I remember it like it was yesterday. Showing up to graduate school for my first course, and for the first time in my life, feeling nervous about school. Really, really nervous. I distinctly remember thinking that it was all about to come crashing down on me. That my previous ease and success in school was about to be exposed for what it was--that I had just had it easy. That I was just lucky. Never mind that I had graduated from an extremely competitive high school and went to a wonderful private liberal arts college. I just knew that grad school was there to expose that I wasn’t half as talented or intelligent as everyone thought I was. I was an imposter.
Does any of this sound familiar?
- You want the promotion, but you don’t go for it.
- You think about going back to school, but can’t get yourself to fill out the application.
- You have an enjoyable conversation with a colleague, but replay it repeatedly to figure out what you said wrong.
- You just know everyone else has it figured it out.
You are walking around in a constant state of anxiety, feeling this vague sense of angst. Feeling like everyone except you is getting it. Feeling like you’re about to be “found out.”
Welcome to Imposter Syndrome.
This term came into being sometime in the 1960s or 1970s, depending on what source you read. But it’s now a fairly common term, and an even more common experience. It takes several forms, but the two I see most often in my practice are either feeling that you aren’t as good as everyone thinks you are, or that you aren’t as good as everyone else. Some of us have both. What is most interesting about imposter syndrome is that we see it most often in people who have the least cause for it. After more than a dozen years of being a therapist, it still sometimes surprises me who struggles with imposter syndrome the most. It is unfailingly those who actually have the least reason for it.
Regardless of its particular form, imposter syndrome is rooted in anxiety. And anxiety is rooted in our thoughts. Thus, while we talk about imposter syndrome as a feeling, it is actually an experience of thoughts that then create the uneasy feelings of angst and dread. In other words, we think the feelings are the problem, but they aren’t. They’re simply the natural response to the thoughts.
The good news is that there are several things you can do to help improve your experience of Imposter Syndrome, particularly given that it is really just another type of anxiety.
Let’s first deal with the “I’m not as good as everyone thinks I am” type. There is actually a huge irony here: You think you’re not good enough to be what people think you are--but you think you are good enough to fool all of them? It is highly unlikely that you can pull the wool over the eyes of that many people. And if you can, well then, you must be capable of a lot more than you’re crediting yourself.
Now let’s look at the “I’m not as good as everyone else” type. There are several things you can do to combat this. First of all, stop the comparisons. Limit social media, for one. You’re comparing your real life to someone else’s highlight reel. It will never look as good. And don’t compare yourself to folks who have time and experience that you don’t. You’re not supposed to be as good as them.
Lastly, here are some tips for all types of Imposter Syndrome.
- Accept that it is natural to feel this way, and it doesn’t have to mean anything. We act in spite of our feelings all the time--working out when we aren’t motivated, doing something that scares us, being patient with our kids or spouse when we want to scream. Feelings don’t need to dictate actions.
- Determine what is “good enough.” So often we are telling ourselves we aren't good enough, but we don’t even know what that means. Often what we are telling ourselves is good enough is actually perfection--which doesn’t exist.
- Focus on your past accomplishments and achievements. Highly doubtful anyone was so lucky that all things were achieved by that. If that is the case for you, you definitely need to buy a lottery ticket!
- Put failure in its proper context. The best teams in the world lose. The most talented athletes don’t bring home Olympic gold. Every four years someone loses a Presidential race. Life goes on. We adjust, we adapt, and we refocus. And odds are that our failures are much less noticeable in the world. In fact, most of the time we don’t even remember them. I honestly can’t tell you which tests I aced or which I failed in school.
- Remember that there is a solid chance that you’re interacting with a whole bunch of other “imposters.” It’s highly likely that your friends, family, mentors, and colleagues are experiencing this same thing, even if they look calm and confident.
If you can’t get your mind managed around this, or the anxiety is too intense for you to shift your thoughts, seek professional help. Anxiety is quite treatable! But otherwise, just accept this as a natural part of growth that doesn’t need to slow you down. The only way you are an actual imposter is if you stop showing up in your life.
The information provided is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of a doctor with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never delay seeking or disregard professional medical advice because of something you have read here.