By the time you read this, you might already be living the life you have aspired to 10 years ago. You might be enjoying your dream career, the owner of three doggies, happily married with children. You might appear “successful” in the eyes of others, and yet, you still feel like a fraud. Why?
Remember the times you tried to project utter professionalism (but in truth you were winging it) and you realised with creeping dread that everyone was going to find out? Recall the galloping feelings of worry, dread and self-doubt that punctured your youthful soul? Why haven’t they gone away?
This is the “The Imposter Phenomenon”, first coined by psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, in the 1970s.
Over the course of your life, you’ve likely experienced it at different intensities. You experienced it when you felt pressured to partake in certain activities and games during freshmen camps which you were not comfortable in, and you had to put on a façade to avoid pouring cold water on the fun.
You experienced it during those pressuring class participation sessions (no thanks to SMU’s pedagogy), and you felt that you sounded cleverer than you really were.
You experienced it after completing your part of the project presentation. As you hurried away to the side of the class to make way for the next speaker, the first thought that goes through your head wasn’t “well done me”, but “phew, got away with it”.
You also experienced it during your internship interviews, when you marketed yourself for the job and sounded more confident than you really were.
In fact, no matter your age, life stage, or career, you will experience the imposter syndrome. They tend to follow you around, tainting your views of your own experience and successes. A nasty little voice that says you are inadequate for whatever activity you are partaking in.
Tips to win as an imposter
So how should you cope with it? Here are some points to bear in mind.
First, don’t craft your internal dialogues based on everyone else’s exteriors. In other words, don’t trust what you see on social media. As “put-together” as people may seem, everyone experiences inadequacy to some degree, although the intensity and frequency of these feelings might differ.
So when you look at others, feel assured that how you feel is normal.
Who hasn’t, at some point in time, feel like we are making it all up as we go along? It’s a feeling that afflicts artists, authors, presidents and brain surgeons. If someone says they have never felt like a fraud, they are probably lying (and amateurs in their field and should not be trusted).
Second, remember that achieving success won’t make impostor syndrome go away – in fact, it is likely to reinforce it. Think about it; any kind of endeavour or achievement-related task involves one to take risks. The more boundaries you break, the less you are going to know what to do in unchartered territory. Your willingness to do unfamiliar things brings you attention and criticism, which makes you feel the imposter phenomena so acutely.
But proactivity and bravery are traits, not blemishes. Accountability helps you mature and grow. As the saying goes, "A ship in harbour is safe, but that isn't what ships are built for."
Third, let go of the expectation that you can do everything perfectly. Imposter syndrome surfaces when you put too much value in people’s judgement about you. When you do that, you become a slave of public approval in the twenty-first century culture of high achievement – an illusion that we must get ahead, that we must appear to be competent and successful. But this just reinforces the “confident façade”, which worsens the imposter phenomenon. In other words, you have to let go of the shame of falling short of your ridiculously high expectations. Perfection isn’t a prerequisite for progress.
Lastly, embrace your impostor syndrome! Talk freely about your self-doubt. The most competent people I know are the ones who talk about their self-doubt in a constructive and confident manner. The point isn’t to completely banish self-doubt – a dosage of self-doubt can be a healthy thing.
Aristotle once said that there should be a golden mean in between entitlement syndrome and impostor syndrome – where you have a sense of infallibility, but also a proper sense of your competence. Is the imposter syndrome really that bad? Assuming there is a golden mea, humility and self-awareness is the grain of value in this human experience.
Do you really want to be free from imposter syndrome? Probably not, for it keeps you sharp and real. Though these feelings can be a pain to deal with, I hope you befriend and embrace them, without letting them dictate what you do.