Your Own Worst Enemy: Getting Over Impostor Syndrome

You ever feel like nothing you do is good enough and someday someone will expose you for the giant fraud you secretly are? No? Oh. Never mind, then.

Nov 3, 2011 at 2:00pm | Leave a comment

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I first heard the phrase “impostor syndrome” from a telephone psychic.

I didn’t call looking for someone to tell me my future. I was at a point in my young adult life where I was questioning the plans I’d laid for myself. I was a year into a Master’s program that would enable me to be licensed as an elementary school teacher, but I hated it. I hated my classes, I hated my teaching internship, and I even rather disliked my classmates, although that may have been mostly due to their proximity to this major life choice I was so regretting.

What I needed was someone to talk to, like a therapist, except I didn’t have ready access to one. A telephone psychic seemed like the most immediate option for therapy-on-demand, $1.99 per minute for someone to listen to my stark raving terror about my life and to give me calming advice. Whether that advice came from a psych degree or the great beyond, what did I care?

I spoke to an average-sounding woman (notably lacking a West Indian accent) who patiently allowed me to go on, burning through minutes while I unloaded my what-do-I-do-with-my-life worries in an avalanche of self-recrimination and panic. 

“You have [garbled].”

“What?” I asked, gripping the phone with both hands, certain the answer was in the possibly-imaginary cards before my new psychic-therapist-friend.

“They used to call it an inferiority complex. You’re convinced you’re not good enough or smart enough to do this. Impostor syndrome. The only thing holding you back is you.”

I wish I could say this call changed everything, but it didn’t. My second Master’s degree was worse than ever. Studying in a profoundly theory-heavy program, I felt hopelessly lost in every class, every day. I was convinced at any moment uniformed thugs would burst into my seminar to unmask me and drag me out. Obviously I did not belong here, as I understood maybe one tenth of what I was reading, and was frequently confused even by the comments of my own classmates. It seemed so easy for them. Surely I had made yet another mistake. 

It never occurred to me that I was there to learn, or that other students might be feeling the same way. 

Impostor syndrome happens to all sorts of people, at all ages and all levels of “success” in career and life. (However, it is especially common amongst graduate students.) People with impostor syndrome are convinced that their successes, no matter how concrete or obvious, are merely accidents that they cannot ever hope to repeat on purpose. They can’t own and internalize their accomplishments; instead, they are convinced that they are frauds, that they don’t deserve their accolades, and at any moment they will be revealed for the charlatans they are. 

The phrase “impostor phenomenon” was first used in 1978 by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. Dr. Clance says of the term’s origins:

I experienced IP feelings in graduate school. I would take an important examination and be very afraid that I had failed. I remembered all I did not know rather than what I did. My friends began to be sick of my worrying, so I kept my doubts more to myself. I thought my fears were due to my educational background. When I began to teach at a prominent liberal arts college with an excellent academic reputation, I heard similar fears from students who had come for counseling. They had excellent standardized test scores grades and recommendations. One of them said, “I feel like an impostor here with all these really bright people.”

Totally unsurprisingly, impostor syndrome was initially thought to be more common amongst women, although more recent takes on the idea have found that men are just as suceptible, they just tend to handle these feelings differently. Given that culturally-imposed feminine socialization trains women to discount their accomplishments and to always give credit to others, women tend to be a little more open with their experiences of imposter-y feelings. Men, on the other hand, tend to hide these doubts lest they look weak by exposing them.

Feelings of impostorism can hold us back, certainly. The fear of failure can prevent us from trying difficult things, and the shame that attends many folks’ imposter feelings can be physically and mentally exhausting. So how to deal? I have a few totally subjective and unscientific tips on the subject.

First: Nobody knows that they’re doing. This may come as a surprise. In my case, my imposter feelings were bolstered by my belief that everyone else in the world was doing an awesome job at life and I was alone in my doubt and self-recrimination. This simply isn’t true; even the most confident and assured person you know has days in which they feel like everything they touch is a disaster. Ask them. They’ll probably tell you.

I’ve also become convinced that there is no such thing as adulthood -- or if there is, it is simply a state of having certain responsibilities, and not a matter of feeling capable and “normal” all of the time. “Normal” is often a destructive chimera to chase anyway -- it doesn’t exist except as some aspirational ideal that is, ironically, different for everyone. 

Next: It’s okay to mess up. One mistake does not an imposter make. Hell, ten mistakes do not an impostor make. Errors are an inevitable part of life. If you’re like me, some degree of awkwardness is basically a given in every social interaction. I’m never going to awkwardness-free, so it makes more sense to accept these incidents and let them go.

My own most recent screw up? A fumbled handshake in which I attempted to introduce myself to a professionally-important person I have already met (although in my defense it was A YEAR AGO), which led to me mumbling something incomprehensible and failing to make eye contact during the handshake itself, which is like the cardinal sin of handshakes. 

Did I feel like a giant idiot? Totally. A decade ago I would have flagellated myself for this for weeks, long past the time anyone else there had forgotten it. Today I simply accept that these things will happen (often, if you’re me) and nobody present will ever be as hard on me for it as I am.

Which brings us to the last: Be kind to yourself. Don’t ruminate on dumb things you’ve said or done; make sure you’re giving as much thought to your successes as your failures. You may have to write these good things down and consult them frequently to help you remember. That’s fine. For me, giving myself positive credit was a habit I had to develop over time. And, annoyingly, I STILL sometimes worry that maintaining an awareness of my accomplishments is somehow egotistical. Isn’t that ridiculous? 

If we go about our lives with the understanding that it is acceptable for us not to be instantly good at everything we try, and that our existence is, above all, a learning experience, then we can save ourselves a lot of heartache when we feel like nothing is working out the way we planned. The difference between the impostor-plagued person and the self-confident person is not competence; it’s attitude. Don’t waste energy putting yourself down; the world is full of people who will do that for you. 

How about you -- have you ever felt like an impostor? How do you deal with it?