You finally earned a prestigious scholarship and got a place in your dream university! But instead of feeling proud of yourself, you feel like you don’t deserve your achievements. You think to yourself that the review committee had probably overlooked something, or you must have just gotten lucky. And when you meet your other scholar peers and course mates, you can’t help but feel that everyone else is more talented or capable than you, and you fear that one day you’ll get found out that you don’t belong.
There’s a name for such catastrophic thinking. Psychologists call it impostor syndrome. It is the feeling that you are unworthy of success, leading you to self-doubt your accomplishments and harbour an internalised fear of being exposed as a fraud.
Here are signs that you may be suffering from impostor syndrome. You give a presentation, but you don’t feel like an expert on the topic. You write a feature article (like this), but you think that no one will read and get any value out of it. Sounds familiar? Don’t worry, you are not alone. According to a review article published in the International Journal of Behavioural Science, an estimated 70% of people experience these impostor feelings at some point in their lives. It is also believed that women, marginalised populations, high-achieving individuals, and people with perfectionistic tendencies often grapple with it.
So, if impostor syndrome is so common, is it that bad? Let’s explore.
Constantly belittling your achievements can affect your confidence to fight for what you want, and it may cause you to excessively procrastinate because you feel inadequate to meet expectations.
Besides impacting your performance, impostor syndrome can have a crippling effect on your self-worth and happiness. So terrified of failure, you may either overwork yourself or resort to means that compromise your values (such as dishonesty) to ensure success or the feeling of acceptance. Because in your mind of perceived fraudulence, all it takes is one bad race, and all your past achievements would be attributed to sheer luck, and you can’t let anyone know that.
Combat Your Impostor
The first step to tackling a condition is to be aware of its symptoms. Are you being too self-critical? You may want to revise your perfectionism to aim for better instead of the best. Allow yourself to accept praises and learn when not to listen to baseless criticisms.
Remember, you are chosen for a reason. Do not doubt the capabilities of the people who awarded you opportunities. They have made intentional choices based on your competency and potential, and you deserve to be where you are.
Get it out of your system. Talk with people who know you well and whom you can trust about your waning self-confidence so that they can help look out for you, call you out for your irrational feelings of fear, and remind you of your strengths.
Keep a logbook of your completed tasks and achievements so that you can see for yourself that you are making progress. These records will also come in handy when updating your CV and writing your cover letter, where there is absolutely no room for you to dismiss your accomplishments.
You may also want to try mentoring someone. Not only will sharing your expertise help empower others, but it will also help you realise the strengths you have taken for granted or assumed that they just came from chance.
It is easy to feel like you are not measuring up when you focus on how well others are doing and compare yourself with them (one of the things social media does to you). But remind yourself that, like everyone else, you are on the outside looking in. With the stats telling you that seven out of 10 people might be feeling like a bad actor sometimes, it is likely that they are also doing their best to rein in their self-doubt.
Befriend Your Impostor
Wait, what? Yes, contrary to all that negativity that impostor syndrome has represented, there is an unexpected benefit of the condition: motivation. It can elicit the motivation to work harder and learn more from the people around you (hence also improving your interpersonal performance), keeping you from being complacent and helping you maintain a growth mindset.
Halla Tómasdóttir, an Icelandic business leader and public speaker and a former Icelandic presidential candidate in 2016, serves as our perfect role model. No one had expected her to have an impact on the presidential race, but she nearly won, receiving nearly a third of the national vote and coming in second.
It was fascinating hearing her talk about living with impostor syndrome. Tómasdóttir had explained that throughout the time when she was challenged to run for office, she often questioned herself, “Who am I to run for president?” In the end, she overcame those thoughts by “befriending her Impostor”.
Tómasdóttir revealed in her interview with Forbes, “I’d much rather have an Impostor than suffer the hubris syndrome. Hubris is when leaders think they know it all, can do it all, have all the answers, have overgrown egos, and don’t think they need to surround themselves with people who they can learn from and will make them better.” She believed that listening to her self-critic is necessary to keep her grounded as it reminds her that she still has a lot to learn.
The trick is to keep the Impostor in its proper place. “If the Impostor tries to talk you down… let them know you’re the boss! Have some fun with the very self-doubt that is planted inside all of us. Make the clear voice of your unique purpose and vision even louder than your Impostor in your heart, and nothing will stop you.”
The irony is that the more you achieve, the more opportunities your Impostor gets to put you down. Trying to get rid of this voice every time can be exhausting. Instead, Tómasdóttir offers a pretty good deal of embracing self-doubt: where you not only get to keep your voice but also keep a “friend” and constantly keep yourself in check.