Imposter syndrome is the “thief of potential” – interview

Despite leading test operations for NASA missions and military and Homeland Security projects for over 15 years, I could never bring myself to celebrate myself and my teams' accomplishments. I just felt... "meh."

Imposter syndrome can be disorienting, debilitating, and downright annoying when employed in a highly specialized profession that requires confidence in its execution.

“Imposter syndrome is the thief of joy and potential,” John Mollura, photographer, confidence coach, and former test engineer at NASA, told me.

Imposter syndrome is not only a thief of joy – it’s demanding and exhausting, leading to further behavioral issues if left untreated.

High-functioning sectors like IT are at a high risk of developing imposter syndrome, according to Action Mental Health.

That’s why I sat down with John Mollura to discuss his experiences with imposter syndrome and how he turned down the volume on that psychological noise.

Meet John Mollura

Meet John Mollura, a former test engineer for NASA who struggled with feelings of imposter syndrome throughout the majority of his career.

“I worked for the US space and defense program for a decade and a half. Not because I did tremendously well in school, actually, school was difficult, but I got my engineering degree and went on to work in various different industries before settling at NASA.”

Straight out of Pennsylvania State University, John’s professional dreams fell through. So he looked at other job opportunities which eventually led to him becoming a test engineer at NASA.

“Prior to working for NASA, I worked as a director of rock climbing at a Boy Scout camp when I was applying for jobs. Oddly enough, the lead test engineer at NASA saw my resume and said that he needed to speak to me immediately.”

“What do you think about rock climbing on Mars,” the man said with a rasp.

It turned out that the man John was speaking to was a former US Special Forces veteran working on the project. They talked, and John eventually got the job where he would work with various highly qualified individuals. A job that he would later learn only reinforced his imposter syndrome.

“I just felt so out of place for so long because I felt like I had forced my way into this position and was just coasting through life.”

Despite working on the landing system for a Mars Lander and protection systems for pilots of fighter jets, John still felt like an imposter.

“Lack of confidence is a thief, Niamh,” John said solemnly. “It’s going to rob you of your joy and steal your potential.”

John drew my attention to the accolades hanging on his walls, and he told me a story of when he received these awards and how he felt.

“It was in 2005 or 2006, almost twenty years ago now, when I received those awards. I was issued these letters after working on a year-long project for the missile defense agency, which worked to keep the US population safe from a nuclear attack. When it got closer to my name being called, I just felt this fear: that someone’s finally going to realize that I’m not supposed to be here, despite doing this job for many years.”

Imposter syndrome robbed John of many of the pleasures of working in a highly skilled profession.

“I just felt so unworthy. Yes, I had worked hard and was being issued an award for the things that I had done – there was no question about that. I had the data telling me that I had done those things, but I couldn’t allow myself to be proud.”

John felt this same fear throughout the majority of his professional career, as he told me how imposter syndrome stole some of the best professional moments.

“I just felt like people were going to find me out. I felt like I shouldn’t be here, like I shouldn’t be doing this.”

Imposter syndrome: a double-edged sword

Despite feeling like an imposter, John’s experience with these feelings actually forced him to excel in his career.

“Imposter syndrome is a double-edged sword. Internally, I wrestled with anxiety throughout a lot of my life, and imposter syndrome really ramped up those anxieties. But, because I never felt worthy I over-performed to elite levels.”

John recalled that if there were a particularly difficult or dangerous project, he would be the first one to take it due to his overarching lack of confidence.

“If there was a potentially difficult or hazardous project, I would be the first one to volunteer. Guess what happened after that? I wouldn’t feel any better about myself, I wouldn’t feel validated, and I felt that I had fooled people even more.”

This notion of “being lucky” is common among people who experience imposter syndrome. Individuals may think that they just “got lucky” a few times, which helped them get to the position they are today – not by merit but by chance.

“I used to think, I can’t believe I pulled that off, I must’ve gotten really lucky.”

Imposter syndrome can begin to seep into various facets of life and can even cause other behavioral and physical issues.

Psychologist Dr Holly Schiff explained that these feelings can lead to long-standing issues that can affect your personal and professional life.

Effects of imposter syndrome

“Imposter syndrome results in higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, which can impact your productivity, performance and health.”

People who experience imposter syndrome are often unable to experience success internally and have these feelings of fradulence. This triggers anxiety and causes an individual to doubt their own abilities.

“The amygdala in our brain, which processes fear and anxiety, is overactive in those with imposter syndrome, triggering feelings of worthlessness and self-doubt.”

Dr Schiff mentioned that those who experience imposter syndrome may have exaggerated emotional responses to something they perceive as a failure or a shortcoming.”

This is exactly what John explained during our interview.

Emotions run high

“I developed this mentality surrounding rejection. If I perceived rejection or I felt as if my reputation was being challenged, I was going to reject them on my own terms.”

John explained that if someone was the least bit critical, he internalized that feeling as “you’re wrong, John, and they’re validating all these bad things that you believe about yourself.”

“So I would lash out at people verbally and shut them down.”

John expressed that when your heart is broken, the first place it comes out of is your mouth. So, he frequently lashed out at people if he felt threatened – a common trend among those who experience imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome can arise in high-pressure situations, and emotional outbursts aren’t uncommon in these environments. But is the industry to blame for imposter syndrome being so prevalent?

Is the industry to blame?

It’s true certain industries experience higher levels of workplace imposter syndrome than others.

According to Action Mental Health, competitive sectors such as IT and public services exhibit higher levels of imposter syndrome.

“Working in elite or high-level jobs in high-pressure situations often exacerbates these fraudulent feelings. So, I think those career fields where people operate at high levels and under high pressure are probably rife with imposter syndrome.”

John hypothesized why tech professionals might feel this sensation of being an imposter more than others.

“Those in the tech industry have a highly developed sense of logic and order. I think that can actually be a detriment and really increase the volume of imposter syndrome as you end up comparing yourself with others and end up falling short.”

Fundamentally, specific industries, such as the tech industry, are fueling this constant comparison, fear, and anxiety.

Think about social media – it’s “a stage,” as John describes it, where we are forced to acknowledge the “wonderful” side of the average person's life, with curated content meant to show you only the good parts.

“Technology can be a tool for connection, but it can also be very isolating, as you see only the perfectly curated parts of a person. This alone can amplify feelings of imposter syndrome.”

If industries, platforms, and people profit from our constant comparisons and feelings of unworthiness, can we ever truly overcome imposter syndrome?

Turning down the psychological noise

“Although I learned how to turn the volume down, much like anxiety, it never truly goes away.”

However, there are different ways to mitigate the effects of imposter syndrome. For example, learning to accept praise is a fundamental factor in beating the beast.

“By accepting praise, you’re reprogramming your brain to invalidate the imposter syndrome.”

John suggests taking time to map your achievements, anything significant or even insignificant that you have done throughout your professional and personal life.

Psychologist Dr. Schiff reminds us that “self-doubt will show up” and that it always does, but changing your mindset surrounding your own abilities while acknowledging and validating your accomplishments and expertise is vital.

“When thoughts of self-doubt pop up, it is important to label them as psychological noise. They aren't important, and you don't need to listen to them or pay them any mind. What is most important is that you take action in spite of them.”

That’s how to turn down the dial on the loud and obnoxious noise of imposter syndrome.

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