Updated: Jun 2
“I am not good enough.” “I don’t know enough.” “I am not qualified for that.” “I will try and figure something out by myself.“ “I do not have an aptitude for that.” “That was just a fluke.” Did you know that nearly 70% of the people believe these to be true for themselves? I have also said a few of these to myself at some point. All of these statements are characteristic of imposter syndrome.
What is imposter syndrome?
Ever doubt yourself or your abilities despite your accomplishments? Do you have a perpetual fear of being exposed as a fraud? This psychological pattern is called imposter syndrome. Valerie Young in her book “The secret thoughts of successful women” classifies the syndrome into
3. Natural genius
I have experienced many of these, without even knowing what it was.
Before we discuss what each of it is, let me clarify that this is my understanding of the concept. It is an attempt in sharing my story and how I manage to embrace this fear and act despite it. Some of the portions of it might seem bleak, but hold on till the happy ending 🤓
It is the idea that whatever we do has to be a 100% perfect, 100% of the time. If not, it shouldn’t even be done. This is the mindset that deters us from finishing a task. Quite often, it also keeps us from initiating. It is our ego's way of shielding us from criticism. Having high standards for our work means that we aim for excellence, but realise that there is a lot left to uncertainty. Therefore, a certain percentage of the ideal outcome is still considered a success. On the contrary, perfectionism is the reason we feel like a failure even when we achieve 99% of our expectations.
This fear is common in creative work. For instance, I’ve always enjoyed singing and wanted to attempt it on many occasions, but the sea of voices inside my head frightens me to even admit this. Rather, I get bogged down by the ridicule that my mind fabricates and be compelled to protect myself from it.
My first job after graduating from college was as a sales engineer and luckily, I found it very interesting. The flip side to liking my job was that I cared excessively to get validated. My first ever demo was a complete disaster. My friends and I still joke about it. While that is understandable, what is unsettling is that I feared judgement and ridicule, even three years into the job. I had multiple instances of external and self-validation, but with the slightest of setbacks, I'd begin questioning my competence. It made all my accomplishments seem serendipitous. This voice convinces us that we are always behind. Consequently, we overcompensate by sacrificing other parts of our life. Our work-life becomes a perpetual game of catch up with. It even makes some people underestimate their financial worth in the workplace. The distinction between conscientiousness and experiencing this is that, in the former, our self-worth is not at stake.
Blessedly, I have a few natural talents, few of which are dance and yoga, but there are a ton of things that I am not naturally skilled at. One of my hardest battles was with learning to drive a car. Most of whom I knew learned to drive in a couple of weeks, or months at the most, wherein I took 2 years. 😎
The first time I drove, I was so clumsy that I told myself that this was not for me. Each time I drove was proof of my ineptitude. This idea doesn’t allow us to be a beginner at anything. The mental self-talk is usually, "If I was any good at this, I wouldn't be struggling.". Thanks to my driving instructor who unforgivingly made me labour my way to confidence, I can now admit that I drive pretty awesome. Yet, this thought tends to resurface even after we've proved otherwise. I still find myself apologising to the people in the car when I occasionally drive over potholes.
Soloists find it extremely uncomfortable to seek help from others. I least relate to this, but I’ve observed others experience it. Finishing a task without any help is understood as a sign of adequacy. This makes it distressing to ask questions in front of an audience. It makes us feel that we ought to know this already. If others to discern our ignorance, that is the worst thing! You don’t want to look like a fool in a room full of geniuses. Independence is constructive, this is not. Independence does not regard receiving help as defeat.
This mindset makes us feel that we never know enough. I’ve been experiencing this lately, in the process of applying for internships. The voice in my head tirelessly repeats that I am not qualified enough to get through. Though assessing my qualification for the job is for the recruiter to decide, my mind suddenly gets the urge to take up this additional responsibility. Valerie Young describes it as the knowledge version of perfectionism.
Imposter syndrome is one of the main reasons for inconsistent performance. Even after we have gained proficiency, it manages to hijack our mind and make us slip. We then attribute our achievements to luck.
At its core, imposter syndrome is the fear of being shamed. In attempts to protect us from that shame, we refrain from initiating and letting ourselves be seen.
How do we overcome this? 1. Applying awareness
Awareness is the first step to solve any problem. Yet, there is a world of difference between knowing and doing. So, what can we do? When a friend or family member offers us advice, we first try to understand what makes them say it. We then take it with caution, if at all. We recognise these as reflections of them and not our own. Think of the inner voice, that so sincerely reminds us of our insufficiency as a needy and insecure friend. This makes it easier to separate it from our identity.
2. Mind the gap & bridge it with practice
I absolutely love how Marie Forleo says that people who pursue creative work almost always have a good taste for it. We, therefore, need to “mind the gap” between where we are, and where we aspire to be. We have to allow ourselves to be disappointed with our work, in the initial stages. Then focus on bridging the gap with practice.
"Competence breeds confidence." - Dan Millman
Investing time to practice is not a direct solution since these voices are bound to come even if we are competent. Nevertheless, it has helped me to back my arguments against fear. It is easier to give in to self-doubt when we haven’t worked hard enough.
3. Share the shame
It is this fear of being shamed that holds me back from singing, sending out job applications, and holds you from venturing into the multitude of things you want to. In Brené Brown’s words, shame always shrivels when exposed to light. I have come a long way after sharing it with my confidants. I am now sharing my shame here, and I can sense it diminish further. If you experience shame in similar ways, share it with someone who has earned your confidence. Sharing the shame out loud is the most empowering way to regain your ground. Moreover, no friend would disparage us as our shame would. Even better, they would remind us how baseless these thoughts are.
4. Fear is boring
Liz Gilbert in her book “Big Magic” says that she finally acted despite her fear, not because she found a way around it, but she found her fear boring. When I first read that, I didn’t understand it but now, I completely do.
“Fear is boring because fear only ever has one thing to say to us, and that thing is: 'STOP!'” Liz Gilbert
At this point, even if my work falls short of my aspirational standards, I can accept it, as long as I am making progress. These standards cannot stop me from taking action. In any case, I find it rewarding to explore something out of curiosity, irrespective of where I am on the journey to excellence.
This can be more liberal amongst hobbies. However, in professional fields, standards are critical. When we learn to enjoy what we do and yearn to be in the pursuit of improvement, we already have frightened shame away. If someone criticises your work and offers inputs to improve, I suggest you be grateful for the opportunity to learn and grow. How often do we get perspective and mentorship? Rather than viewing imposter syndrome as a battle to conquer, it is wiser and more effective, to treat it as a friend who is going to be present throughout our lives. As with all other friends, we just have to draw boundaries. I dread the thought of being complacent and not feeling the jitters when I do something I care about. If you are earnest, it is sufficient proof that you are not a fraud.