Have you ever experienced that nagging feeling that you're a fraud, that your achievements are just a stroke of luck, and soon enough, someone will expose you for the imposter you believe yourself to be? Well, “imposter syndrome” has affected me many times in my life.
Imposter syndrome refers to an internalized feeling of inadequacy despite evidence of accomplishments and success. Those afflicted by it often attribute their achievements to external factors such as luck or timing rather than acknowledging their own abilities. Imposter syndrome can lead to persistent self-doubt, anxiety, and a constant fear of being exposed as a fraud.
Welcome to the world of imposter syndrome. It can affect anyone who achieves anything. Winning an award for a poem. Coming in first place in the hundred-yard dash. Successfully surviving your kid's challenging personality. Earning high grades. Landing that job you wanted. Employee of the month. The question of adequacy eats at many of us.
You are spectacular.
I used to describe my life as a series of lucky circumstances that lead to "falling upward." And, in fact, I am extremely lucky where it counts. My parents took an active role in my education, transforming me from the absolute bottom student in every subject to near the top. I lucked out that they taught me to work hard at various demanding jobs since I was seven. For decades, I attributed every success to their intervention.
In college, I lucked into working for the right professor, which got me an amazing PhD project. My wife got me the best postdoc, which landed me in the dream job (not my dream job, but a dream job). The farther I climbed on the academic ladder, the more I felt out of my league. Everyone around me was smarter, more competent, and all-around shinier.
I never felt like I belonged. I was always the failing fourth grader. When chronic illness stole my ability to hold a regular job, I started writing. Years later, with three self-published books, and more on the way, I am finally making headway on imposter syndrome.
Imposter syndrome affects individuals from all walks of life, whether rich or poor, from Tanzania to Taiwan. Uber-famous people, being creators who put everything out there for the world to judge, suffer just as much as you and me. Here are a few notable celebrities who have openly admitted to grappling with adequacy:
Maya Angelou, the celebrated poet, author, and civil rights activist once said, "I have written 11 books, but each time I think, 'uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.” Despite her immense talent and contributions to literature, culture, and society, Angelou struggled with self-doubt throughout her career.
Albert Einstein, the most famous scientist in the world, said, “The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.” Despite his impact on the world, he struggled with feelings of inadequacy.
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO through its period of greatest success, wrote, “Every time I took a test, I was sure that it had gone badly. And every time I didn’t embarrass myself–or even excelled–I believed that I had fooled everyone yet again. One day soon, the jig would be up.”
Tom Hanks, the Hollywood icons, is not immune to imposter syndrome. Despite his versatile acting skills and numerous accolades, he admitted that "No matter what we've done, there comes a point where you think, 'How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?'”
Dr. Margaret Chan, ranked by Forbes as the 13th most powerful woman in the world, said, “There are an awful lot of people out there who think I’m an expert. How do these people believe all this about me? I’m so much aware of all the things I don’t know.”
You are not alone.
WHAT CAUSES IMPOSTER SYNDROME?
Imposter syndrome doesn’t have one single cause, but many. I’m not qualified to say what causes others to feel this way. I can only tell you what my therapist tells me.
I suffer from a severe case of “unreasonable standards.” While I celebrate in others’ successes, I barely acknowledge my own. It isn’t that I feel superior. In fact, it’s the opposite. I expect myself to work harder than others. I was trained to work doggedly, so success seemed like a foregone conclusion.
I constantly compare myself to successful people. Inevitably, someone is better at one thing and another person is better at another. This fed the insecurity that I wasn’t smart enough and only succeeded by putting in more effort. Seeing others' achievements can trigger feelings of inadequacy and intensify the belief of being an imposter.
Give yourself a break.
Imposter syndrome can take a severe toll on one's mental and physical health. The constant self-doubt and fear of being exposed can lead to anxiety, stress, and eventual burnout. It certainly did for me. The fear of failure and being "found out" put me in a state chronic anxiety. I couldn’t stop working or I might show how dumb I really was. Every time I “fell upward” I perpetuated the unhealthy cycle by making me feel less intelligent compared to those around me. Stress begets stress, which begets stress.
It is no surprise that I burned out as an assistant professor. The unrelenting pressure to prove myself lead to unreasonably extended hours. Sure, I took breaks and spent time with the family, but even then I was distracted by the need to achieve. Early mornings. Late nights. Uneaten lunches. Dreams solving problems. It strained relationships including my marriage. It distracted me from the kiddos. Given my mindset, I’m surprised I had any friends at all.
Later, as an entrepreneur, I put my fear of being found out above my health. After pushing through pinch points, I’d physically and mentally crash, regularly falling prey to sickness. The seasonal flu would strike me harder and longer than most because I overtaxed my system. These breaks meant that I couldn’t put in the effort I wanted to, so I would jump back into work too early and too energetically to make up for lost time.
Your uniqueness improves the world.
BREAKING THE CYCLE
Putting the kibosh on imposter syndrome isn’t easy. Everyone’s path to a healthier life follows a different path. It took years for me and is still requires effort. Here are a few strategies that helped me. I force myself to celebrate my successes even if I don’t want to. This practice makes me self-reflect and acknowledge that I did something good. When I notice myself falling into old habits, I review my accomplishments, big or small.
Falling into chronic illness forced my hand. At my amazing wife’s insistence, I started therapy to cope with my new mentally dampened and weakened state. Years later, I see that I wasn’t an imposter and accept that I have value because I’m a good human, not because I drowned myself in unreasonable expectations.
Sharing my experiences with trusted friends, mentors, and online support groups helped me cope with my feeling of inadequacy. They encouraged me and celebrated my milestones on the way to being a good human, not the milestones of success. Hearing the experiences of people like me helped me realize how unhealthy my perspective was. For me, the greatest way to cope with imposter syndrome is to open up about it, not hide it. Nobody can learn a secret if it’s already out there for all to see. Even this post is a step toward in the right direction.
You are good enough.
Imposter syndrome can be a constant companion for anyone. If you are afflicted with this monster, remember you are not alone. It’s a common battle against self-doubt. Together, we can redefine our narratives and shine as the worthy individuals we are.
You are valued.