You've Got to Be Like a Duck
By | Apr 22, 2012
Over my many years in corporate America, one of my mantras became: "You’ve got to make like a duck—glide on the surface while paddling for all you’re worth underneath."
As I have reflected on my experience with the impostor syndrome, I have often thought about the meaning of this phrase for me. In part, it was about the realities of getting ahead in the business world, where you really do have to work hard and always appear to be in control. But I have come to realize that more importantly the phrase was an expression of the fear of not fitting in that haunted me for so long.
As a child, I took to heart the encouragement of the adults in my life and always aspired to go beyond the limitations that growing up black, female, and poor threatened to impose on me. As an unexpected consequence of succeeding in overcoming these obstacles, though, I constantly felt out of my element. And I was convinced that I needed to paddle like heck to hide the fact that maybe I didn’t belong.
The idea of entitlement is very powerful. And very subtle. With every success along the way, I found myself among people who came from increasingly more privileged backgrounds than mine. So the further I got, the more out of place I felt and the harder I felt I had to work to hide that fact.
I needed to create the impression that I was gliding along because my impostor fears were always as much about fitiing in as they were about failing at a particular task. In essence, what I had been afraid of for so long was that I would fail to maintain a convincing facade.
To understand this better, I asked Dr. Pauline Clance, the pioneer in impostor syndrome research, what she considers to be the difference between impostor feelings and insecurity. She explained that the impostor syndrome is much more complex. Through her clinical experience she has seen that people who suffer from the impostor syndrome tend to be very successful, while people with high insecurity tend to be less accomplished. One way to interpret this is that although impostor feelings certainly include questions about one’s ability to compete, they are also about social standing and fitting in, while insecurity is primarily about one’s abilities.
Paradoxically, the search for validation and acceptance drives people who experience impostor feelings to take on ever-greater challenges, to always reach for the next level, which then triggers the concerns about their ability to measure up. It’s as if once we get on that treadmill, we find it very difficult to stop.
To begin to understand our own impostor feelings, it is essential to think about the ways in which we feel different from the people around us and how we go about trying to fit in. What are you trying to prove? To whom? And why?
Even more importantly, ask yourself what the effort to be accepted is costing you and whether it’s worth it.