Let's Talk About Imposter Syndrome
Plus a little chat about how to confront our feelings of inadequacy
Many of us have heard the phrase “Imposter Syndrome” but what does that actually mean? According to a June 12, 2018 New York Times article:
The psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes coined the term in 1978, describing it as “internal experience of intellectual phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” In other words, it’s that sinking sense that you are a fraud in your industry, role or position, regardless of your credibility, authority or accomplishments.
Read that paragraph a few times. Let it sink in, then ask yourself if it feels familiar. Have you felt unintelligent, incapable or uncreative? If you’re honest with yourself, can you state objectively that you have accomplished much in your academic, career or personal life? My assumption is that both are true, or you would not have clicked on this article.
I’m reminded of the adage, “fake it ‘til you make it”. We’re advised to falsify our confidence in ourselves until we achieve some success. “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.”
As much as we enjoy a good clichés, success is really less about faking it and more about building confidence and resilience in the face of inevitable obstacles. Self-awareness (of both your proven strengths and your areas in need of development) plus perseverance is a more reliable path toward success.
There are a variety of thought processes that make up Imposter Syndrome. Perhaps you find yourself in circular rumination that can prevent you from moving forward confidently into action.
Let’s take a deeper dive:
Thought Loop #1
‘I have no talent’
I’m not good enough’
Everyone has some talent. But the harsh truth is that someone else may well have more talent than you in the area you have chosen to pursue. But the fact is you are good enough. Human experience is worth sharing and your expression of your experience is of value. Share it. The worst-case scenario is that someone else has done it “better” or an audience member finds your contribution subpar.
Some very famous authors, for example, have submitted countless manuscripts, collecting rejection letters, before landing on success. Vincent van Gogh relied on an allowance from his brother for years while he worked on his paintings. Now, I know many of us don’t have a benefactor. The point is, whether it feels like it or not right now, you are good enough to chase your dreams. You have enough talent to explore your ideas. That doesn’t mean you will find fame and fortune for your art, but the best way to wither into obscurity is to not try.
Thought Loop #2
‘What if they laugh at me?’
‘I’ll die of embarrassment’
Trust me: No one has died of embarrassment. There are some truly sterling examples of pubic humiliation, and we can learn something from these episodes. In 1988, presidential candidate Gary Hart was publicly humiliated when news of his affair with Donna Rice was divulged. Yes, he dropped out of the campaign, and yes he was shunned – for a time. But Hart rebounded. He’s a regular contributor to the Huffington Post, a lecturer and sought-after political commentator. Reinvention is possible even in the face of national scandal.
Granted, you probably don’t have a deep, dark secret that will potentially derail your run for president. I only raise it as an extreme example. It’s more likely you are worried about relaying your deeply-held beliefs or baring your artistic soul. Let’s say you do … What’s the worst that could happen?
Perhaps, someone will laugh at your effort. You work dawn ‘til dusk on a passion project, release it and some in your audience find it ludicrous. Ask yourself, would I have been better served keeping this idea to myself? Only you can answer that question, but consider that you just may have an angle that is valuable to someone out there.
Thought Loop #3
‘I can’t do it if it isn’t perfect’
‘It’s better in my head than on paper’
This is one of the most nefarious self-sabotage methods we face when it comes to creative projects. I don’t know about you, but I have spent many an hour contemplating the “End Result”. You know it: the “it’s-better-in-my-head” syndrome. You imagine the final piece (visual art, writing, performance, new business concepts) and it’s seamless in the dream. Then you go to make it real and somehow it falls far short of the vision.
I have to tell you, there are only two options to thwart the perfection-or-bust thought loop:
1. Abandon your project (aka, self-censorship), or
2. Practice, practice, practice.
Because you’ve read this far, I am going to assume you are not planning to abandon your project, which leaves us with strategy two: Practice!
There is no way around this. The seemingly effortless work of peers and competitors is likely not effortless, but instead the result of practice, revision, feedback, more revision and a lot of work. It’s a rare being who can spit out brilliant ideas and product without a lot of soul-wrenching labor. If you have a presentation to deliver, you may need to recite it in the mirror upwards of 10 times. If you write a draft of a poem, it may take months of revision to achieve your artistic vision. Don’t assume that because it takes concerted, persistent effort that it isn’t successful or worthy of an audience. If you want it, keep your nose to the grindstone.
Thought Loop #4
‘I don’t know how to start’
This may sound trite, but … just start. Seriously. At the beginning no one IS watching, so what better space in which to experiment with your art or project or platform? You’re alone with your idea and no one will judge if the idea is good, bad, genius or deranged. Isn’t that a glorious freedom from judgment? What would happen if we tackled all of our ideas like this?
I do not need to tell you that you are worthy. You wouldn’t believe me anyway. My voice is diminished against the whisper/growl/yell of your inner critic. However, you need to hear this: You are just as capable and inspirational as anyone who is out there succeeding. Most of those admirable vanguards put in the work until they made it. Don’t fake it ‘til you make it. Be real and do the work. And don’t forget to give yourself the credit you deserve. Good luck, friends.