By Andrew Forrester
Impostor syndrome may have you feeling like you are lesser, undeserving even. While this is normal to experience at certain points in your career, here are some things to remember to overcome it.
“It doesn’t go away, that feeling that you shouldn’t take me that seriously. What do I know? I share that with you because we all have doubts in our abilities, about our power and what that power is.”
Michelle Obama, former First Lady
The first time I heard about “impostor syndrome” was in grad school. I was at one of those parties which are purportedly social but in fact just feel like the working day has been stretched into a long evening, with less structure, all the same pressures and the added wildcard element of cocktails. I had stumbled into a conversation between some students ahead of me in the program who were discussing that feeling you have when you’re talking to someone more intelligent, more successful than you; that sense that you are taking blind leaps from steppingstone to steppingstone, just hoping you make it across the river and arrive at a sensible, un-embarrassing end to the conversation.
I was shocked. These were students whom I considered to be experts, as far as any student can be, in the field. These were people who were on a first name basis with their professors, students who had presented at conferences and who had flashy jobs lined up for after graduation. How was it possible that they had felt the same way I was feeling, like, all the time? A friend explained to me then that there was a name for this phenomenon: impostor syndrome – the sense that everyone else has come by their success honestly while you alone are undeserving, your skills are particularly insufficient and you are, in essence, a phony.
In the years since, I have thought back to this interaction frequently. It has shaped the way I interact with my colleagues and my superiors at work, and it has served as a gentle reminder in times of high anxiety or low self-esteem. Here are some things I try to keep in mind in moments like these:
REMEMBER THAT EVERYONE HAS IT
With the exception of perhaps supervillains and megalomaniacs, it’s likely that everyone you’ll meet in your career experiences some degree of impostor syndrome. Each of us has weak points we prefer to avoid discussing as well as private foibles we hope others don’t notice. Your boss is insecure about something; your boss’s boss is still working on some part of their skills or knowledge or personality.
Once we know that we’re not alone in our anxieties and secret fears, our sense of unworthiness or fraudulence, while probably never disappearing entirely, can be put in its place. We will sometimes feel under-equipped to deal with the pressures and expectations of our jobs, but that does not detract from prior successes, nor does it prohibit future ones. Furthermore, that sense of unworthiness must be measured against what is actually true of you. Remember, you have the job you have for a reason. Whoever hired or appointed you did so with your strengths, not your weaknesses, in mind. No one expects perfection—they just expect the work to get done.
Remember those aforementioned prior successes. Remind yourself what you have already done well and, maybe, what you felt back then, in the midst of doing your job really well. Think of what you’ve accomplished, not in the absence of anxieties and self-critiques, but in spite of them. What do the people you work with remember you for? What are the projects, initiatives and events you knocked out of the park? And what have you already overcome?
AUDIT YOUR ANXIETIES
Now, take a step back. What are you worried about really? It’s worth determining the sources of your experience with impostor syndrome. Each of us can look back at moments that have led to insecurities throughout our personal and professional lives, and those insecurities likely run the gamut from a totally real gap in knowledge to an unreasonably heightened sense of your own failings. The latter may need to be addressed outside the workplace, but the former—gaps in knowledge, things you know you don’t know, professional issues you’re continuing to work on—should be acknowledged and admitted.
This is your chance to get really good at phrases like “I’m still learning how to do that” and “What do you mean?” and “I don’t know. Can you help me figure it out?” Real confidence isn’t a result of always knowing what to do, but rather an awareness of your strengths and skills that remains secure despite whatever areas of growth persist in your day-to-day experiences. Just as true leadership sometimes means admitting mistakes, confidence in your career is about knowing what you’re good at and what you still have to learn and boldly embracing both. Just ask yourself if you would rather work with someone who pretends to have it all together or someone who can admit that they’re still figuring things out? It’s time to treat yourself with the same grace you’d treat that imaginary colleague.
BE REASONABLE AND DON’T OVERTHINK
What I’m advocating here is having reasonable, realistic confidence in yourself. This does not mean running full-tilt in the opposite direction and falling victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect. We’ve all worked with people who seem to suffer under this cognitive bias, whereby they overestimate their skills despite limited experience or ability. But here’s the thing; you are not in danger of this! If anything, sufferers of impostor syndrome tend to lean the other way, underestimating their strengths despite having demonstrated competency time and time again.
Rather, give yourself a break from all that worry and self-doubt and ask yourself, “Have I done this before? Have I given people a reason to trust me in this?” The answer is probably yes. Now swap out “people” for “myself” — “Have I given myself a reason to trust me in this?” If the answer is still yes, what are you waiting for? Get out there and do the work, without all that extra weight of fear and misgivings.
PROVE YOURSELF WRONG
One of the most satisfying parts of any career comes when you can look back and think, wow, I really did that; that thing that seemed difficult, that project that felt impossible. Chances are, you’ve been in a similar position before; now it’s time to move confidently in that direction again. When it comes to impostor syndrome, your biggest critic is always going to be yourself. This is your chance to prove that critic wrong. You can do the difficult, seemingly impossible thing. You just have to get out of your own way.
Andrew Forrester is a writer whose work has appeared in Parents Magazine, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. Andrew also teaches English and creative writing in Austin, Texas, and has a Ph.D. in English literature from Southern Methodist University.
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