You’ve been thinking about asking to take on a new project at work, applying to grad school, or starting a new business venture and you think to yourself, “I shouldn’t do that! I don’t know anything about it! They’ll figure out what a fraud I am, for sure!” It's a unique mixture of fear, dread, and defeat that takes the form of a little voice in the back of your head telling you that you're not good enough.
Well, there’s a name for that! It’s called Imposter Syndrome and, while it's not something we often talk about, it's a feeling that most people will experience at some point in their lives. Even the folks who appear the most confident and self-assured are not immune to this particular kind of self-doubt. In fact, I would argue that they probably feel it more than most and have just figured out how to project a sense of certainty that only goes skin deep.
I've had more than a few experiences with this syndrome over the years. The most difficult recent run-in happened when I was finishing my final year in grad school. I remember wondering every step of the way through the dissertation process when someone would finally step in and say, “I’m sorry, Ms. Carambio, we’ve made a terrible mistake! You need to go back and take classes for a few more years before we’ll let you have your doctorate. Why? Because you spent A LOT of time on facebook when you should have been writing your lit review, of course!” Looking back, I see how silly those fears were, but at the time they were positively debilitating. I managed to push those feelings aside and get everything done, but it really did feel at times like I was fighting a battle with my own mind.
Why do we feel this way?
Though it's unlikely that there's a common cause for every person who's ever experienced Imposter Syndrome, there are some similarities that are worth noting. It’s been linked to perfectionism and insecurity, as well as a desire to protect ourselves from ridicule or rejection. Here in the United States, our culture puts a lot of value on being productive and independent, while we shy away from expressing doubt and uncertainty. To attempt something that might result in failure or embarrassment requires a level of comfort being vulnerable that many of us have a hard time achieving.
What’s the upside?
When you hear that obnoxious, judgmental little voice telling you that you're going to fail, it's doing so because you're trying to achieve something. Often, you'll notice that the voice gets louder the closer you are to your goal, so it's a great way to know that you're on the right track. Also, as I mentioned before, these feelings are your brain's misguided attempt to protect you from feeling upset or disappointed. Realizing that it isn't some part of you that's trying to sabotage you may make it easier to overcome.
How do you deal with it?
First, you have to learn to recognize Imposter Syndrome when it pipes up. Paying more attention to your internal monologue will allow you to notice when you start experiencing those negative thoughts. Sometimes, just the act of saying, "Ah ha! I see you there, Imposter Syndrome!" will disrupt the pattern and let you get on with your day. Working with a therapist is also a great way to address the underlying factors that contribute to negative thought patterns.
One of the best rules of thumb for increasing confidence is to fake it until you make it. Often, if you just force yourself to act as though you feel competent and self-assured, you will begin to truly feel that way with time, patience, and practice.
If you'd like to learn more, here's an amazing TED Talk given by Amy Cuddy that has a lot of helpful tips and information about overcoming insecurity. Quartz.com also posted a piece recently that linked Imposter Sydrome to success, you can read it here.