The Sabotage of the Imposter Phenomenon

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Have you ever transferred to a new command, a new position or a new rank, and felt completely unprepared and insecure about your work performance? You don’t have to admit it out loud, but many in the Navy suffer in silence with the thought that they are “frauds” who, only by sheer luck, attained their achievements, successes, and accolades. Instead of realizing that their skill, intuitiveness, and knowledge contributed to their ability to transfer or advance, they may believe that someone made a terrible mistake in allowing it.

The structure and culture of the Navy can often require Sailors to take on new responsibilities with little preparation. Sailors may take on a collateral duty, and even with all the instruction and training, still feel overwhelmed and unprepared. The ability to adapt and overcome is highly praised, but constantly feeling unprepared can erode our feelings of self-worth and make us question if we truly belong.

Understanding the Imposter Phenomenon

“Imposter Syndrome” is a term coined in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes to describe a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.”

The imposter phenomenon or syndrome is not an official psychological diagnosis, but it can often be associated with anxiety and depression. It occurs in anyone but is often felt by high-achievers who connect their self-worth to success and question if they truly belong in their position. For Sailors, talking about self-doubt may be uncomfortable. It isn’t exactly a typical topic of discussion at the smoke deck or in the galley. The imposter phenomenon can cause fear of being found out as a fraud who is not really qualified to do the assigned job, resulting in ridicule, humiliation, and shame, when the reality is that they are fully competent and capable.

Learning to Believe in Yourself

You can overcome these feelings without embarrassment. When feelings of insecurity become overwhelming, and thoughts that everyone is going to figure out that you are a phony start to creep into your mind, there are some things that you can do to remind yourself that everything you’ve earned is due to your hard work and dedication, not sheer luck or coincidence.

  • Develop and maintain high-quality connections, and find mentors. These sorts of relationships are built on trust, commitment, and encouragement. By sharing experiences, proving that you’re not the only one who has had feelings of self-doubt, a mentor can help you learn to use vulnerability to your advantage and continue to excel. Others have been in your shoes, so you don’t always have to “figure it out on your own.” Find someone who can be a mentor that is willing to listen and provide the guidance you need.
  • Utilize your connections as a learning tool and an “support squad.” When you have buddies who you can talk to about your self-doubt, you can also look to them for inspiration when they have accomplished something new and learn the steps they took to reach their goals. Plus, they will be there to cheer for your achievements.
  • Keep a running list of your successes and accomplishments. It may sound like an activity for the self-absorbed, but when you feel like your achievements are not deserved, acknowledging them and realizing how many there are can be a great reminder that you truly earned them.
  • Realize that perfection is not attainable. Zero-defect is often the goal because we want to avoid accidents at sea or major mishaps, but no leader is perfect. You are human. Instead of thinking, “I’m not good enough,” “I’m a failure,” or “I’m a terrible LPO,” allow your inner voice to say, “I’m doing my best,” “I’m trying,” and “I’m working on it.” That change will dramatically alter how you feel and respond to challenges.

Reaching out for Support

Feeling some insecurity about new tasks or experiences is normal, but when those feelings cause you to believe that you are undeserving of your accomplishments, it can contribute to other psychological health concerns.

The imposter phenomenon can manifest in multiple ways. No matter how it shows up in your life, it is important to remember a few key points: achieving perfection is nearly impossible, making mistakes and facing setbacks are normal parts of the process, seeking external validation is a surefire way to feel insecure, and asking for help is not a sign of failure.

If you or a shipmate is dealing with psychological health concerns, the BeThere Peer Support Call and Outreach Center offers resources and information 24/7/365 via phone at 844-357-7337 or on their website at http://www.betherepeersupport.org.

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