Beating Impostor Syndrome

Guest post by Katy
For this With Those with Imposter Syndrome
“For those With Those with Imposter Syndrome” by: Alan LevineCC BY 2.0

Two simple words — “Impostor Syndrome” — might recently have saved my career.

One of the fantastic commenters of Offbeat Bride recently referenced “Impostor Syndrome” in a comment that Ariel then picked up on. I felt the need to share. This is a concept that has recently become a big part of life — because of these two little words, I feel I’ve come to understand how I was relating to my work a million times better, and this understanding has genuinely changed my behaviour.

Because I’m writing this (more or less) anonymously, I’m going to be vague on the details. I’m a PhD student in my final year. This means that in the second half of 2012, I was starting to apply for academic jobs. My friends and family believed in me, my supervisor was extremely supportive, my referees were encouraging, and everything in my past academic record suggested that I had every chance of getting a job in this (admittedly crazy-competitive) field. And yet, I felt crippled by doubts.

In fact, they weren’t even doubts to me. I knew I wasn’t good enough at X, Y, and Z to get a job. I knew I was less knowledgeable than I should be in key areas. Everything I wrote was flawed. Everyone who read it would blacklist me forever. Even when I started getting shortlisted for a few jobs, it just made the feelings worse. Even if I got a short-term research job, I reasoned, I would never get a permanent lectureship, because I wasn’t good enough — so it was immoral for me to take a job that should go to someone who had a long-term shot at an academic career. I started to see neutral, off-hand comments from colleagues as veiled insults, and came home in tears. At one point, I genuinely considered withdrawing all my applications.

Then one day, desperately Googling things like “academic failure” and other depressing phrases, I found a post referring to “Impostor Syndrome.” I don’t even remember now which one it was, I’ve read so many since. The definition as given on Wikipedia is:

…a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.

My first thought, I kid you not, was, “Well, some people might have Impostor Syndrome. But my success has genuinely been down to luck and deception.” This thought really woke me up. How could my reactions to things be so totally skewed?! Not only did I react to success by thinking, “Wow, I tricked them again, but they’ll find out I’m rubbish soon…” I was also reacting to INFORMATION ABOUT PEOPLE WHO HAVE THAT REACTION TO SUCCESS by thinking, “But I genuinely am a fraud.” What the hell?

Changing my behaviour

I needed to sort my brain out. It had been an intense few months, but it was time to take stock. I asked my supervisor for a progress review, and he suggested writing down everything I had achieved in 2012. I’ll be honest, there was lots — it had been a busy year. As I made my list, I concentrated very hard on the dismissive comments that came to mind, trying to convince me that achievement X didn’t count because it was a fluke, or someone else had really been responsible for event Y. I truly listened to how crazy those dismissive comments were. And I pushed myself to give a long, long list of accomplishments to my supervisor, with lots of detail on what I was most proud of. And for the first time in a while, I really did feel proud of myself.

I still slip back into the old habits from time to time, of course. And I’m still applying for jobs (or waiting to hear back from older applications), which probably means I have a lot of rejection coming up in the first few months of 2013. But to be honest, I feel fine about that. It will be tough, but now that I know I can treat myself better and take ownership of what I have achieved, I think I can avoid reaching such a low point again.

Tips for the unconvinced

I know what you might be thinking, if you are in the grips of Impostor Syndrome — that’s not me, that’s just for academics, that’s not a real thing, and so on. Okay, so it’s kind of pop psychology, but I really recommend reading about other people’s experiences if this might at all apply to you. It’s not just for academics, though a lot of the best posts I’ve found relate to academia, because that’s just me. Do some googling.

My favourite blog posts and articles on this issue are:

Are there areas in your life do you feel like an impostor? How could you, or perhaps DID you, overcome the sensation?

Comments on Beating Impostor Syndrome

  1. THIS! And this! many times over. I think I have been dealing with this for an incredibly long time. In college my advisor mentioned I may have a fear of success – it just felt like so many times I would ruin my own opportunities. I never felt good enough, smart enough, or pretty enough – I just wasn’t enough. Thanks for putting a name on this. Hopefully I can start to get a handle on it.

  2. This is why I come to Offbeat Home (and Life) – where else could I find an article like this, and so many people who feel what I feel?

    I’m also in academia, pursuing my MFA in poetry. I constantly feel like an imposter, even though I’m doing good work. I constantly feel like I’m a bad teacher, even though my students give me positive reviews. I won an award from my university last year, and instead of being excited, I felt guilty! I got a poem published in a journal just this month, but I chalked it up to luck and connections.
    Part of this feeling comes from the public, I think – so many people say “Poetry is dead,” “You can’t make money doing that,” etc. – but of course a big part of my problem is me.

    So I’m really glad I saw this post. Really, really glad.

  3. As soon as I read this, I thought “Gosh, this sounds like my husband!” I forwarded it to him and he read it and said “No, the person who wrote this is actually accomplished, but I truly am horrible at everything.” Gahhhh, so frustrating!

  4. I don’t think I can even express the feelings this article inspired. Both the article itself, and the comments that followed, really.

    I’m not in academia – I’ve never seriously looked at pursuing the graduate degree I want, because I’m convinced that I’m lazy to the core and any success or accolades I’ve received have been flukes. Referrals, job offers, scholarships, awards – I’ve never felt I’ve worked hard enough as I think I ought to have to deserve them. I work in marketing, primarily writing and design, and I feel like I let everyone believe that I’m really good at my job. My boss, our clients…but what if they ‘knew’?

    It’s doubly hard because, honestly, I am lazy. I procrastinate and daydream and put things off, and write or design like a madwoman at the last moment. Then, when it’s well received by my boss or clients, I feel guilty for not telling them how last-minute it all was.

    I’ll try to internalize that it’s not just me that feels this way, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels like, “yeah, but I actually AM an imposter!”

    Working on it. Thank-you, so much, to the author for giving it a name for me.

    • “It’s doubly hard because, honestly, I am lazy. I procrastinate and daydream and put things off, and write or design like a madwoman at the last moment. Then, when it’s well received by my boss or clients, I feel guilty for not telling them how last-minute it all was.”

      There was a great comment earlier about confusion when people praise for something that was easy because we tend to devalue an accomplishment if it is easy and miss the fact that it is less hard for us because we have that skill. I think a similar thing happens with, it didn’t take that long or I did it at the last minute. I am halfway through a PhD and it still horrifies me how much procrastination I need to do before spitting out a piece of quality work. I find it very hard to take praise for that work.

      I still can’t believe I’m here, on the PhD. I fucked up my A Levels at school and left without the qualifications needed for university. I started and didn’t finish many jobs, careers and educational courses over the years until finally in my thirties I got myself on bachelor degree as mature student. This time, somehow, I stuck it, and I did well, I did really well. It’s been struggle and work but it’s also been easy in some ways because it is right and it is MY THING. All this success has been major problem with my idea of my life story though and despite the apparent proof in the form of the certificates and awards, when I sit down to write I have to have this battle every time. What happens of course is before I have even realised I’m having the battle I’ve distracted myself with facebook or this wonderful site or searching ebay for vintage furniture or some other such nonsense. I am coming to gradually realise this is my process though and it’s step that can’t be avoided. I feel like the work that is produced after I’ve seriously pissed myself off like this must be rushed and substandard but that’s the work that gets good comments and praise. It must be the case that I do it like this because I can and I because I produce good work like that. I’m framing it like a logical argument here because that’s the only way I can relate to it, I can’t really feel that my work and the way I do it is good enough, not fully, not yet.

      I’m not sure you can work on that though, I think you just have to know that there is a disconnect between what you feel here and what the situation might actually be and just do your best not to pay attention to the slightly wonky feelings, put a metaphorical “out of order” sign up. I think that trying to make your feelings correct to the situation is a hiding to nothing, they are what they are. I do think though that they can come to change and heal and re-align if you give them less weight, a bit like resting a damaged knee. If you are struggling with imposter syndrome then being told to just believe in yourself (including by yourself) is very unhelpful, I suppose what I am advocating (including to myself) is giving yourself a break from trying to believe in yourself , because that is the hardest thing there is to do, for anyone.

  5. Wow, I can recognise myself in this! I’m working as a photographer and graphic designer and sometimes I just call home at lunchtime because I’m really upset about something, i.e. I’ll have looked up someones photography blog and be upset because my work is nowhere near as good and I feel like a complete fraud, even though I’m getting great feedback and people specifically request my design work, and I’m taking all the photography for all the publications/web work etc. When I get commended for my work I believe that they are just being nice, and trying to make me feel better because it’s just the camera or the subject, not me.
    But again, I know that I’m pretty ok and my work can be really good, so I swing between wanting to be validated and paid what I’m worth (I’m barely above minimum wage in an office where everyone is paid more than me, and keeps being promoted etc, which of course makes me feel like they know I’m an imposter) and not believing that I am any good and deserve to do something that I enjoy.
    I’ve been fighting my desire to put myself out there with my photography and design work, I would love to help out my friends with their couple and wedding photos, and do wedding invites but I’m afraid that everyone will see how truly bad I am once I do this. How do you stop feeling like an imposter and yet avoid being arrogant with an over-inflated ego?

    • I think if you are struggling with feeling like an imposter, you are very unlikely to end up annoying everyone with your over-inflated ego.

      I was terrified of this when writing job applications. The result was that my supervisor made me rewrite the first one about five times, until it finally reflected how good he thought my work actually was.

      I was terrified of promoting myself in case I came across arrogant – but I forced myself to take his advice. And one of those applications got me the job. I’m so happy I sent in those applications, even though at the time I felt like they were unbearably arrogant.

  6. Thanks for helping me feel normal, really. I came here through googling “Imposter Syndrome”.

    I’m a self-taught web-developer / programmer, and I usually work along-side graduates, so the opportunities for imposter feelings to happen are endless. Many times a week I feel like I’m not a “real” web developer, whatever that is. Rationally, I actually know I’m very good at it, and my skills are in demand all the time. It’d be great if I could be rational all the time.

    Every time I move jobs, I feel two things, the first being, “I got out of there just in time, they were probably about to find me out”. The second is “This job is more technical than the last, this is probably the time I get found out and my reputation is ruined”

    I know that imposter syndrome isn’t a classifiable thing, that it’s more a collection of feelings than anything else. But bundling it up and putting a name on it, it makes it easy to recognise this barrier we put in our own way, and then fight it.

    There are a few things I’ve found to help. One is spending time on Q & A sites (Stack Overflow for me) and sharing your knowledge with others who value it. I’m also starting to teach a web class for beginners this week, to raise funds for charity. I’ll be honest, part of me expects the students to “find me out” too. However, among other reasons, one of my goals is to look my fear in the face, and proceed in spite of it.

    Again, having a name for this makes it easier to fight. I’m going to start writing down, “I am not an imposter. I am good at what I do.” every time I start feeling bad.

  7. Glad to know that I’m not alone in feeling this way. I’m currently taking a grad course to get a feel for grad school and decide on whether or not to apply. I’m halfway through the semester, and the confidence that I had in the beginning, now waivers on and off. I want to apply but am terrified tht if I’m accepted, I’ll fail. This is the first time in my life that I’ve ever doubted my ability this much.

    Thanks for the encouragement!

  8. This! A friend just pointed this out to me and I’ve discovered it fits me perfectly. I’m a writer and I recently had a major sale and my first thought was, I’m going to write this book and turn it in and they’re going to demand the advance back and wonder what they were thinking.

    I need to push that out of my brain because I did work hard for what I have, I work all the time, and it’s interfering with my productivity. I’m sorry anyone feels this way, but I’m glad I’m not alone.

    Thanks so much for the post.

  9. Hi Katy – Finding your post seems too much of a coincidence! I am also a phd student in bio finishing up end of August 2013. I found out about this imposters syndrome a few months ago and it sounded like me to a t! My first thought was ‘wow, imagine if I’m not a fraud and I am as smart as people think I am!!’. Unfortunately I continue to think I’m not good enough and can’t get past it. It just gets worse the more awards or prizes I get… now facing the descison of applying for a postdoc I’m terrified because my future employee will expect me to live up to this standard that I don’t think I can. I put so much pressure on myself.. As much as I know I should just push through I’m considering a complete occupation change because of it 🙁 but if other people have got through it maybe I can too!!

  10. “Well, some people might have Imposter Syndrome. But my success has genuinely been down to luck and deception.”

    I thought that about myself when I read the Wiki excerpt. Then I read it right after I thought it. I have lots of thinking to do O.O

  11. Thank you for taking time to write this. Im a PhD student in the UK too and Ive just discovered I suffer from this. Unsurprisingly, my first reaction to being told by the uni councillor was that I’m an exception and I’m genuinely a fraud. It will take time to rewire these feelings but its comforting to know that I’m not alone. I wish you all the best.

  12. I wish I had read this article years ago. I spent my first five years of teaching thinking that surely, someone would call me out and insist I wasn’t the real teacher or that the job shouldn’t have gone to me.

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