Professional confidence and ‘imposter syndrome’

Togetherness, c/o Steve Bridger

This blog post is about professional confidence, or rather a lack thereof. This is something I hear a lot of people in the library and information world talking about. In particular the concept of ‘imposter syndrome’.

What is it?

The term ‘imposter phenomenon’ or ‘imposter syndrome’ originated in a 1978 article and is the manifestation of a lack of professional confidence. People feel like they are in some way a fraud – such as feeling like they are not as good at their job as people think they are. Consequently they fear being “found out”. It can be fleeting, related to a particular task or happening only when you feel otherwise lacking in confidence. Or it can be something that pervades throughout one’s professional life.

Imposter syndrome arises from genuine feelings of insecurity and lack of confidence. The purpose of this blog post is not to deny, disregard or minimise those feelings, but to explore imposter syndrome. I have to declare from the outset that I do not like the label ‘imposter syndrome’. Mainly because I’m not sure how helpful it is. Is it the case putting a name to pre-existing feelings helps people? Or does putting a name to those feelings, particularly a “syndrome”, to some extent become a self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating prophecy? It reminds me of an episode of The Big Bang Theory where Bernadette says that her employers have both created and cured a condition in the same week. I’m not trying to dictate whether or not that term should be used. But I think there are some conversations we should be having about how helpful it really is as a term.

My main concern is that by “syndromising” these legitimate feelings we unquestioningly accept them. If you are feeling lacking in professional confidence, isn’t it useful to ask why? Stopping to ask “why” then leads to questions of how to address and reduce those feelings of discomfort. By accepting the term, we accept the circumstances that create those feelings and do nothing about them, potentially holding ourselves back.

Why does it happen?

There is no single cause of these feelings and discussing such a multifaceted issues does requires speaking in some broad brushes, so I beg your indulgence. Without getting into librarian stereotypes, the profession has historically tended to be dominated by quieter, introverted and perhaps passive personality types (not necessarily in all aspects of their personal or professional life). I do not know if this continues to be the case, but I wonder whether the legacy is that as a profession we are not as willing to or skilled at recognising our own skills? Equally, the historically high number of women within the profession is also a contributory factor. Women are generally not conditioned to be confident or assertive, especially in professional matters. When we do exhibit these characteristics we can be labelled “pushy” and “bolshy”, a convenient way to quash professional confidence. There are structural reasons for inequalities such as gender pay gaps, but the fact is also that men are more likely to ask for a higher starting salary or for a pay rise. Whilst we need to break down the structures that perpetuate inequality we also need to, at a grassroots level, create a professional workforce that recognises and champions its own skills. So is it any wonder then that in a predominantly female profession we have a professional culture of not bigging up our own skills and knowledge?

How many times do we hear great opinions, views and advice being undercut by self-deprecating phrases like “but that’s just what I think” or “but I’m no expert”. More often than not, when I hear such conciliatory terms it is from people who I would consider to be an expert! This extends to other forms of self assessment such as CILIP’s PKSB. A while back I posted a rather tongue in cheek Facebook update stating that the difference between me and many of my fellow professionals was that I would rate myself a 4 on an area of expertise. Note: I am not saying I am better than anyone, merely that I can and will acknowledge my areas of knowledge and expertise. I hear of so many people, who I would consider experts, rating themselves as 2s or 3s. It makes me wonder what they think someone would have to do to be a 4?! And would they ever be able to rate themselves as an expert?

What are the consequences?

People lacking professional confidence is something we’d all like to remedy at an individual level, but what consequences does it potentially have for the profession?

In workforce terms, people who lack professional confidence may be less likely to put themselves forward for opportunities. If you already feel out of your depth, you’re hardly likely to take a chance on a new job or promotion which would potentially exacerbate those feelings. This could lead to very competent candidates not applying for jobs, then jobs being given to the best candidate out of those who apply rather than the best candidate out of everyone who could potentially have applied. This would not be good for the profession – we want the best people for the job!

Library and information services are more threatened now than they have ever been. We as a profession need to promote our services, as well as measure, evaluate and demonstrate their value and impact. But, to be blunt how can we advocate for and campaign for services if we don’t even have confidence in ourselves? I would argue that we need to have individual confidence in own professional knowledge, expertise and value, if we are to communicate the value of our services to the people funding them.

I also have some concerns about the impact of a lack of professional confidence on the voices that we hear at conferences, running courses and dispensing advice. I am not certain that these are necessarily always the most knowledgeable people, but rather those who are willing to put themselves out there whilst those with less professional confidence do not feel able to do so. Seeing the same names on publicity materials for professional events might perpetuate and exacerbate the feelings of a lack of confidence, meaning that the potentially valuable contributions of those knowledgeable people are not shared with the wider profession. This is another consequence of a lack of professional confidence, but am not attributing the blame for that situation to those people who have the confidence to speak up.

How can we resolve it?

So how do we build up our professional confidence? How do we empower our fellow professionals to say “I’m really good at what I do” or “yes, I know a lot about that topic”?! There is so much expertise within our profession that is going unrecognised by ourselves, so many great ideas that may not be being heard because of a lack of professional confidence to speak up.

Unfortunately I do not have a solution to neatly wrap up this blog post with. However, I have seen examples of how, collectively, we can help to build up our professional confidence. I have just started CILIP Fellowship and, after various Fellowship-related conversations on Twitter, have ended up being part of a small, self-formed group of Fellowship candidates offering mutual encouragement and support (much like the Twitter Chartership chats). All of the people in this group are capable of Fellowship, but we didn’t all believe it all of the time. Undertaking Professional Registration requires that you have a mentor, which I think is an added benefit of the process. Alongside formal mentoring, there are lots of ways in which we can informally mentor each other by listening, offering advice and sharing experiences. I had reservations about starting Fellowship, I wondered if I was ready, if I was contributing to the profession enough, if I could do more if I needed to. Without the support of Twitter friends and my mentor, I might have talked myself out of it. One of my motivations for starting Fellowship was also to encourage capable people to have the confidence to do it. Fellowship is often perceived as remote and unattainable. Having looked at the assessment criteria, I believe that there are far more people capable of doing Fellowship than are currently. I would like people to feel motivated by seeing me doing Fellowship and to think “if she can do it, so can I”.This is a case in point, I wasn’t sure whether to include this last section, I didn’t want to appear self-aggrandising and like I was setting myself as an inspirational figure. Then I spoke to some friends and got them to have a look over this blog post, both of them said that was an important point to make, that to want to be a role model isn’t about pushing yourself up at the expense of others but about bringing others along with you. To build up our professional confidence, it is important that we all support, encourage and inspire each other.

So in conclusion, whether we call it ‘imposter syndrome’ or not, professional confidence is something we all need to work collectively to address and remedy in both individuals and the profession.


13 thoughts on “Professional confidence and ‘imposter syndrome’

  1. The Magalinis go straight from Immunotactoid glomerulopathy syndrome to Inappropriate falsetto syndrome, with no imposter in between. (Magalini S I and Magalini SC Dictionary of medical syndromes
    4th ed Philadephia, Lippincott, 1997).
    To make a more serious point, I agree with much of what you say, but I think every profession needs some humility. It’s a quality that the best doctors have, and I sometimes cringe when I see our profession overstate their case. A little self-criticism is not always a bad thing.

  2. I completely agree about not overstating the case. Those qualities have their place but I feel those are generally a minority of voices (that I hear anyway). There would be a huge difference between stating and overstating the importance of LIS. Specifically with regards to professional confidence it’s about people who arguably should be stating their case either understating or not stating it at all.

    Humility I find a bit more troublesome as I think it can be a loaded term that can be used to silence people. It arouses notions of behaviour not being “seemly” or “proper” etc, which can socially shame people into silence. Not suggesting that’s what you’re saying and it is only an opinion. I think it’s the curse of British society that terms can become weighted down by such connotations and associations. I’m not sure we need to worry too much about a lack of humility within the profession just yet.

    Your comments do remind me of the recent thread on LIS-link about student inductions which I found patronising, disrespectful and almost distainful of students. Certainly some humility there might have been justified!

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