By Jeanne Croteau
After a year of soul-shaking loss and uphill battles, I’ve been reflecting on my life, especially my career. It’s easier to look back at the highlight reel, fast-forwarding through the embarrassing or painful moments. Recently, though, I’ve been been pushing myself to pause and dig into the tougher times. It’s hard emotional work, but it’s often necessary if we want to grow.
The truth is that, when I’m honest, many great opportunities in my life ended prematurely because I’d abruptly walked away. In every situation, I found valid reasons why the job wasn’t the right fit — but I’d leave out the part about not feeling good enough. Seeing this pattern emerge, I realize I’d been experiencing imposter syndrome.
Years ago, a Virginia-based travel company hired me as a French translator. Growing up in Montréal, Canada, the majority of my education was offered in both English and French, from Kindergarten all the way until I graduated college. While I was a little rusty from living in the States for a while, I’d gone through a number of screenings during the hiring process. In fact, I’d been promoted from another department. I was qualified and capable, but I wasn’t confident.
On my first day, I met the other newly-hired translator. While she had spent some time in France during her high school years, she was American-born and not nearly as fluent as she believed. Still, she mocked my Canadian accent and during moments of self-doubt, her words haunted me.
As we worked through cases, it became clear that her smooth, Parisian-inspired pronunciation wasn’t enough to compensate for the gaps in her vocabulary. Daily, she came to me for help with travel-related terms and medical terminology. Then, she suddenly quit, leaving me to sort out all of the French cases alone. The pressure eventually got to me.
During an emergency call, I provided live translation for one of the other case managers. The reception was terrible, the situation was very stressful and this coworker was high-strung. With the spotlight on me, and doubts flooding my mind, I barely managed to get through the call. When it was over, I resigned. There were several things I disliked about the role, but in the end, my own lack of confidence was my undoing.
Imposter Syndrome: In a Nutshell
Have you ever felt like a complete fraud and that everyone was going to find out that you didn’t deserve your accomplishments? Have you wrestled with feeling like you don’t belong? If so, you’ve probably experienced imposter syndrome, right along with an estimated 70% of the population. That’s right — those feelings are shockingly common, but no one talks about them!
First identified more than 40 years ago by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, imposter syndrome affects both men and women. The phenomenon is characterized by the feeling that our successes can be attributed to mere luck, rather than our own skills or qualifications.
After reviewing the research, Dr. Valerie Young found that specific subgroups emerged. In her book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, she discusses the following types of imposter syndrome:
- The Perfectionist – They have such high expectations for themselves that even small mistakes will make them feel like a failure.
- The Superwoman/Superman – They put in longer hours, never take days off and must succeed in all aspects of life in order to prove they are the “real deal.”
- The Natural Genius – They are used to things coming easily, so when something is too hard or they don’t master it on the first try, they feel shame and self-doubt.
- The Soloist – They don’t like to ask for help, so when they do, they feel like a failure or a fraud.
- The Expert – They continuously seek out additional certifications or training because they feel as though they will never know enough to be truly qualified.
While you may feel as though you fit into more than one of these subgroups, the majority of us can identify with at least one of them. Looking at these descriptions, it seems reasonable that something like this has been around since the beginning of human history. It’s also understandable that these issues would be magnified in the stressful world we live in today.
Why It’s Harder Today Than Ever
Social media has allowed us to connect with the world around us in ways that we could have never imagined just a couple decades ago, but it’s also created a host of new problems. One of the biggest complaints many people have, especially in this age of “influencers,” is that our online lives can seem shallow and fake. When we only showcase our best moments, it can give the impression that our lives are better than they actually are. This, of course, can feed into feelings associated with imposter syndrome.
With my psychology students, I’ve discussed the implications of social media, filters and photoshop and how it can distort our expectations of ourselves and others. I’ve shared articles detailing the reasons why Instagram can be so triggering and why millennials may be particularly vulnerable to imposter syndrome. In the past, we tried to “keep up with the Joneses,” a reference to wanting to look as good as our neighbors. Today, we’re trying to keep up with the Kardashians, a family of wealthy women who live a lifestyle well beyond anything the average Instagram user could manage.
As a result, we try to create a feed that looks polished and accomplished, and we may feel validation when people like and follow our content, but for many it can feel like a house of cards. Most of us can think of a time when someone — whether it’s a stranger on Twitter or a friend on Facebook — questioned our authenticity on social media. That sinking feeling, when you’ve been publicly challenged, can be particularly tough for those dealing with imposter syndrome — especially if the comment comes from someone with a well-manicured, highly-followed profile of their own.
Of course, we’ve also seen how one momentary lapse in judgment can go viral in our tech-obsessed world. Not that long ago, our embarrassments remained private, save for eyewitnesses and a few people who heard about it around the water cooler. Now, our poorly-chosen words can be preserved by screenshot and our missteps live on forever in video clips. With so little control, even the most innocent mistake can be used to prove we’re defective and fraudulent. We live in an age where anyone, even anonymous trolls, are willing to confirm the worst fears we have about ourselves — so, what do we do about it?
How to Get Through It
When your world is spinning and it feels like everyone knows you’re a big phony, it can be hard to have some perspective. This is especially true when conflict or public scrutiny has occurred. I’ll readily admit to wanting to crawl into a hole and disappear when my vulnerabilities have been exposed for the world to see, even when it was my own doing.
Dr. Young has created a list of 10 steps you can take to overcome imposter syndrome. It’s definitely worth a read, but keep in mind that the applicability and effectiveness will vary depending on who you are and what has happened. While my coping strategies change based on the situation, there are a few mental shifts I’ve made to help me whenever I’m struggling with imposter syndrome.
When you’re feeling unworthy, have made a mistake or were embarrassed in some way, you might be tempted to bury your feelings. While this might provide temporary relief, it won’t solve anything in the long run. You don’t need to strike up a feeling about imposter syndrome with the cashier at the grocery store, but you can start opening up to people you trust.
When I first started talking to my husband about my self-doubts, it was scary to be so vulnerable. In fact, I even wondered if it would make him love me less. Fortunately, the opposite has happened. My honesty has strengthened our relationship and now, when unnecessary doubts threaten my confidence, I know I can go to him for a reality check.
Focusing on Facts, Not Feelings
When it feels like the walls are caving in, it’s easy to let your emotions override logic. Last year, when I was frustrated with the care my grandmother was receiving at her nursing home, a social worker told me to file a complaint — but to keep my feelings out of it. She explained that I’d be taken more seriously if I focused on facts and not my feelings. That has stuck with me.
This advice applies perfectly to imposter syndrome, too. When I was promoted and became a French translator, not only was this due to my upbringing in a French-speaking environment, but also because I’d been thoroughly vetted and deemed competent. Had I focused on my qualifications and the valid reasons I’d been hired instead of my own fears, I might have seen things a little differently.
Sometimes, Being an Outsider is Normal
When we admit to feeling like a fraud or an imposter, what we’re basically saying is that we feel like we don’t belong. It’s important to recognize, of course, that there are times when having those feelings is normal. Any time you’re the first to accomplish a certain goal or you’re somehow different from other people in a group, it’s understandable that you’d feel like you stand out.
If you’re the only male nurse at a close-knit hospital or the first in your group of friends to have a baby, there may be moments when you feel out of place. Things might be a bit awkward sometimes but it doesn’t have to be negative. Simply acknowledge the reality of the situation and get comfortable with your status as a trailblazer. Own your journey — you’ll get more confident with every step.
Flipping the Script
Whenever I’ve started a new job or tried something new, I’ve wanted to master it on the first try. Needing additional guidance made me feel like I was weak, especially if there was an audience. Clearly, it’s unfair to put that kind of pressure on ourselves, which it’s why it’s important for us to flip the script.
Instead of feeling as though we need to prove our worth, we need to remember that we all have to start somewhere. We all try and fail before we succeed. There’s nothing worse or more flawed about us than there is about anyone else. Keep that in mind the next time you feel like you’re not learning fast enough.
Embrace the Highlights
Just as you’ll occasionally miss the target, there will also be times when you hit the bullseye. Don’t gloss over those moments and don’t downplay the praise you receive from others. It’s important to celebrate your successes because you’ve worked hard and earned them.
The next time someone pays you a compliment and you’re tempted to ignore or even reject it, try something new — say “thank you.” Be grateful when others recognize your success and bask in those moments when you’ve reached a goal. It’s all about finding a balance!
Fake It ‘til You Make It
When you’re feeling doubtful about your skills and worthiness, don’t give in to the temptation to run and hide. Instead, take the age-old advice and “fake it ‘till you make it.” While it’s great to be honest about how you’re feeling, you don’t want to start a new job by letting everyone know you’re feeling unworthy.
Instead, put on a brave face and give yourself a chance to get acclimated to a new environment before coming to any conclusions. Sometimes, you just need to get used to something before your real confidence kicks in. Once it happens, you won’t believe you ever felt so shaky.
Every time you do this, it will get easier and, before long, you’ll know exactly how to cope when imposter syndrome threatens to derail your happiness and success. Most of us have experienced these feelings of self-doubt — you are not alone.
Embrace your true self, give yourself permission to be flawed and surround yourself with people who love and support you through the good and bad times. At the end of the day, remember this one simple truth — you’re more amazing and capable than you’ve ever imagined. You’re not an imposter. You’re an original.