Keep Impostor Syndrome in Check
This post originally appeared on the Blacklight, our new newsletter for professionals.
Do you often worry that any moment, a colleague, professor, or your boss will realize you are a total fraud? Sure, you’re accomplished and exude confidence on the outside. But secretly, you fear everyone will realize that you aren’t as smart, talented, or capable as they believe. If so, impostor syndrome is the likely culprit of those persistent self-doubts and fears. (This quiz will help settle the matter if you’re not sure.)
Clinical Psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the term in 1978 to describe low expectations of success or a feeling of intellectual fraudulence. Guess who else suffers from I.S.? Michelle Obama. Howard Schultz. Lady Gaga. Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor. Coldplay’s Chris Martin. Tom Hanks. And…let’s just say it’s a long list and you’re in good company.
In fact, 70 percent of people will experience impostor syndrome at some point in their career. Take a look around the room at your next meeting. Chances are, the majority of people sitting there also struggle with massive self-doubt. The next time you feel like a fake who’s about to be unmasked, try these three strategies to keep your impostor syndrome in check.
Own your successes
Don’t shrug off wins such as landing a killer new job, promotion, or getting into a top-ranked grad school as mere luck. Nuh-uh. Hard work, determination, skills, and talent are the reasons for your success. That voice trying to convince you that every triumph you’ve ever had is due to some kind of accident is merely a distortion of reality. Mute that sucker and celebrate your accomplishments! You earned them and deserve to enjoy the results of your hard work.
Ditch the goal of perfection
Do you set unreasonably high goals for yourself? Not meeting them usually leads to frustration, disappointment, and thus “confirmation” that you really don’t measure up. And even if you do manage to meet that lofty goal, there’s still something you could have done better.
Striving for perfection can adversely affect your career if you avoid challenges for fear you’ll make a mistake. Instead, set reasonable goals and accept when the result is “good enough.” To be clear, it’s not about aiming for mediocrity, notes Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women. It’s about living in the real world.
“What it does mean is, with some obvious exceptions such as performing surgery or flying an airplane, not everything you do deserves 100 percent. It’s a matter of being selective about where you put your efforts and not wasting time fussing over routine tasks when an adequate effort is all that is required. If you get a chance to go back and make improvements later, great—if not, move on.”
Seek opinions from a trusted source
If you doubt whether your accomplishments have come as a result of your own efforts, check in with others for impartial feedback. Ask a supervisor what they think of your job performance—their comments might be the wake-up call your doubting self needs. Now, we shouldn’t rely solely on external sources for validation. But hearing the unvarnished truth from a trusted friend or mentor can provide clarity. It can also help re-frame your distorted self-impression.
The next time impostor syndrome strikes, and you doubt whether you deserve a place at the table, remember that hard work, talent, and drive got you where you are today. As this affirming TedTalk points out,
“We may never be able to banish these feelings entirely, but we can have open conversations about academic or professional challenges. With increasing awareness of how common these experiences are, perhaps we can feel freer to be frank about our feelings and build confidence in some simple truths: you have talent, you are capable, and you belong.”
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