TEA: You may remember The Dragon Queen from her guest post Get Rich…being British? Well, I got her back to talk about Impostor Syndrome…
In my first guest post for TEA, I touched on the chronic stress I felt from my Impostor Syndrome.
To re-cap, I referred to it as follows:
the chronic impostor syndrome stress that has dogged me throughout my 20-year career –
that expectation that one day The Man will tap me on the shoulder, point out I have no idea what I am doing, then ask me to leave, which I will do quietly with a feeling of relief that I don’t have to pretend any more…
Good old Wikipedia defines Impostor Syndrome (if its in there it must be A Thing):
Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.
Despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing this phenomenon remain convinced that they are frauds, and do not deserve all they have achieved. Individuals with impostorism incorrectly attribute their success to luck, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent than they perceive themselves to be.
After my last post, Barney and I chatted about our fascination with the concept of Impostor Syndrome and we thought it was worth exploring in the context of Financial Independence.
We agreed that it seems to be quite a common phenomenon amongst insecure over-achievers (perhaps including many in the FI community??) and that, whilst some might consider it an affliction, it could also have positive aspects for FI seekers.
Although I’ll be focusing on its impact on your career and money, the concept can be applied to any aspect of your life where you feel you have out-performed relative to your expectations. The marathon you never thought you would be able to run, the talented kids you never dreamed you could raise, the amazing friends that stick with you through everything, including when you have been a total pain in the arse.
So here are some ways in which I think my Impostor Syndrome has had a positive influence on my pursuit of FI…and some ways in which it has probably held me back.
You can make up your own mind whether it’s “A Good Thing” or “A Bad Thing”….
The Pros – Thank You Impostor Syndrome!
Enhances your money blueprint!
You may have read about the concept of your money blueprint – TEA has talked about his childhood and the money blueprint established from his parent’s run-in with soaring interest rates and a scary mortgage. As I explore the world of FI, I see again and again that your money blueprint plays a huge role in shaping your future expectations about money – how much you might have and what you should do with it.
My money blueprint today can be summarised as ‘Buffetesque’. I’ll admit I am a tiny bit behind him in net worth but (just like The Buffster) I continue to employ some (not all) of the frugal habits that were instilled in me growing up, despite in theory no longer needing to.
I’m from a middle class but not rich family – both parents working in the public sector. We weren’t poor, but we didn’t have a huge amount of disposable income, and what cash we had my parents were pretty careful with. They didn’t “do” debt (other than their mortgage) so there was no other choice but to live within their means.
As public sector workers there was a security to my parents’ earnings, but no end of year bonus, company cars or private healthcare. We had a modest house and rarely ate out. Holidays were either in our home country (Scotland) or camping in Europe – we drove there to save money. I still regard it as a miracle that I didn’t murder my little brother during one of these 40+ hour trips in the back of a small hatchback.
My mum clipped coupons and genuinely relished (and still does!) hunting for bargains of all kinds. She gets three family meals out of one roast chicken and maintains the highly irritating habit of saving a single left-over boiled potato, stored individually in a small bowl in the fridge for two weeks, before reluctantly admitting it cannot be re-purposed into another meal. This explains why, for me, food wastage is a No-No, all these years on (I’ve just finished four days of frittata – had to use up eggs before their sell by date).
There was no profligate behaviour from my parents – they are not cash splashers and neither were any of my relatives. They still find my purchase of fancy handbags and shoes utterly baffling. My money blueprint was however impacted not just by my family but by my friends and schooling.
I went to a state school in a working-class town in Scotland where there were plenty of status displays through stuff (bought “on tick” out of the catalogue) like trainers, jackets, bags etc. I would BEG my mother for weeks for the latest Nike trainers and while she sometimes caved in out of sheer exhaustion (or possibly for fear of me having no friends) it was definitely not a given that I’d be kitted out in all the latest clobber.
Because I have ended up in a corporate job where the earnings are well above average, I can now see just how different the money blueprints of others must be. One of my friends sends his kids to an expensive school in the South East of England. Their school is like a five-star boutique hotel – all red brick walled tennis courts and luxury dormitories for the boarders. His kids are going to be horrified if they ever have to slum it at the Hilton.
His kids are going to expect a certain type of life when they grow up…one which I would never in a million years would have felt any right to. To me its still ridiculously fancy to crack open a beer from the mini bar in a hotel room. So much so that I can’t bring myself to do it, even if I am travelling with work and its covered by my daily meal allowance.
Gets you paid for typing shit into a computer!
‘Holy Crap! I didn’t think it was possible to just send a few emails every day and for someone to hand you this amount of cash for doing so! They are insane! Shhhhh don’t say anything in case they realise how bonkers this is and stop doing it!’
That is what goes through my head on a regular basis. It almost constantly blows my mind. Talking of my mind, I know that is what they pay me for, but I still find it crazy.
Again my parents were public sector workers – their work was just as hard if not harder than the work I do and yet the pay didn’t come close to what folks in corporate land receive. My friend is a physio in the NHS – she helps old people recuperate after hip operations. Another friend builds outdoor wooden decks. These are actual jobs with tangible outcomes and real physical effort required – it makes sense to me that someone pays them for these jobs but my emails and meetings…..?!
So I am hugely thankful that The Man has not yet found me out amongst his armies of other
Curbs lifestyle inflation!
On reflection, my Impostor Syndrome has been super useful in curbing the worst excesses of lifestyle inflation…even before I knew FI was A Thing. Sure, I’ve succumbed to lifestyle inflation all over the place, but it could have been so much worse if I didn’t believe that it (my job) could all end tomorrow together with the financial benefits that came with it. When you are waiting to be “found out”, credit card debt, an unmanageable mortgage another superflash handbag – none of these seem like good ideas.
Makes Gratitude Easier!
Those kids at the expensive school…its going to be tough for them to be blown away by a weekend away as adults. It will just feel like going camping does for me – totally normal – a given. A professional well-paid career with all its trappings? – its just what all of the adults around them have, so of course they will have that too…right?
I ended my last blog post talking about the value of being able to practice gratitude. The practice of gratitude is made so easier for me by just how crazily lucky I am. My impostor syndrome means I didn’t know or dream that I would be able to travel the world with work, to live abroad, to one day have enough money to say goodbye to work.
Of course, as I’ve gone through life I do recognise I’ve travelled on the hedonic treadmill and, as a result, I realise that some of my “necessities” are luxuries to others. My impostor syndrome keeps me believing it could all be taken away though so it serves as a helpful reminder which pops up regularly.
The Cons – Not quite so helpful…
I’ve survived in the corporate world, I think, as a result of a combination of being resilient and compliant.
Maybe I’m a bit of a Nice Girl? I do what I’m told, follow the rules and employ my Presbyterian work ethic to grind it out. So I’m still ploughing on long after others have (maybe rightly) said: ‘this is a total shit-show, I’m out of here’.
I’ve never asked for a pay rise and I tend to step in to informally do the next level job up in addition to my existing role – this has happened multiple times over my career. This is impostor syndrome at work – I don’t think I can do the next level job, I’m not confident enough to ask for it outright, so I just do the extra work until someone notices and eventually gives me a promotion.
I did say I am pretty good at practicing gratitude. Maybe too good when it comes to work…. I am pathetically grateful that I am paid every month, that my weaknesses are apparently overlooked and that I’m given a shot when I don’t deserve it.
I am a slave to The Man because of this gratitude and he takes more than his pound of flesh from me as a result. I increasingly realise that he pays me as much as he does because I willingly and uncomplainingly give significant discretionary effort.
I sense having Impostor Syndrome is not particularly good for your mental or physical health. All the hormones and physical signals associated with a lion is coming to eat me are triggered regularly through the stress response of feeling that you will be found out.
The corporate world is full of problems that need solutions. Often these problems are not of my doing, but I tend to take
the blame responsibility for them: I feel like X happened because I’m not good enough at my job. This does help me focus on the fix, but it generates a lot of anxiety within me as I do so. This feeling can lead to chronic stress.
Opportunities are perceived as risks
Impostor syndrome leads me to over-emphasise the risks over the opportunities. Being convinced it could all come tumbling down stops me reaching for more.
You might say this is a good thing (it curbs lifestyle inflation) but sometimes you have to take some risks and stick your neck out – speculate to accumulate and all that. It turns out that you can be too careful.
In the context of FI, I will almost certainly overstate what I actually need, should I ever actually pluck up the courage to quit. My FI ‘number’ will be way higher that it probably needs to be – I’ll have way more of my portfolio in cash than necessary and so I’ll suffer the opportunity cost of not being invested in the stockmarket because just in case…
Guilt and shame
I’ve taken a different path from many of my childhood friends, moving to London and then overseas. There is a real spectrum of incomes amongst those friends: some are pretty well paid, some less so. Some are happy, some are unhappy. Their happiness does not seem to correlate with their incomes.
I have increasingly felt guilt, shame or maybe embarrassment about my life and money. I used to feel I should be bankrolling a night out or event, that my gifts should be more lavish and my contribution the greatest. The impostor syndrome monster would raise its head and ask ‘will they still want to hang out with you if you lose all your money and can’t pick up the tab??’.
FI has changed my desire to over-contribute because I realise I have to pay myself first. My friends may love me but they won’t be paying for my early retirement or for my old age. I also know deep down they couldn’t give a shit about how much money I make or whether I buy more rounds. They keep me grounded because many of them are frugal by nature so they search out the two-for-one dinner deals and happy hour promotions.
How do I conclude?
I’m not sure. I think I will struggle to walk away from work even
if when I do achieve Financial Independence.
I know any corporate organisation will cut you loose as soon as it suits them, but yet I have a (probably misplaced) sense of gratitude for what I have been given, so much so that I would feel disloyal to do that to them.
Someone once told me ‘the world is littered with the bodies of people who considered themselves indispensable to a company’. Clearly I’m not indispensable and would be forgotten quickly as so many before me have been. But I’d still feel bad if I left them in the lurch.
I want to always feel grateful for how far I have come and that I don’t take for granted my good fortune. So for that at least, I thank Imposter Syndrome.
But I really hope to be able one day to wave goodbye to my Imposter Syndrome, enjoy a guilt-free life and finally relax.
A final word from TEA:
There is an old saying that people don’t change.
I disagree. I’ve changed since I quit the corporate world. I’ve relaxed and become more Zen.
As a parent, I’ve seen my children change as they grow. And I’m now in the business of helping other people change. I’ve seen many people evolve into different and better versions of themselves.
People change. Personalities are not static. Our experiences shape us, reinforce us, and in some cases, break us and remake us.
How Do You Overcome Impostor Syndrome?
It’s not just you: I’ve had many feelings in my life… a fair proportion of which later turned out to be utter horseshit. Unless you’re attempting brain surgery without having been to medical school, you’re not an impostor. You are the sum total of your actions, your relationships and your achievements – and those are real.
In other words, are you even QUALIFIED to have Impostor Syndrome?!? 😉