I struggled in school growing up—ultimately getting to the point where I truly believed I wasn’t smart and was putting in the minimum amount of effort required to get by. However, it wasn’t until I got rejected by the high school I had dreamed of attending, that I felt I really hit rock bottom. It was at that moment that I realized something needed to change. So when freshman year rolled around, I decided to give it my all in school. I got extremely organized, actually did the assigned reading, rewrote my notes from class each night… and it worked. I was putting the time in, and it paid off—I was getting good grades. But whenever my parents or friends congratulated me… I became so uncomfortable. I would just chalk it up to good luck. And on the inside, I was so convinced that this streak wouldn’t last, that I would eventually slip back into my old ways.
When we want to grow and advance, it’s not comfortable—there’s a lot of self-doubt and fear wrapped up in it. For me, this was the first time I experienced Imposter Syndrome. And it certainly wasn’t the last. We’ve all heard this term before. It’s essentially feeling inadequate, despite experiencing success. It’s that nagging fear that we’re not good enough, that we don’t belong, that we don’t deserve the good grades, the job, the promotion, the internship, or the seat at the table. This term was first coined in 1978 by psychologists Paulin Clance and Suzanne Imes, who were trying to understand why high achieving women often attributed their success to luck rather than accomplishment. But in the present day, this term spans to both male and female achievers who are psychologically uncomfortable with acknowledging their own role in their success.
Where Does it Come From?
Unfortunately, there’s not one single root cause. It can essentially come from a lot of different sources. Maybe our family put a big emphasis on achievements—overpraising us for good work and over-criticizing us for our mistakes. Or potentially it stems from feeling very different from our parents or guardians—feeling that they were so different from us, that we could never dream about being on their level. We also may experience imposter syndrome when we’re starting from zero—maybe making a complete career switch, or starting a new job or internship. And of course, social media doesn’t help—when we are constantly exposed to everyone sharing the most perfect versions of themselves, it’s easy to craft narratives in our heads about how different others are from us, how much further they are in their careers their lives, etc.
How do we know if we have it?
We should start by asking ourselves the following questions:
Do I have a fear of failure?
Do I feel undeserving? Do I think my boss or coworkers think I’m way more competent than I actually am?
Do I think my success is related to luck?
Do I constantly downplay success? Do I struggle to accept compliments, and discredit my accomplishments?
Do I devalue my time and worth? Do I regularly volunteer my time or services for free, because I feel like I don’t deserve to be compensated for them?
How to Change Our Mindset.
Recognize & identify triggers. First, we need to pinpoint the moments when we feel imposter syndrome. Does it come up when we have to stretch professionally—or take on something we’ve never done before? How can we explain to ourselves that we need to push ourselves in order to grow?
Rewrite the script. This means a little positive self-talk and telling ourselves it’s alright to not know everything and have all the answers. We can think about the person we most admire—no matter their age, they had to put in the time and work to get to the place they got to today. It didn’t happen overnight. At one point they didn’t know all they do now.
Reframe failure. It’s how we learn and how we grow. It’s a part of life, and it doesn’t have to be as scary as we make it. The more we try and fail, the more comfortable we get with this idea. And when we frame it in this way, it’s truly not even “failing”—we either succeed and win or we learn.
Take inventory of what we already do well. Where do we bring the most value to our company? Actually getting this on paper helps us realize what we’re truly good at, and the areas that might need work. It helps us recognize where we’re doing well, and where there’s legitimate room for improvement.
You are here in this job, in this world, for a reason—and you deserve to be here. You are smarter than you think you are, and you know way more than you think you know. Work on learning how to give yourself this credit—rather than relying on others for validation.