I grew up in Flagler County Florida, where surfing rules, brah.
When I was in middle school, being a surfer was the popular social designation. It trumped any other athletic pursuit—soccer, lacrosse, football, cheerleading, wrestling—they all deferred to surfing.
Surfing defined a predominant part of our kiddie culture, complete with special slang and the coolest gear. They were the cool kids; the inner circle—at least, that was the way it seemed to me.
They were amazing.
I was not a surfer. I was also painfully shy. I had friends, but mostly existed on the periphery, excessive awkwardness crippling any chance of breaking into the elite crowd. I was never bullied directly, but, in my mind, I had constructed such a vast disparity in social ranking between myself and the surfers that I would suffer strange psychological symptoms including, but not limited to, panic attacks in their presence.
In our school, one of the biggest, baddest, most respected insults a kid could hurl at another was being called a “poser.” This label was used liberally and enthusiastically by the popular kids as they called out others for misrepresenting themselves through speech and style.
I still fantasized about being like the surfers—their self-confidence was intoxicating. But I was too naive at the time to recognize that self-esteem and personal identity were what made them so magnetic and charismatic. I thought it was the cool surf gear. So although I lived in fear of also being outed as a “poser,” I begged my parents to buy me an overpriced Quiksilver t-shirt and Shark watch, even though these things didn’t fit into our family budget.
I desperately wanted to be seen as authentic, but was certain that I was moments away from being called out as a fraud.
I am pretty certain that all of us have felt self-doubt or insecurity regarding our “status” in life—and many of us probably still do, at least now and then.
As children, that can manifest as social anxiety.
As adults, it can creep into our intellectual and professional lives.
Ever heard of The Impostor Phenomenon?
Impostor Phenomenon is “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. ‘Impostors’ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence. They seem unable to internalize their accomplishments, however successful they are in their field.” ~ Harvard Business Review
I’d always understood what it meant conceptually, but never considered it in terms as it applied to my own behavior.
I recently came across an article about this phenomenon, and it occurred to me that I’ve been suffering from this, at least, to a certain degree, for the entirety of my life:
“The Impostor Phenomenon was identified from clinical observations during therapeutic sessions with high achieving women by Dr. Pauline Clance. Despite objective evidence of success, these women had a pervasive psychological experience believing that they were intellectual frauds and feared being recognised as impostors. They suffered from anxiety, fear of failure and dissatisfaction with life.” ~ International Journal of Behavioral Science
For those who experience this, success is shrugged off as good timing, luck, or as a result of manipulating others into believing they’d been more competent than they trust in themselves to be. Impostor Phenomenon is not a display of humility, but an actual inability to internalize accomplishments and abilities.
For me, this revelation is overdue. When I consider historical achievements or successes, without fail I’ve always immediately and systematically played down my role in having made them happen. I generally have felt that I have no right to take credit for actually doing the work or possessing a particular aptitude or skill. Moreover, I worry that at any given moment, people might find out what I actually am—an impostor, a fraud—someone who just got lucky.
Apparently I’m in good company with this persistent anxiety, because about 70 percent of job seekers are dealing with this as they enter a rapidly changing workforce environment.
“The beauty of the impostor Phenomenon 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!’ So you just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud.” ~ Tina Fey
Did ya run a Marathon and qualify for Boston? Psshh.
Everybody and their mother’s running those now, aren’t they?
Earn an M.B.A.? I mean, people can buy those online now, can’t they?
Because the Impostor Syndrome Monkey likes to hang out at the workplace, this anxiety has, quite naturally, poisoned my own fledgling writer’s confidence.The seeds of doubt began regarding successful blog posts.
I’d convinced myself that anyone with an internet connection and a penchant for voyeurism can eek out a personal website. And as far as the small readership I’d acquired, I thought that, aside from those who were bound by blood, those who were accessing the site were reading simply reading because I was an absolute looney toon and their loyalty either stemmed from sympathy or perverse curiosity.
The only possible explanation was that I was the daily car crash ‘o the RSS feed.
And even when I started gaining traction outside of my personal blog, I still had doubts. I began manufacturing highly specific rationalizations for why any given publication would agree to publish my work.
According to the American Psychological Association, the Impostor Phenomenon occurs more often among people embarking on new endeavours, such as beginning to submit writing professionally for the first time.
Another, perhaps more relevant example, is when The Impostor Phenomenon befalls mothers or fathers who may feel as though they are experiencing parenting successes by sheer luck and are unable to internalize any legitimate sense of achievement in relation to them.
“When a child displays negative behaviour, they can let the child off the hook too early or let a problem continue on for longer than necessary. They can sometimes over or under react to a problem because self-doubt has crept in. They can display self-defeating attitudes through how they talk, such as beginning sentences with ‘disclaimers.’ For example ‘This may not be the right way to do it, but…’ or discounting their parenting accomplishments with phrases like ‘Ah sure, anyone could have done it,’ or ‘Johnny did it all on his own’ or ‘It wasn’t a big deal’ when it was a big deal.” ~ Life Mothers & Babies
Perfectionism and the Phenomenon are closely tied together, which either results in procrastination or significant over-preparation for a task, like the obsessive amount of time I spent writing this article. Dr. Clance, identifier of the Phenomenon, says it’s important to recognize when a task is done “well enough.”
I think that explanation was done well enough.
So in the event that this phenomenon resonates with some of your own concerns, I compiled a list of suggestions on how best to cope with Impostor Phenomenon.
1. Get some perspective.
If this anxiety is happening in an academic or professional setting, get some perspective on your audience. Your audience—be it readers, customers or clients—have options, but remember that they choose you for a reason. Comparing ourselves to all the other people who might be “better” in some way is a waste of our time.
Not only are we forgetting that we bring a unique perspective to the table, but it’s very likely that if we’re invested enough to have developed this phenomenon, we’re always looking to be better.
I often find myself falling into this trap when I blog about a particular organic gardening topic in which I’m not yet well-versed. I’m now in my third year of growing fig trees, but as I was learning, and blogging about it, I felt silly and foolish detailing instructions on how to successfully raise fig trees (even though I was successful!). I worried that readers would recognize that I was a new blogger and gardener, and call me out on my greenness right away (sorry for the pun).
To overcome this anxiety, when I blog about a specific topic, I am hyper vigilant not to provide erroneous or incomplete information to my readers. I do this because I know there are other sources out there and I want to be continually improving to provide the best information that I can.
If this anxiety is happening in a parenting setting, I’d suggest again to get some perspective. Olivia Willis shares her take on impostor parenting: “I asked someone recently to give me an example of the perfect mother. The answer was “Mary Poppins.” Ironic, because Mary Poppins wasn’t the mother—she was the nanny and when her shift was over, she popped that magic umbrella up and flew away with Dick Van Dyke.”She suggests that we stop comparing ourselves with other parents—or as she quoted her friend, the “fakebook syndrome.” Don’t tear yourself apart over what you see on social media because it truly is all about perception. Acknowledge and embrace the different parenting styles.
Neither one is better, and neither one is wrong.
2. Admit when you don’t know something.
As it pertains to an academic or professional standpoint, I think this one is probably the most important to keep you out of hot water—especially when you are in a position to provide authoritative information. In my personal experience, I’m realizing that it’s okay to be in the constant state of improvement and learning referenced in #1. As a matter of fact, researching for and writing about the concept of Impostor Phenomenon brought forth the following concept to bear in mind: from an instructional or authoritative standpoint, we’re only at risk for being exposed as a “fraud” if we glaze over information which we are not clear about.
In other words, we need to stop bullsh*tting!
If you aren’t a level-one expert on a particular subject, it’s okay to admit it. Let your audience know you’ll find the answer, and get back to them.
3. Self-awareness assessment.
How realistic is your way of seeing yourself, your abilities and accomplishments? Examine the list of said accomplishments and acknowledge them. What skills have you developed? What are the qualities you have that attract people to you and have gotten you this far, already?
4. Do a reality check on your inner strengths.
This exercise is applicable to both work life and parenting life. Take an inventory of hardships you’ve overcome by making a list of some personal setbacks which challenged you. Reflect on how you overcame these things and how doing this wound up making you stronger and more resourceful.
Don’t forget to count those learning experiences in your skill-set list in number three.
Keep track of accomplishments through journaling.
Parents can keep a running list of great things that you have done with regards to raising the kiddos.
Take part in positive self-talk through stream of consciousness writing. This can be emotionally and mentally restorative—reading over the accomplishments when you are feeling low is a good resource for a confidence boost.
6. Find your people and spend time with them.
Surround yourself with positive people who reinforce you and your strengths. For example, my fellow eating disorder recovery warriors validate me in regard to my competency and authority on speaking up about the realities of eating disorders to educate and inform the public. They hold me up in a positive and supportive way so that I feel empowered to advocate for this cause.
Also important: Keep your distance from those who make you feel inadequate. Although it may not be intentional, some people tend to bring out the comparison monster in us, trigger negative thinking, and ultimately contribute to our lack of confidence.
7. Keep positive visual reminders in plain sight.
Even though it’s been awhile since I’ve competed in one, I still keep my road race medals from marathons and half-marathons displayed prominently near my workspace. They are visual and tangible reminders of goals fought for and accomplished.
We can do this with our diplomas, or any other life accomplishment.
Using sticky notes with positive quotes is a tactic that works for some people. Others are motivated by keeping a (digital or physical) “Feel Good File” full of client raves, recommendations, praise and thank yous.
Do you have any other suggestions? What methods do you rely on to keep the Impostor Syndrome Monkey off your back? Comment below!
References & further reading:
Sakulku, Jaruwan & Alexander, James. The Impostor Phenomenon. International Journal of Behavioral Science 2011, Vol. 6, No.1, 73-92.
Weir, Kirsten. Feel Like a Fraud? American Psychological Association website.
Neligan, Cat. 5 Tips to Overcome Impostor Syndrome. Psych Central blog.
Corkindale, Gill. Overcoming Imposter Syndrome. Harvard Business Review website, MAY 07, 2008.
Willis, Olivia. Feeling like a fake—Dealing with parent Impostor Syndrome. Life Mothers & Babies. 27/01/2016.
Author: Kristen M. Polito
Image: Rob Briscoe at Flickr
Editors: Renée Picard; Caitlin Oriel