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Imposter Syndrome in L&D

Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome
Photo by Denise Johnson on Unsplash

Do any of the following sentences describe you?

  • I am not a perfectionist. If I was, I would be more perfect.
  • I stay late at work or send after-hours emails to reassure my team I am committed.
  • I am where I am because of good luck or good timing.
  • I procrastinate to the point where I can’t possibly do my best work.

In other words, do you have a specific set of reactions to the thought that you may not be worthy of who you are as an L&D professional? Impostor syndrome or impostor phenomenon is extremely common among high achieving young professionals. It was first documented in the 70’s by a couple of female psychologists who were trying to understand why so many professionals quietly believe they don’t belong where they are.

As Brian Washburn and I were having a conversation that preceded his Male Privilege post earlier this week, we discussed how not fitting into a category that your peers fit into may lend itself to the feeling of being a fraud amongst others who do not look like you or have the same experiences. This somehow seems amplified as learning and development professionals. We are fairly exposed as we do things like speak in front of a room full of people, or write training where we are not the subject matter experts.

A Conversation about Imposter Syndrome in Learning & Development

To learn a bit more about why imposter syndrome effects so many professionals, especially in L&D, I sat down with my friend and clinical psychologist Dr. Patrick Van Wyk. I was so engrossed in our conversation that I didn’t take notes, below is a paraphrased account of how he explained imposter syndrome.


Thank for sitting down with me. Can you tell me about Imposter Syndrome from a psychology point of view?

Dr. Van Wyk:

People are naturally social, it is a part of us way back in our evolution. Our natural tendency is not to get kicked out of the tribe because of a social gaffe. Shame is an important part of our evolution and we try to avoid it out of fear of being outed from the community. Being in the spotlight with something like public speaking or writing puts us in a situation where we don’t really have the social feedback we are used to. A lot of what you do as a professional lends itself to feeling like a fraud. There is a good reason public speaking is such a prevalent fear. We compare our inside emotions to how we observe other’s outward emotions and project what our minds tell us as the truth.


How do you think that affects learning and development professionals?

Dr. Van Wyk:

You may be training a group of people and from your perspective, it feels like you are stuttering out barely coherent sentences and sweating profusely while your participants are quietly nodding or not reacting at all. You assume they are noting your ineptitude with their nearly blank stares and imposing body language. Because this is a one-sided conversation, you do not get the level of feedback we crave as humans. This is one of the places impostor syndrome lives, where we compare our insides to other’s outsides.


What can we do about feeling like an imposter?

Dr. Van Wyk:

Our mind tells us all sort of things, and why wouldn’t we believe it? It is our mind, we assume what it tells us is the truth. Recent thoughts in psychology are not to try to remove negative thoughts from your head, but to build upon them. People who have a healthy amount of self-doubt but are gentle with themselves tend to be more successful. If you do have that voice that tells you that you are a fraud, or you don’t deserve to be where you are, that is okay. Be gentle with yourself and use that voice to express who you are, not hide it.

In L&D you may be lacking the feedback you crave to not have your mind telling you that you are an imposter. It is good to find feedback and support in other ways. We need connections and the approval of others. Supportive supervisors, colleagues, family, and networks who can give you the feedback you are craving can help work through some of these fraudulent feelings.

Have you ever felt like an L&D imposter? Let’s talk about it in the comments below!

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