Have you ever felt as though you didn’t belong? That you don’t really deserve the position you hold? That your success is more attributable to luck and timing rather than skill and competence?
You just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Anyone could have done what you did. There’s nothing special about you….or is there? If you can relate to any of this, does it help to know that, that you are not alone? Millions of others share these feelings and experiences on a daily basis. According to some studies, as many as 70% have felt like a fraud at one time or another.
Unless you’re a con artist, my guess is, you don’t like feeling like a fraud any more than I do.
The psychologists labeled this the impostor syndrome. Perhaps you’re familiar with it. It’s a term coined in the 1970s to describe people unable to internalize their accomplishments. The Caltech Counseling Center provides defines it as. “A collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in the face of information that indicates that the opposite is true. It is experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence.” Much has been written about the impostor syndrome. While few people are immune to it, I’m one who is fed up with it. What follows is my contribution based on personal experiences.
A Two-Headed Monster
There are two sides to the impostor syndrome. On one side are the outsiders. These are those people, who for a variety of reasons, question whether or not you belong in the position you are in or whether or not you legitimately deserve the success you have. There are myriads of motivations that move those outsiders. Among them are jealousy, envy, and insecurity.
- Maybe they wish they had the success you’ve had.
- Perhaps, they feel entitled to the position that was granted you instead of them.
- Worse yet, maybe they live in a perpetual state of comparison and something about you and your success, causes them to question themselves and their apparent lack of success.
And then, in a class all by themselves, are the haters. These are the people who found some reason to not like you and apart from a change of heart, they never will. Don’t give them the time of day. Here’s the harsh reality, there is very little you can do to silence or sway the voices of the outside critics. Besides that, there is a minimal return on investment for the time and energy you spend there.
The outside critics’ voice rings loudest when it amplifies or echoes the voice of our inner critic.
What really fuels the impostor syndrome are the voices we hear inside ourselves. Sometimes that voice seems innocuous and masquerades as a ‘friend’ who simply asks the question, “But what if they’re right? What if you don’t belong? What if they find out you’re a pretender and a fraud?” Then, they are the dark and ominous times that voice yells like a prosecuting attorney, “You’re a fraud, you don’t belong and you damn well know it! You are going to be exposed, evicted, and publicly humiliated.”
Our response? Fear. Doubt. Insecurity. Followed by more fear. Doubling doubts. Crippling insecurities.
OUCH! Those words sting. They hurt. But where do they come from? Is there any truth to them?
Tracing the Roots
Here’s what I’ve discovered. At some point along the way, there was an encounter, maybe multiple encounters that, at least from our vantage point, attacked some aspect of our identity or caused us to question it seriously. Maybe it’s the voice of some authority figure that echoes in your ears or maybe it’s a high-definition video that vividly captures every detail of that encounter. Whichever it is, it seems to be continuously on-demand or playing on a perpetual loop in your mind. And it always stands ready to validate the accusation that:
YES, YOU are an impostor.
NO, you don’t belong.
And of course, you didn’t earn it and you certainly don’t deserve it.
May I invite you in and we share some sacred space? May I candidly disclose my battle with the impostor syndrome in hopes that it helps both you and me find freedom and release from its vicious grip?
Right now, I’m hearing voices. This is risky. This is crazy. It might even be insane.
Being this vulnerable will only give the outsiders more ammunition to question your credibility. Trust me, they have more than enough ammunition already. This isn’t going to give them more. It’s going to disarm what they already have. Oh, and the same is true for you and your critics. It’s those inside voices I want to silence. And maybe those are the voices you need to silence too.
There were three episodes that together provided ample evidence of me being an impostor. I’ll share them in chronological order.
As I entered the eighth grade, I was placed in the ‘gifted program’ at school. (Please don’t judge me and think I am bragging. You will soon see, this was anything but a gift to me.). The public school in my little town chose to conduct an experiment that year. For those of us in the gifted track, we were smart enough to skip Pre-Algebra and go straight to Algebra.
Or so they thought.
Maybe some of ‘us’ were. I happened to be one of those that wasn’t. The faculty and administration were kind to us and chose to label our epic fail as Pre-Algebra, give us a passing grade, and let us repeat Algebra in hopes of us better understanding it the second time through. Subconsciously, this encounter seriously called into question, whether or not I was really gifted. Hmm, did they (whoever they were) make a mistake in labeling me gifted? The seeds of doubt were sown.
At the time, this all seemed relatively harmless. No big deal. They let me and the others continue in the gifted program, so it must have been an honest mistake. A few years passed. I had pretty much forgotten the Algebra episode and most of what I supposedly learned about Algebra along with it.
Then came biology.
We were studying photosynthesis and cellular respiration. Then there was a test. It wasn’t just any test. Since that day, I’ve regarded is at the test. More accurately, the test of all tests, that I bombed.
It was an epic failure. Not for everyone in the class, but there were a few of us that failed miserably. Or at least enough of us failed that it merited the rant of all rants from the teacher. Before the whole class. I still remember the little man pacing through the whole classroom. He was so mad that he was literally spitting. In his hand, the stack of tests. He kept feverishly slapping the tests against his other hand. He couldn’t believe some of us could so completely confuse photosynthesis with respiration. At the height of his tirade he shouted,
If you’re gifted, then I thank God, I’m a jackass.
A few moments later, he passed out the papers. Y
ep, you guessed it. Mine was on the top of the stack. The one he kept pointing to. The one that seemed to be the target of his tirade. It was the lowest grade in the class and obviously, belonged to the student least deserving of the label ‘gifted’. That stung! Bad.
For me, this is one of those events captured in high-definition in my mind. Every detail. The veins about to explode on the side of his head. The spit spraying across the room. The anger. The rage. It’s all there. I was a fraud. I didn’t belong. Or at least, that’s the narrative that has always been available and played on demand. It plays every time someone pushes my impostor syndrome button.
Anytime, in any arena, where someone asks a question that poses a threat to my credibility. It’s easily, and usually, instantly translated to some version of, “Does he really belong here?” “How did he get through our screening process?” And naturally, the first voice I hear is, “If you’re gifted, I thank God I’m a jackass.”
Calling it Quits
By going public with my battle, I’m declaring it over. I am depriving it of its ability to paralyze or hinder me any longer. The one thing I have realized that is absolutely essential to me living free of the impostor syndrome is my accepting who I am and being my authentic self. I cannot be an impostor when I am authentically being me.
It’s impossible to be an impostor when you are being your authentic self.
We can only be impostors when we seek to masquerade as someone other than who we are. Now, you may, or may not like my authentic self and my actions. That’s your prerogative. You may think me a jerk, a phony, or something else. That’s okay. That’s your opinion. Remember, we can neither silence nor control the opinions and voices of the external critics. But we have complete authority to tell the internal critic to sit down and shut up. I am gifted. So are you.
Gifted is not a label bestowed on us. It is how we arrived at the moment we were born.
It may take some time to uncover your gift and discover your superpower. Trust me, you’re gifted. Don’t ever allow someone to make you doubt that you are. Oh yeah, about that third encounter I mentioned. That happened in college with the English professor affectionately known as Bloody Mary for her generosity with caustic comments in red ink. I don’t relive this encounter every single time I sit down to write something. But it has provided ample evidence that has kept the impostor syndrome alive and well when I have aspired to think of myself as a writer.
The episode involved a term paper. It happened a few years before the advent of the word processor. Back in the day of the manual typewriter. I had spent hours on that paper. I’m not sure how many sheets lay waded on the floor before the final version was complete. However, this I do remember — vividly. On the day, the papers were returned to us, mine had a big fat red F on it. About halfway down the first page she drew a line through the paper and wrote,
Run-on sentence, I stopped reading here.
For years, I would see that red line and remember those words almost every time I sat down to write. “Who are you kidding? They won’t even make it through the first page.” Another battle with the impostor syndrome.
I want to thank Jeff Goins for encouraging me to say “I am a writer” and own my identity as a writer. Now, I skip submitting any of my writings to Bloody Mary for review. She is no longer in my audience. Her opinion no longer carries any weight.
Your Turn Now
What are you to make of this?
Besides being a therapeutic exercise for me, I hope this helps you and others like us. I hope it helps you isolate the voices and the videos that run on autoplay in your mind that cause you to question whether or not you belong. Once you isolate them, I hope you can deconstruct and disempower them. I also hope it encourages you to find your authentic self and live authentically. That’s where we’ll resume in the next post. If you’ve read this far, you have been most generous with your time and I hope the ROI is worth it for you.
If this has connected with you in any way, would you take a moment and leave a comment. I’d love to know your strategies for overcoming the impostor syndrome.