Playing Big: Another Manifestation of the Imposter Syndrome

August 24, 2017

(Part 3 of 3)

In my last blog entry, I discussed how the imposter phenomenon—the fear of being found out as a fraud in front of one’s peers and therefore responding by “playing small”— is endemic in the profession of nursing. As the piece circulated, I had many conversations about how much this description resonated with the experiences of my peers. What I didn’t expect was how many people in professions beyond nursing were afflicted with the same experience. Computer programmers, attorneys, teachers, and physicians all told me similar stories about keeping a low profile and not being willing to be fully seen before others out of fear of being found out to be a fraud.

This fear of being shamed in front of others keeps us from being able to show up fully and from being authentic with the people in our lives, be they our colleagues or our loved ones. When we “play small,” we deprive the world of our gifts. If we’re apprehensive about standing up and being noticed, invisible landscapes of our thoughts go unseen by the rest of the world. Our colleagues will never be able to benefit from our perspective.

PART 1: Responding to Not Knowing: Playing Big and Playing Small

Brené Brown, in her talk The Power of Vulnerability1, speaks to this when she shares her mantra for combating this fear: “Do not shrink. Do not puff up. Stand your sacred ground.”

But shrinking is only one response to the fear we experience when we are vulnerable. The other, “playing big,” or as Dr. Brown might say, “puffing up,” comes with its own set of challenges.

I see my colleagues puff up when they’ve been raised in a profession that burdens them with the expectations of an impressive academic pedigree, then shames them for not being experts. The danger of being the target of other people’s projections of omniscience and omnipotence is not that you believe you have become all-knowing, but rather, the terror that if the world saw that you don’t actually know it all, they would see you as a fraud. Even more perilous still, is actually believing the projections of all-knowing that the world places upon you and acting accordingly. Down that road, hubris and danger lie in wait.

PART 2: Overcoming the Phenomenon of Imposter Syndrome

This fear of not knowing is born and raised in training cultures that use competition as an incentive to be better than your peers, and shame as a punishment for when we fall short. These cultures, while well intentioned to extract greatness from their trainees, often succeed in cultivating excellence, but can easily cross over into being abusive, and like much abuse, the words of the abuser are soon internalized into the psyche of the abused, where the fear and shame become self-perpetuating.

Worse yet, is that our patients are put at risk when the burden of having to be a expert leads us to be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” I would rather have a clinician who admitted to not knowing the answer, but was willing to find out, than one who felt the need to fabricate and answer to not lose face.

It is this fear that leads us to puff up and “play big.”  Unfortunately, doing this also leaves little room for others to shine. Add to this the often unexamined experience of privilege of those who are playing big. When one is playing big, they are often unaware that their presence is eclipsing others who might want to share the stage. Or worse yet, others who might wish to share the stage are seen as threats. Another sun in the sky does not make the first one dimmer. It makes more light for everyone below.

So I close this mini-series blog with a challenge to my colleagues. If you realize you are “playing big,” take the risk of holding your words for just a moment, to see if someone who is perhaps waiting for an opportunity to speak can find a space to make their contribution. You might be pleasantly surprised by what you hear. If you are someone who “plays small,” I encourage you to find the courage to bring your thoughts into the world. We’re waiting to hear from you.


Brown B. The power of vulnerability: teachings on authenticity, connection and courage [audio]. Louisville, CO: Sounds True; 2013.

Andrew Penn was trained as an adult nurse practitioner and psychiatric clinical nurse specialist at the University of California, San Francisco. He is board certified as an adult nurse practitioner and psychiatric nurse practitioner by the American Nurses Credentialing Center. Currently, he serves as an Associate Clinical Professor at the University of California-San Francisco School of Nursing. Mr. Penn is a psychiatric nurse practitioner with Kaiser Permanente in Redwood City, California, where he provides psychopharmacological treatment for adult patients and specializes in the treatment of affective disorders and PTSD. He is a former board member of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, California Chapter, and has presented nationally on improving medication adherence, emerging drugs of abuse, treatment-resistant depression, diagnosis and treatment of bipolar disorder, and the art and science of psychopharmacologic practice. 

The views expressed on this blog are solely those of the blog post author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Psych Congress Network or other Psych Congress Network authors. Blog entries are not medical advice