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This month, lacking the inspiration to write anything incisive about our industry, intrepid columnist Conor Mulheir decides instead to bare his wretched soul for all to see.

A morning like any other

While feeling especially useless one morning recently, I found myself struck with the sudden urge to look something up: what actually is imposter syndrome?

I had been going through my tried-and-tested morning routine as normal: fuel my anxiety with copious amounts of caffeine, try and fail to do something useful, panic, beat myself up for it mentally, and repeat.

I wouldn’t say it’s the optimal morning routine – and certainly not one I’d be proud to share on LinkedIn with a smug #5AMclub post – but while I’m hardly a runaway success in life, it seems to have worked well enough for me until now.

After I’d spent the first 90 minutes of my day producing precisely zero results, and considered jacking it all in to go back to pushing cardboard round a supermarket (a job I loved, I should add), the thought came to me out of nowhere: do I feel like an imposter here?

What is imposter syndrome?

I first heard the term “imposter syndrome” several years ago now, but, being new to the professional world at the time and having entered an almost completely alien industry, had paid it no mind.

After all, at that point I was a beginner, not an imposter. And there’s nothing wrong with being a beginner – we all have to start somewhere.

But fast-forward five or six years and there I sat, frozen in place, unable to come up with a convincing plan of how to shake off the funk that hung over me that morning.

So, obviously, I Googled it.

I found the results pretty shocking – not because the characteristics of imposter syndrome were surprising, but because I simply couldn’t believe that almost everyone didn’t feel that way, almost all of the time.

Before my eyes glowed an almost exhaustive checklist of the feelings and behaviours I exhibit with near alarming frequency throughout my working life.

The list

Self-doubt. Check. I mean, who wouldn’t doubt themselves? It would be incredibly stupid not to. Have you met yourself? Chances are you’re in turns unreliable, incompetent, careless, stupid, and irritating to be around. I know I am.

Undervaluing contributions. What, my worthless contributions? I’m really not sure it would be possible to undervalue them. That would be like undervaluing a speck of dust, a discarded coffee cup, or the music of Ed Sheeran. You can’t undervalue something which is intrinsically without merit, can you?

Attributing success to external factors. OK, fine, I will admit it. I have produced the odd semi-decent piece of work throughout my career. Usually, though, that’s down to the quality of the source material or the willingness of individuals to kindly share information with me. 

In no scenario has it had anything to do with my own skill (yeah right), insight (don’t make me laugh) or intelligence (what intelligence?).

Setting unrealistic expectations. Usually I engage in this one between around 1am and 3am. In those magical twilight hours, unable to turn off my brain and go to sleep, anything is possible. 

I’ll get up in three or four hours’ time and write a Pulitzer winner, then I’ll go for a jog (lol) and eat a salad. I’ll call my parents, do some laundry, alphabetise the DVD collection I still inexplicably haven’t thrown away, meditate, solve world hunger and hoover the roof. (Spoiler alert: I won’t)

Continuous fear of not living up to expectations. A perfectly justified fear, of course. Everyone around me expects me to work miracles day-in, day-out, and why shouldn’t they? When I fail to do so, they will inevitably see the truth of my incompetence and I’ll be sent packing.

The best option, then, is just to try and cover it up while hatching as many fanciful ‘plan B’ escape routes as possible in the meantime (become an English teacher in Saudi Arabia, do a course in computer coding, start using hard drugs just to see where that takes me, etc.)

Burnout. Obviously. We’re all burnt out, and we always will be. That is the nature of life, surely. Perhaps, though, I should stop to consider what proportion of my exhaustion can be attributed to my work, and how much is down to the sheer emotional labour of worrying about it all the time.

So, what now? Am I ill?

Imposter syndrome is not actually a recognised mental health condition. It’s just a combination of factors leading to a pretty exhausting and frankly, rubbish mindset.

The great irony of it all is that by worrying too often and too intensely about how well (or not) we’re performing at work, we hinder that performance even further.

Clearly, then, something’s got to give, and the change will likely need to start with mindset.

I am, occasionally at least, reminded that the way I view myself and my own performance is not necessarily congruent with the way that others see me.

Once, when talking to a colleague about the difficulties of being a painfully shy, mousy, wallflower type, that description of myself was met with what I can only describe as utter disbelief.

“What, you’re shy?” He laughed. “You go up to people you don’t know and compliment them on their outfits. You are gregarious and outgoing, the life and soul of the party [I’m paraphrasing now, readers], you have lived in foreign countries and performed [with varying degrees of success] stand-up comedy. How can you say you’re shy?”

In that moment, something clicked for me – in many ways, he was right. I’m not actually anywhere near as shy as I think, I just worry that I am.

And perhaps *deep breath*, I should take heed when my team tells me my contributions are valuable, that my work is not the result exclusively of external factors converging to give me the occasional win, that I am actually a reasonably competent journalist and my continuing employment is not merely the result of my being marginally more difficult to replace than to put up with.

Even the mere suggestion that those things might be true feels incredibly self-aggrandising and arrogant. But in the face of the ‘symptoms’ listed above, perhaps I could afford to aggrandise myself just a little bit more, without going too far and turning into some sort of self-congratulatory wanker.

I often joke that I have something in-between a messiah complex and an inferiority complex – that I think I’m terrible, but that everyone else is much, much worse.

A bit of balance is probably what’s needed here.

Maybe everyone else is OK, after all. And maybe, if I really think about it, deep down I’m OK too.