Like many (semi) accomplished individuals, I experience Impostor Syndrome almost daily. It recently accelerated because I was asked to do an AMA and put on a page among some amazing people who have done amazing things, and I… I’ve just done things.
But then I thought about what my friend Nikki always says:
If I’m not in over my head, I’m not having fun.
While this is a healthy attitude to have, many people will react in the opposite way when forced to face things they don’t know about. And the thing is, even the most accomplished people experience this.
I have heard famous people admit they have it, watched my heroes explain how they wake up every day, not believing their “luck” and worrying if they’ll be able to meet their fans’ bloated expectations.
I used to get paralyzed from expectations myself. Whether I expected too much of myself or others did of me, my reaction was always the same: I would refuse to do anything that could get me in that position, ever.
And yet, I said a big YES to the AMA. Why?
Because fear is the worst driver. And it never goes away. The only way to vanquish it is not to feed it. Even though most of us feed our inner fears and doubts daily, it doesn’t mean we have to be “stuck” in this mentality. It simply means that we need to dig deep, find the source, and face it.
Before We Start
Let’s find the best definition of I.S. and go from there.
(I’ve put numbers next to the points I’ll discuss in reverse order.)
Impostor syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments(4). Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve(3) the success they have achieved. Proof of success(2) is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. Notably, impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achieving women(1).
It’s from Wikipedia. Forgive my sources, but you’ll find no better definition of this syndrome anywhere, and so detailed. Now, in order to get to the bottom of it, we have to work backwards, point by point.
1. The Gender Gap
Before we can tackle this on an individual level, we have to look at the global implications. The fact is that more women tend to feel this way than men, which says a lot about our society.
In a world where men are generally paid more and are encouraged to be more confident and successful, women fall slightly behind. Except we don’t. We only perceive ourselves as standing on a lower level because of these unfair conditions we’re fighting to change.
And, as we all know, perception is reality.
I’m not suggesting that men are intentionally making women feel that way, but they’re not helping themselves either – attitudes in the tech world have been toxic and a lot of men have been making asses of themselves lately (like Google executive Eric Schmidt at SXSW and T.J. Miller at the Crunchies). All this media attention reflects the reality we live and work in, so it’s natural for women to feel bullied and under-appreciated in such a hostile environment.
If we want to turn this around, we have to start with a better appreciation system (not to mention fair wages), especially in the work place where male ego reigns (and frankly, needs to be deflated).
2. The Locus of Control
There are two types of people: those with internal locus of control and the ones with external locus of control. Internal locus of control means that you see yourself as the driver of your life — everything you do happens as a direct result of your actions and decisions. External locus of control just means you tend to blame external factors for your failures and successes.
So if you tell your boss you’re late on that report because your colleague hasn’t given you all the information you needed, you’re viewing the situation externally. You must know there are things you can do to speed up the process, but you either see yourself as helpless or you’re lazy.
I generally disagree with this type of thinking. If you see things this way, you’ll never be able to take responsibility for your life. The sooner you do it, the better you’ll be at: solving problems, overcoming fears, getting results, advancing your career, forming relationships, etc.
And by doing so, you won’t have the need to prove you deserve your success. You’ll just know you do.
3. The Confidence Problem
A person with high self-esteem will not be experiencing the Impostor Syndrome, at least not frequently and/or deeply. A person with high self-esteem knows what they’re capable of, where their weaknesses lie, and thus sees no reason to feel inferior to anyone.
If this is you, great! The other 70% of the population, however, doesn’t feel the same way. Most of us go from day to day slightly terrified of being exposed or laughed at. (This is especially true if you work in a high risk/high reward environment, like entrepreneurship for example.)
But this is low confidence speaking. Don’t listen to it.
You’ve reached this level because you worked hard and you took the right opportunities. In fact, if you learn how to apply the “internal locus of control mindset”, you’ll be more likely to recognize your success as your doing, as it should be.
(And of course, refrain from focusing on failure too much.)
Whatever you can do to raise your confidence, do it. Ask friends, colleagues, etc. what positive traits you possess. Look into the mirror and tell yourself what you love about your personality. Just anything that can help.
As a side note, I also think it’s important to encourage women to be more confident and not to punish them if they already are — because in today’s business world there’s a tendency to view “bossy women” as “bitches”, which is yet another gender lapse on society’s part.
4. The Accomplishment Book
Once you have the right gender attitudes, locus of control, and confidence, all you need to do is internalize your accomplishments.
This is easily done with the help of an “accomplishment book”.
After a tough spell of burnout/depression, I had to find a way to crawl back to my most productive self again, so I applied this hack. I bought a small notebook and started writing down small accomplishments I had made every day. At first they were things like “went for a walk” and “sent an email”, but they started growing bigger, and soon enough there was plenty to be proud of. And I’ve continued this ritual to this day.
It also helps raise your confidence and acknowledge the steps you’ve taken to be where you are. It’s the proof you need to see in order to believe that where you are is very much deserved.
In fact, you can read about Fast Company’s experiment with that same concept, where the team kept a daily journal of their accomplishments for a week and found out that it was beneficial to their night’s sleep and daily productivity.
If you followed the steps in that order, you may feel much better about your accomplishments. The key here is to remember and apply this process (or at least certain parts of it) every time that the unwelcomed feeling surfaces.
And know, you’re not alone. We’re all fighting the same demons.