. In the growth zone (also known as the learning zone), you are attempting to gain new skills and grow in your craft. As we can see, there is a weird zone that exists between the comfort zone and the growth zone, and this is where imposter syndrome lives. Thus, we can say that imposter syndrome is at the bridge between your zone of neutral performance and your zone of gaining new skills. More importantly, imposter syndrome is a tool that our body uses to alert us that we are approaching the growth zone. Because of how uncomfortable this is, we can choose to retreat to the comfort zone or stick it through just like you are doing with this article and press on to the growth zone.

Speaking of the body, there is a neurotransmitter called serotonin in the human body that is linked to imposter syndrome. Serotonin, amongst all its functions in the body, is responsible for regulation of your mood and also associated with feelings of social importance – status and respect. Your mood consists of how you feel at a certain point in time (or a temporary state of mind or feeling),e.g joy, sadness, etc and so imposter syndrome expresses itself through your mood, hence why you feel the feelings of fear, doubt, incompetence, etc. Research has shown that imposter syndrome is linked to low serotonin in the body. Similar to the way doctor’s prescribe iron supplements when you are deficient, my (non-clinical) advice for dealing with imposter syndrome is to increase your serotonin in levels. Now I am not a medical doctor (yet) or a dietitian, so I cannot prescribe foods and supplements to boost your serotonin levels. I can however give you practical tools that will help boost your serotonin levels when applied. And because as I stated earlier, imposter syndrome is an indicator of a growth opportunity, I can also give some tools to grow in your craft while experiencing imposter syndrome.



Fig 2: Serotonin’s connection to imposter syndrome

Less than 12 hours before I was to deliver this talk, I texted my family group chat “help!!! I feel life the imposter I’m going to talk about tomorrow“. As confident and prepared as I was to deliver this talk, my body recognized that this was a new mountain I had to climb: I had never publicly given this talk to this scale of an audience which consisted of a lot of smart people from different parts of the world. Rather than shaking off the feeling, I acknowledge that I was scared and anxious at that moment. My family members stepped in to remind me of a few things – if anyone could do this it was me, I was more than qualified to speak to people, I had a track record that I could look back on, and they reminded me of how I had challenged myself in the past and come out successful. This was by no means an ego trip – they had listened to my talk during one of my practice runs and knew I needed a serotonin boost. And the best way to give me this was by showing me my past successes. By definition, imposter syndrome indicates that the sufferer has had evident success but still feels inadequate – this was the case for me. Through our conversation, I saw myself through their eyes. The recognition and respect for my work that I got from them helped to boost my serotonin levels almost instantly. And sure, I could have listed out my own achievements for myself but in that moment,I really couldn’t. When faced with imposter syndrome, it is important that you recognize your evident success – this will help to boost your sense of respect for yourself. If you have been presented with a new challenge at work and imposter syndrome shows up, go to your project lead/manager and ask them why they wanted you on this new project. Ask them what they believe is your value-add to the project or what contribution they feel you can bring to the table. The simple fact that you have been trusted with a new challenge should indicate some sort of trust they have in you to deliver, but if they say more things, actually take it all in and observe how your overall mood shifts because of the serotonin boost you will get from this exercise.