Many words were written about the notorious impostor syndrome - that feeling that you are a fraud, that you are always faking it but never making it.
Before we start, I have a disclaimer: some people feel impostor syndrome constantly, even when they are well within their comfort zone and performing perfectly. If you are one of these people, this article will not help you. I am sincerely sorry.
For many others though, it is context dependent - you feel it in some areas and situations but not in others. If this applies to you then I would like to offer a simple yet profound insight: Impostor syndrome is merely the result of impostor debt. In other words, it is a symptom not a cause.
Impostor debt might not be the sole cause, but it is a primary one for sure, primary enough to cure your impostor syndrome when addressed.
What is impostor debt you ask? Great question.
Simply put, you take on impostor debt when you borrow from your hypothetical “proficiency account”. Like any debt, you pay more interest for it so the more you borrow and the longer you leave it unattended the faster it grows. Like any debt, you use it to buy things (status and reputation) you cannot currently afford.
Some examples might help:
Every time someone explains something to you and then asks if you understood, and you say “yes” even though you didn’t fully understand, you accumulate impostor debt.
Every time you encounter a problem, try random solutions and when one of them works (or even worse, when the problem fixes itself somehow) you just shrug it off - “ah, it was nothing”, without ever investigating further, you accumulate impostor debt.
Every time someone asks whether you can do something, and you say “sure” instead of saying “I have never done something like this before but happy to try”, you take on impostor debt.
It works the other way around too:
Every time you keep asking “dumb” questions until you truly understand, you pay impostor debt off.
Every time you dig into an issue until you figure out the root cause and then address it with surgical precision, you pay off impostor debt.
And so on...
To generalize: every time you behave like an impostor would, you take on impostor debt. Every time you behave like a professional would, you pay off some debt (or even get some positive credit on your balance :)).
The more impostor debt you take on, the more intense your impostor syndrome will feel.
Impostor syndrome is your indicator that your impostor debt has grown too large and is past due.
Why would anyone take on impostor debt in the first place?
Most of the time it is either because they are trying to impress others or because they are trying to cut corners. Talking the talk is easier than walking the walk.
There are cases in which impostor debt is actually useful. Like all debt, it can be used as leverage as long as it’s used responsibly and kept under control. A good example is when you take a new role or responsibility that is “next level” for you. Initially, people around you would automatically assume that you have all it takes to fulfill this new role, but that will rarely be the case. By allowing them to make this assumption, as long as it is not in direct conflict with reality, you take on some impostor debt. That’s okay as long as you work diligently to pay it back by being honest with yourself and others, identifying the gaps and working hard and smart in order to fill them. This is what one might call “good debt”.
So next time you are about to shrug some problem off as “random”, take a few more minutes or even a few more hours to investigate and don’t be quick to give up.
Next time you work with a tool, take the time to understand it.
Next time you are not sure you understand a topic, a requirement or anything really, ask more questions.
Next time someone asks you if you can do something when you don’t know how, be positive but open about potential gaps you might have.
If you make this into a habit, impostor syndrome would quickly become a thing of the past.