I’m not sure if I have impostor syndrome, or if I’m actually a fraud.
A lot of the descriptions of how impostor syndrome feels sound very familiar to me. I’ve never had a job I thought I was good at. I struggle to name even one thing I’ve ‘achieved’. I assume anyone who expresses affection or respect for me is either lying or mistaken. But saying I have impostor syndrome sounds like a massive trick – I feel like I’m lying to you all, because the phrase ‘impostor syndrome’ implies I’m much more successful, intelligent, talented, funny, etc. than I actually am.
About half of the explanations of it that I’ve seen say that impostor syndrome is felt mostly/entirely by successful people, who feel like their achievements are undeserved. I don’t think that’s particularly helpful, because most of the people I know who feel like a fraud wouldn’t describe themselves as successful at all. I certainly wouldn’t. And given that something like 70% of people will probably feel it at some point, it seems way too widespread to be confined to the super-turbo-achievers.
The problem is, feeling like a fraud is really limiting. It either stops you from putting yourself forward for fear of being found out, or it leads to burnout as you work so, so hard to cover up your deficiencies. Plus it just feels crappy! It’s stressful to feel like you’re going to be ‘found out’ any minute and we’ve got other things to spend our mental energy on, like the housing market and whether the ‘Jedi’ in ‘The Last Jedi’ is singular or plural.
So, what can we do about it? The bad news is, nobody really knows. We haven’t come up with a consensus on what works yet. Some of the things we’ve tried have just made it worse. The suggestions we do have are…of varying quality (I have, honest to goodness, seen someone advising people to “just get over it”) and, when they are useful, often boil down to the same thing. There’s good news, too, though! Because I have collated five of my favourite possible strategies and I will be trying them all over the next week before reporting on my findings. You lucky, lucky lot.
- Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk on power poses comes up A LOT when you’re talking about how to solve imposter syndrome. The idea is that standing or sitting in a particularly dominant way (i.e. one that takes up a lot of space) actually increases testosterone and decreases cortisol, making you feel more confident and less like a covert loser.
- The other main take away from Amy Cuddy’s talk is that you should ‘fake it till you make it’. In other words, if you think you’re not qualified for your job, say, because there’s some part of it you don’t think you can do, just…do that thing until you do feel like you can do it. This basic idea comes up surprisingly often, given that the problem is we all feel like we have been faking it this whole time. Nevertheless, I shall give it a go.
- Talk about it. This is the one that’s at the heart of most suggestions. Whether it’s structured therapy like CBT or just…telling people you feel like an imposter and waiting for them to say that they do too. Either way, the idea that being more open and up-front about your feelings will help you deal with them seems pretty solid.
- Donald Trump. Hear me out – this one is twofold. I first saw this in a tweet, which resonated with me just enough that I remember the idea but not enough that I remember the tweeter.* Basically, every time you say something mean to yourself (e.g. I’m terrible at my job), you imagine that Donald Trump is saying that to you. It becomes remarkably easy to tell those thoughts to fuck right off when you picture them coming out of a wrinkled orange with bad hair. This is especially effective because, as Jeremy from Toonopolis says, you will never be as unqualified for your job as he is for his.
- Accept that at least you’re an exceptional liar. Maybe you should join MI5? (Note: do NOT join MI5 for this reason. That is a very high risk strategy).
If you feel like a week of experimentation (and you’re not a lab researcher), why not join me in trying these things? This is important research we’re doing here. Alternatively, pick which one you think will be the most effective and start a betting pool in the comments.
*If you are the unknown tweeter, please identify yourself!