I had heard of impostor syndrome before, but I never gave it much thought until it came up on three separate occasions within a week.
It’s defined by the Caltech counseling center as:
A collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in the face of information that the opposite is true. It is experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence.
The three stories I encountered that week reminded me of my own struggle with inadequacy at work, and of the techniques that help me deal with it now.
The first incident was when a young women whose work I respect confided she felt like a fraud. It was more than self-doubt, though. It was anguish - and her distress was palpable. I was surprised that someone in their twenties could feel this way.
Then, in my Facebook feed, a friend who had built her own business posted an article on impostor syndrome and said “This is what I struggle with…It’s the worst kind of self-limiting behavior.” I was shocked. This women is smart, articulate, and well-regarded around the world for her work. She’s also funny and engaging. How could she feel like an impostor?
Later, while reading The Art of Asking, I came upon impostor syndrome again as the performer/writer/presenter-of-one-of-the-best-TED-talks-ever Amanda Palmer described her own feelings of being a fake:
“For a long time, I thought I was alone. Psychologists have a term for it: imposter syndrome. But before I knew that phrase existed, I coined my own: The Fraud Police. [They’re] the imaginary, terrifying force of “real” grown-ups who you believe - at some subconscious level - are going to come knocking on your door in the middle of the night, saying: We’ve been watching you, and we have evidence that you HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE DOING...
I mentioned The Fraud Police during a commencement speech I recently gave at an arts college, and I asked the adults in the room, including the faculty, to raise their hands if they’d ever had this feeling. I don’t think a single hand stayed down.”
When I was a fraud
The degree to which people feel like an impostor varies wildly. You may feel like a fake at times, or discount your success by attributing it to luck or other forces. It’s certainly common.
My worst experience of feeling like a fraud came after I had been working on trading floors for several years. I was in a well-paid management position that I clung to despite feeling I had no “right” to such a job.
Trading floors are not the ideal environment for displaying vulnerability. So I put on an act to others and to myself that I was in control even though I wasn’t. To compound my stress, I was angry for feeling anxious rather than lucky. Not only was I an impostor, I was an ungrateful one.
Three simple switches
The reasons for these feelings can vary, and so do the techniques for dealing with them. Each technique is a simple switch in your head, a new way of thinking.
Sometimes the feeling is due to your own self-defeating thoughts. You’re in a prison you’ve built yourself. In these cases, the Caltech counseling center recommends training yourself to identify those thoughts and deliberately distinguishing between feelings and facts.
Sometimes you use each of your mistakes or someone else’s negative reaction to validate your fraudulence. You can change that by developing a growth mindset, framing setbacks as a natural part of the learning process.
Sometimes you’re trying to do something you don’t like doing or aren’t yet as skilled as you want or need to be. In those cases, I think of advice from Eckhart Tolle when he said, in effect: “Don’t worry about paying the bills. Pay the bills.” Use the energy you would have put into fruitless worrying to invest in your craft and in your connections.
I still experience different degrees of feeling like a fraud. But after years of practicing these techniques, I’m more aware of my feelings and why I’m having them. I’m gradually getting better at replacing anxiety and automatic, negative thoughts with new mental habits. The techniques are simple. It's the practice over time that makes the difference.
If you’ve ever felt like an impostor, you’re not alone. Talking with others will provide emotional support and relief. You’re also not trapped. Training yourself to think differently and channeling your energy into positive actions can change your life.