Hello, friends! Today we are tackling a single subject. Something that has been requested numerous times by you guys. That subject is impostor syndrome. In this episode, I will talk about what it is, why we tend to have it, and hopefully give you some tips that can make it impact you less. It’s been a stressful week, so before we dive in I invite you to take a few breaths with me to help center ourselves.
What is imposter syndrome?
First off, you aren’t going to find impostor syndrome in the DSM. It’s not a recognized psychiatric condition. Rather, it’s simply something that many people experience and it has been looked at in the research. Impostor syndrome has been talked about by everyone from Maya Angelou to Neil Gaiman to Neil Armstrong. If you keep your ears perked for it, you will hear people talking about it all the time. I think Charlize Theron even talked about it in her Hot Ones episode. In doing a little bit of prep for this episode, I also came to the realization that there are approximately 2000000 TEDx talks about it.
So what is it? Impostor syndrome is the feeling that you get where you feel like you haven’t really earned your accomplishments. Like you are pulling one over on everybody by being where you are and you are just waiting for people to realize that you are a fraud. That you don’t belong there or didn’t earn the right do be doing what you do. There are different estimates out there for how common this is, but I think that they are probably pretty inaccurate. I think it’s safe to say that most people have felt this at some point in their life, though. It is important to point out that this is not to be confused with a delusion such as Capgras delusion where you think that you yourself or someone else is actually an impostor or a fake. You may feel like a fraud, but not like you’ve been literally replaced with a fake version of yourself.
Impostor syndrome affects people from all walks of life, but it does seem to impact people who identify as women and people of color to a disproportionate level. This is especially relevant when these people are operating within spaces that are not by and for them. But anybody can be impacted by impostor syndrome. I am absolutely no stranger to the feeling myself. In graduate school and in my career impostor syndrome gnaws at me occasionally. I feel like up at this top level of education, having a Ph.D. it’s easy to fall into this pattern of feeling inferior. Like I think to myself that I supposedly have the same level of education as Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson or Rachel Maddow. These people are WAY smarter than me. Obviously we are not equals, right?
Well knowing my audience, I’m sure some of you are thinking but Robert – you’re only 31. You already have your Ph.D. You’ve written three books. You’ve gotten hundreds if not thousands of pieces of positive feedback about the impression you’ve made. Of course you are worthy of your position.
These things are intellectually true of course. But it can be hard to recognize that these accomplishments “count”. This points out one really important aspect of impostor syndrome. It isn’t actually tied to what you have accomplished in your life or in your career. If all of these people at the pinnacle of their fields can feel impostor syndrome, there clearly isn’t a task that you can achieve to make it go away.
Some degree of impostor syndrome may be healthy. Just like some anxiety is healthy. You should doubt and question yourself a little bit. BUT this should be a source of motivation to stay on top of your game and keep succeeding rather than an overwhelming doubt that makes you scramble to resolve. Pushing harder is not necessarily going to make the impostor feeling go away, which should serve as a piece of evidence that it doesn’t actually have to do with you not doing enough.
So why exactly does impostor syndrome happen?
I think there are a variety of reasons. One is that many of us have a bit of a negative default when it comes to our internal dialogue and our attention bias. I think that type of negative attention bias is also supported by the culture that many of us live in. When we are given a compliment, it’s almost expected for us to be overly humble and self-deprecating. If someone says “I know” or agrees in some way with a compliment they are given, they come off as cocky or arrogant. So in a sense, we are trained to downplay our successes and focus more on the ways in which we feel inadequate. When it really comes down to it, for a lot of people, feeling like an impostor is all about feeling inadequate. Going a little bit deeper, we tend to interpret successes and what we might consider failures differently. When we succeed at something, we tend to attribute it to luck. You were in the right place at the right time or you just happened to apply for a job at a time when there weren’t other good candidates. We don’t attribute it to the hard work and perseverance that led up to that success.
BUT when it comes to failures, we do the opposite. Often failures are circumstantial in nature. Really nobody’s fault. Something random and bad just happened and screwed everything up. Unfortunately, our tendency is to attribute these failures not to chance but to a fundamental flaw in our character. In other words, if you were to win an award at work, you might brush it off as everyone else who deserves it more has already gotten the award in previous years and you’re all that’s left. It’s just the circumstance. And if you were to put on an event and hardly anyone showed up, you would say that it’s because you are not a fun person or you are a bad event planner. You would attribute it to a flaw in yourself. This is a really unfair way of thinking. It represents one of those thinking traps that I talk about all the time.
A lot of this comes down to the negative ways in which we think about ourselves. It’s not that we are necessarily putting others up on a pedestal. It can seem that way when you say that everyone is smarter or better than you. It’s usually not really about that though. It’s about those internalized feelings of inadequacy.
So what can we do about it?
A lot of this advice will be somewhat similar to other advice I’ve given regarding changing your thinking patterns. I think a good portion of the work has to do with recognizing a few truths that are contrary to this assumption that you are a fraud or don’t deserve what you have. You need to disprove some of your assumptions.
First off, let’s take the most unrealistic part of impostor syndrome, which convinces you that someone is going to find you out and everything will come tumbling down.
Award-winning author Neil Gaiman quotes:
The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something and that any moment now they will discover you. It’s Impostor Syndrome, something my wife Amanda christened the Fraud Police.
Now ask yourself – have you ever seen the fraud police catch someone? I’m not talking about when someone does something legitimately stupid like falsifying data in important scientific research. I’m talking any normal person that feels as though they are a fraud and they will be found out. Have you ever seen someone get fired or dropped from a school program because the people there suddenly realized they weren’t actually worth it? Probably not. In fact, if that did happen, that would probably reflect worse on the one that did the hiring. What kind of dummy hires someone that isn’t actually qualified for the job?
As always, the best friend trick could definitely be useful here. If you have a friend or family member that has ever expressed impostor syndrome like doubts to you, did you agree with them? Probably not! More likely you told them that they are just psyching themselves out and there are obvious reasons for them being where they are.
There is also this sort of unspoken assumption in the negative comparisons you make between yourself and other people. One of the main ways of expressing the feeling of impostor syndrome is saying that everyone else is more qualified, better at a certain skill, etc. The assumption behind that statement is that you should be just as good as them and the fact that you are not is a problem. You don’t have to be the best at everything. It’s really unrealistic that you would be. But regardless of the possibility of it, you just don’t have to. In any organization, there is going to be a range of skill levels. Sometimes technical skill, intelligence, or any of these other attributes that we feel insecure about are not even the most important part. Did I go to school with people that had a higher IQ than me? Yeah. For sure I can think of some. I also know that mine was higher than some of my peers. Some of my peers are much better versed than me in certain lines of research. That’s absolutely true. But has anyone else done the unique things that I have with my career? Not a single one. So I could feel insecure or like an impostor in my field because I am aware that certain people are “better” than me in specific ways. OR I can recognize the unique contributions that I have, just like everyone else in my program had unique aspects of themselves that were helpful and useful. You don’t need to be the best. Being the best might not even be totally in line with your values. What would be more meaningful to you than being the best? For me, it’s making an impact in people’s lives. Measure yourself by the thing you actually care about rather than this arbitrary sense of being “good enough” in a broad vague way.
Another really helpful strategy for combating impostor syndrome is to become a student of yourself and try to work directly against the biased way that you view yourself. We know that the tendency is to attribute success to luck and failure to character flaws, so you can actively make an effort to notice the opposite. Whether it is journaling or enlisting the help of an outside person, push yourself to see the ways in which your failures might be due to random circumstance and the ways that your successes were brought about by your effort and by strengths in your character. You can also ask people for feedback. It can be weird, but it’s probably not as weird as you think it is to ask people for feedback. Tell them that you are feeling out of place and you are wondering whether you should feel that way. Say something like, “Everyone here is just so skilled it’s hard to feel like I belong. Do you think I belong here?”
Any time you spontaneously get positive feedback, you are also going to want to lock that away. Write it down somewhere. I have an email folder that is called “awesome feedback” that I use for this purpose. After you document or collect the positive feedback go and revisit it from time to time. Remind yourself what someone else took the time to tell you. People don’t tend to go out of their way to give specific positive feedback for no reason. It’s not just a polite thing to do. They could have just as easily said thank you or good job and left it at that. Challenge yourself to admit that they have a point in their positive feedback. Then do it again and again.
And lastly, I’m going to expose a little flaw in your thinking pattern. You think all of the other people around you are better, right? That they belong and that you don’t? If they are all that good and smart, then why haven’t they realized that you are a fraud? It doesn’t serve them to keep an impostor around. In a sense, you are actually insulting their intelligence to say that you are a fraud and they are too dumb to notice. So boom.
That’s basically what I have to say about impostor syndrome. You are not dumb for having it. It’s super common. But it’s also not helpful past a certain extent. If you want to reign it in and establish a little more confidence, try some of these tricks that I talked about. Remember you don’t have to be OVER confident or the BEST at things. You just need to realize that you bring something unique to the table, that you don’t even have to be the best, and that none of us know what the hell we are doing! So don’t be so hard on yourself, you belong where you are and have the right to be there.
This episode of the Hardcore Self Help Podcast is sponsored by Kencko organic instant smoothies. Use the coupon code DUFF at checkout for a discount and free shaker bottle with your first package.
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