Do you feel like your achievements haven’t been a result of hard work or skill? Rather, they were a result of being in the right place at the right time, or just pure luck? Do you sometimes feel like you’ve manipulated your friends, family, peers and superiors into thinking your better than you actually are? Do all these thoughts send you into a dark spiral of fear and anxiety that someday someone will learn how much of fraud you are and reveal it to the world? It’s most likely none of those things are true, and it’s most likely your suffering from a psychological phenomenon called ‘Imposter Syndrome’.
Literally my whole educational and professional career has been plagued by these same thoughts and fears. It’s incapacitated me to varying degrees at different stages of my career, and surprisingly, has even seeped its way into my personal life too. I always knew that I didn’t think myself worthy of some of my successes I’ve had throughout my studies, but I didn’t know that it’s actually ‘a thing’, and that a lot of professionals suffer from it. It wasn’t until later on I discovered the plight of the Imposter Syndrome.
WHAT EVEN IS IMPOSTER SYNDROME?
Imposter Syndrome is not actually a medical or clinical condition that’s formally diagnosed and treated as such, it’s more the fear that you’re ‘not good enough’ or you’re not worthy of the achievements you’ve had in your life, despite significant evidence to suggest otherwise. The Imposter Syndrome triggers intense feelings of unworthiness, that your successes are undeserved, and a strong paranoia that someday you will likely be exposed for the imposter you are. It was recognised formally back in 1985 by psychologist Pauline Clance, who made it one of her life missions to learn how to identify, monitor and ‘treat’ this mentality that can hold so many of us back from reaching the full potential in our careers.
I guess it’s important here to say that you shouldn’t be alarmed with these feelings, you are not unique in this and you share these fears with so many other people. In fact, the more I read up on it, the more I realised that pretty much everyone ‘has’ Imposter Syndrome. While I didn’t want to bring up any sexism arguments, there is an interesting trend that I feel is worthy of addressing: women are more likely to feel like imposters than our male counterparts. There’s been a heap of surveys and studies showing a higher percentage of women than men experience different symptoms of Imposter Syndrome. Dr Valerie Young has proposed many arguments as to why in her book ‘The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women’, highlighting that women tend to have a harder time recognising and truly owning our accomplishments. On the contrary, we are actually better at internalising and owning our failures, mistakes, criticisms and setbacks. We are better at seeing those as ‘proof’ of our inadequacy than men are (well, generally). Hell, even Meryl Streep famously claimed that she didn’t understand why people would want to see her in another movie because she doesn’t ‘know how to act’. Daaaaa hell? Young says another contributing factor is the stereotyping women fall under in the workplace, especially in industries where women are underrepresented. This stereotyping can mean that women are more closely, say monitored or scrutinised than males in the same role. And whether it’s consciously or unconsciously, women present different expectations, and unfortunately are judged on a different level. And again, when we experience difficulty or failure those views are solidified. And, it doesn’t help when women are generally the less confident sex (I’m making a lot of generalisations here).
Gender argument aside, Imposter Syndrome is not based on reality, it’s based on your perception of reality, and let’s face it, we do like to be our own worst enemies and critics (male or female), so it’s not really surprising that this is a thing. We also like (or hate) to compare ourselves to others, and when we wonder why we don’t have what other people have we think it’s because we aren’t good enough in what we do to propel us into success and wealth, hence we’re a failure in our own job. Others can actually have an appreciation of these feelings. Upon reading some experiences of others, I learned that some people are able to take these feelings of fraudulence and use them as an ‘awakening’, an intellectual spark and curiosity that drives them to learn more, apply themselves more, to improve their current work ethic. To those people, good on you seriously, but most of us aren’t that lucky.
ME, MYSELF AND THE IMPOSTER
For me, it’s made a few appearances in my life. Education wise, it could be something as simple as not offering up an answer a tutor would ask in class for fear of not really knowing what I was talking about. Now in my PhD it’s moved on to more significant things like holding back from sending any of my work to supervisors, scared of giving presentations in the event someone labels my work as a waste of time or not scientifically sound and I’ll sit there and believe it all. Or, it can even be the anxiety I feel right before going into my weekly work meetings to inform the group of what my progress (or more the lack of progress in my head) was for the week. Even for my first study that was published in a scientific journal, the heavy paranoia that someone would read it, rip it to shreds and let the world know how poor of a paper it is and how poor the science is, was a crushing intensity that seemed the grow the more I wrote it and to be honest it made the whole the process so much longer because I was so hesitant to publish it. I’ve become scared to put myself out there for fear of being judged, criticised and told I’m not that good of a scientist. The nail that sticks out gets hammered right?
For my blog, the same thing has eventuated. Fear of producing something that my audience will think is horrible or poor quality. I spend so much time on my posts trying to ‘perfect’ them to my standards so that I’m less paranoid about someone publicly shaming me (yes my fears are that dramatic). Even when some brands contact me with a request to collaborate with them, there’s a part of me who always wants to say, ‘No! Don’t do it, you’ll just embarrass yourself because you won’t be able to please them’. Or when someone compliments me on some of my work I find it very hard to accept because I don’t feel I’m worthy of it. Either way, I find it a hard thing to put my work out there because a big part of me thinks I’m not a good blogger at all and people will see that when I do publish anything. And I don’t have that many followers, but really, I find it hard to believe that any of them are actually into what I do and want to see what I can bring to the beauty world on social media. Further, I know it’s not a competition, but sometimes I can see other bloggers have opportunities that aren’t presented to me, and I take this is a way to confirm that I’m really not that great at blogging and that’s why I’m not considered. Some of these points might be true, some might not be. Either way, it still hurts my perception of myself as a blogger and has held me back in various ways because most days I feel like I don’t really know what I am doing.
EXPERIENCING IMPOSTER SYNDROME? HERE ARE SOME WAYS TO HELP DITCH IT.
I might not be in the best position to give advice on how to overcome Imposter Syndrome, because I haven’t achieved it myself. However I do have some tips that have helped me at times and I reckon following them has made me better off than if I didn’t, and they aren’t those generic ‘focus on the positives’ and ‘acknowledge your success’, because let’s face it they aren’t that helpful. But the best advice I’d give, is to learn how to recognise it early and train yourself as soon as possible to avoid your head running wild with feelings of fraudulence and self-doubt nearly everyday that eventually snowball into a big mess. Failing that, try these:
Don’t downplay your successes
It’s easy to fall prey to the idea that your achievements can be attributed to sheer luck when you feel like an imposter, or that you were given an opportunity because ‘no one else was around’. Even if your achievements had an element of luck, recognise that you, at some point in your life, used some of your skills to get you to that stage. Make yourself aware that opportunities are presented to those who have exposed themselves to them, and that it takes skill to get yourself exposed in the first place.
Or, you maybe someone who has the ability to internalise and own their successes, but that you undermine the significance of their outcomes. No matter how small these might be, don’t minimise the value of each of your achievements because that is a surefire path to denial that your work isn’t good enough. It could be as small as ticking something off the ‘To-Do’ list. It may be small, but the collective value of each of those ticks will lead to finally closing a project, or finishing a section of writing that will lead to, say, publishing an article. Every piece of success has value, and will eventually lead to something big so it’s important to keep that in mind to avoid downplaying those accomplishments.
Get an accountability partner
This is a tip I think most people don’t think of, because it actually involves input and assistance from someone else. It also means you have to divulge your fraudulent feelings to another, and for someone suffering from Imposter Syndrome, this is one of their biggest fears. Making yourself more accountable doesn’t mean you should be surrounding yourself with people who will only ever say how much of a fantastic and successful person you are, it really means that you need to find someone who is willing to help you track your progress on a task, to keep you in check for reaching your goals, and to also give you honest and constructive feedback that might not always be positive, but will help you improve in order to reach those goals. And all of this, must be done objectively. It’s a scary prospect, because you do have to share quite a bit with them in order to do it. But facilitate this by offering the same services in exchange for them as well, because most likely they will find it helpful too.
My peers in my lab group already do this for our studies without intentionally setting it up. We are always asking each other, ‘how’s that paper going?’, or ‘did you end up submitting your DNA samples?’, or ‘did you send that email to your collaborator yet?’. Keeping each other accountable definitely helps to keep you on track for your goals, or to remind you that a task you needed to complete still needs to be completed. Why is this helpful? Because one day, when you do make a break and you have this internal feeling that you’re not worthy of it, there is someone there to say ‘hey, I saw you do this, I saw how hard you worked to get to this stage and I know for a fact it’s not luck that got you here’. This can applied to not only your professional career, but for your personal goals in life and health. Sometimes it helps for someone else to be knowledgable of your progress so that they can remind you that it was you and your skill who made you successful.
Failure doesn’t make you a fraud
The fear of failure and rejection is not only harmful to you now, but can also impact you in the future. It can really hinder your performance because you may not be willing to take a risk that could propel you into success. Part of being successful involves being wrong and failing at so many things and we all know that but forget it when we do fail at something! Also remind yourself that being so caught up in the failures means you care. It shows that you love what you’re doing, and that you’re so passionate about it that any setback makes you feel like you’re underperforming. You just want to do well, and that is something to embrace. When you can start embracing failure and being wrong, you can start to view those experiences as something more positive, because they are learning processes, and present moments of clarity when you know what you can do next to avoid it in the future. Use them as moments to cultivate growth, and recharge your determination in pursuit of success. Admit that you don’t yet have an answer to a problem, but you’ll find it. Admit that you may not have been able to finish a project, but that you will do everything you can to do it. In saying that, don’t be someone who glorifies your failures, but don’t use them as a reason to believe you are a fake either.
No one else knows what they are doing either
I’m just going to leave this here. Because people who act like they know everything, or have all the answers are the real frauds.
Have you heard of Imposter Syndrome before? Tell me about the ways in which Imposter Syndrome might have impacted your life. Or if you’re one of the lucky ones who don’t experience it, let me know how you’ve managed to avoid it!
The Beauty & the Geek AU is no expert so please do not substitute my opinions for professional advice. For more information, see my policies page.