The Reality of Impostor Syndrome

Image: Our favorite alien hiding among the toys, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment

Are You an Impostor?

The scene lasted only seconds, but I remember laughing out loud when E.T. hid away in a young Drew Barrymore’s closet back in E.T. How funny was it that this awkward little guy was disguising himself as a stuffed animal? He was an impostor!

Only when you think about it from a different angle, the scene is much more meaningful than that. E.T. had already been discovered by humans, so who was he really hiding from? After all, this was his friend’s house. He was not hiding from the children who had embraced him with open arms. He was hiding from the adults who had expectations all their own, whose views on the world threatened his humble existence.

E.T. was an impostor because he needed to survive.

In some ways, this is all of us.

“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”. — Albert Einstein

The Perfect World of Social Media

Some people ooze confidence, or at least that is how they present themselves to the world. A glimpse at their social media profile shows that Amy is pregnant with her first child, Jack was promoted to VP at his company, and that Mary placed sixth in her age-group at her last half-marathon. You see pictures of happy, smiling children, and couples holding hands. Sally must have hired an interior decorator because her house looks amazing!

Meanwhile, you are sitting on your sofa with a bag of Lay’s potato chips, ironically watching an episode of America Ninja Warrior. You almost hear the twang of a guitar as a dust ball rolls by.

How much is real and how much is for show?

It is really about trying to meet expectations — society’s and our own. There is a natural instinct for some people to please or impress others, a drive towards perfectionism that can lead us down a path of feeling, well, phony. Like an impostor.

“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. In my case, I was convinced that there would be a knock on the door, and a man with a clipboard … would be there, to tell me it was all over.” — Neil Gaiman

The Drive to Meet Expectations

Poor Amy may have had a miscarriage before she finally became pregnant. Jack may have been promoted because someone else turned down the position, and maybe there were only six people in Mary’s age group at the half-marathon. Every story has shades of gray, but the world only sees the highlight reel.

There’s nothing wrong with keeping things to yourself because your journey is your business.

Except that when we only see success in the people around us, it makes us feel less secure. Why is everyone else so successful while we are having such a hard time making ends meet? What do they have that we don’t? It generates self-doubt and a cycle of expectations that can never be met.

The illusion of the so-called perfect life is perpetuated when people only share the “good” stuff. The reality is that life gets dirty from time to time, that we all struggle through ups and downs. We grow to be better human beings when we adapt and change and persevere through the “bad” times.

Still, self-doubt keeps us questioning if we are enough.

“I have written eleven books but each time I think, “Uh oh. They’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everyone, and they’re going to find me out.” — Maya Angelou

Impostor Syndrome Is Real

Sometimes it goes deeper than a bit of self-doubt. I am talking about the limiting beliefs that impact our view of the world at large. Those beliefs that we are not enough, that we are not worthy, can cripple our ability to live a healthy, happy, and meaningful life.

Clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the term impostor phenomenon, or impostor syndrome, back in the 1970s. In their work, they found that high-achievers, especially if they were women, often feel that people put too much faith in their abilities. They feel like frauds when people praise them for their accomplishments, as if it is a matter of luck as opposed to the time, effort, and skill they put into getting the job done.

Whether it was because they were praised too much growing up (who can live up to such high expectations?) or criticized too much (who can be confident when they are always torn down?), societal pressures also add to the problem. People feel pressured to be the best, and when they succeed, the pressure only gets worse.

You did it once, but can you do it again?

Did you even deserve the recognition the first time around?

“I am assailed by my own ignorance and inability … sometimes, I seem to do a good little piece of work, but when it is done it slides into mediocrity.” — John Steinbeck

You Are Not Alone

Imposter syndrome is not only about women, although as a woman, I am all too familiar with its wily ways. We now know that people of all genders, races, and sexual orientations are prone to imposter syndrome. We are the self-doubters, the people who do not know how to take a compliment, the ones who feel incompetent despite our gifts, even when others see the potential in us.

“In our society, there’s a huge pressure to achieve,” Imes says. “There can be a lot of confusion between approval and love and worthiness. Self-worth becomes contingent on achieving.”

Being humble is one thing, but believing you are not deserving is another. It is a form of intellectual doubt that stifles us from reaching our true potential. It can even trigger anxiety and depression.

You, yes YOU, deserve better.

“The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh God, they’re on to me! I’m a fraud!'” — Tina Fey

Beating Impostor Syndrome

It won’t be easy, but we can stand up to impostor syndrome.

  1. When it comes to your accomplishments, it cannot all be luck. Accept that you had a role in your success. You made choices that led you down a certain path. You brought yourself to that point.
  2. Accept that compliments mean that you are appreciated. Someone sees the good in what you do. If more than one person says the same thing, that has teeth. It is time to start listening.
  3. Stop comparing yourself to other people because your path will always be different. They will have strengths where you have weaknesses and vice versa. No one is perfect, and as much as you strive for perfection, you will never get there. Let it go.
  4. Remember that it is okay to fail. No one gets it right all the time, but that doesn’t make you a phony. It makes you human. Losing is part of life. Take those hard-learned lessons and apply them to future scenarios.
  5. Most importantly, remember that nobody really knows what they’re doing.

It’s time to take our lives back and to stop living up to expectations that other people set for us. Decide what it is that you really want out of life and set your own goals.

A wise friend told me, “you’re automatically an expert on your own experiences”.

So when it comes right down to it, there’s really no room for impostor syndrome.