It seems that 2022 is the year of the Netflix scammer: The Tinder Swindler, Inventing Anna, and Bad Vegan all show us how master manipulators have grifted others into believing they possess superhuman talents, connections, and wealth.
But what about us regular folks who are just worried we might be unintentionally duping others, convincing folks that we know what we’re doing, while secretly wondering, “Am I actually a fake? Do I deserve to be here?” Whether at work, in school, or in relationships, feeling like a fraud is not unusual.
Often known as the clinically labeled “imposter syndrome” or the vaguely adventurous-sounding “imposter experience,” the imposter phenomenon is described as an internal experience of feeling like a phony or a fraud in your work or personal life. It’s a vaguely troubling sense that you’re about to be “found out” as being unqualified, unskilled, or incapable. Imposter syndrome seems to strike hardest when folks are facing transitions.
In professional life, this may include a first full-time job, a new role or promotion, or entering into a new academic pursuit. On the home front, a new relationship or the birth of a child can all trigger feelings of being under-prepared, ill-equipped, and in the throes of fully “faking it.” Looking around, you see others who seem to have it together, people who deserve to be there with their accolades and degrees and happy, well-adjusted lives. Historically (and erroneously) attributed to women—the first research used a high-achieving all female sample—the imposter phenomenon has been found to exist in relatively equal degrees across lines of gender and race. However, the effects of this self-doubt may be experienced differently and more intensely by women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ individuals.
“Anybody who even wants to be great has that, anybody, any filmmaker, any writer, any actor. But, what it does on a healthy level, it keeps you humble and it keeps you working.”
What does the imposter phenomenon sound like?
People from all walks of life can experience self-doubt and feelings of being unworthy. Here are some examples taken from a survey of my Instagram followers.
- A higher ed professional: “I was the youngest on the team and, although people thought that was impressive, I just kept thinking they’d figure me out soon. Wondering if they hired me because of my ability or because I could help fill a diversity quota.
- A technical operations analyst: “It’s a startup so you always get things thrown at you where you kinda look at them and wonder how you’re ever gonna figure it out.”
- A division one coach: “People always ask, did you do this sport? And I’m like ‘no, I never did.’ I always feel like I shouldn’t be coaching a sport I didn’t compete in.”
- A mother of five: “When I started as a stay-at-home parent I for sure felt like I was 'doing it wrong' or not as good as all the 'real' stay-at-home parents! Felt like that for a good five years!”
Imposter syndrome is a phenomenon that can haunt people for weeks, months, or even years. And sometimes it's accompanied by symptoms of depression and anxiety, with more severe detrimental effects on your daily functioning and outlook. If that sounds like you, seek out the help of a mental health professional. If, however, your imposter experience is less severe, there are plenty of things you can do to step into your authenticity.
Here are five strategies you can deploy to combat imposter syndrome
Keep a work diary or success stash. Imposter phenomenon researcher Kevin Cokley suggests keeping a work diary to document successes you’ve had at work. “What ends up happening for people who experience imposter feelings is that it becomes very easy for us to just sort of either forget, or to minimize, or marginalize those things that we've done well during the course of a day, during the course of a week. And so sometimes we have to be intentional about documenting those little successes that in the aggregate are pretty impressive,” he advises in the Hidden Brain podcast.
Befriend your self-doubt and use it as a source of motivation. Research tells us that the experience of feeling like an imposter can cause an impact of over preparing. While over-preparing can certainly reach the point of diminishing returns, plenty of folks who struggle with self-doubt report that the imposter experience drives them to double down and work super hard—with impressive results. As the actor Viola Davis told 60 Minutes about self-doubt, “Anybody who even wants to be great has that, anybody, any filmmaker, any writer, any actor. But, what it does on a healthy level, it keeps you humble and it keeps you working.”
Seek a confidante who can offer you objectivity and support. The higher ed professional quoted earlier shared this: “One of my friends gives me a lot of tough love. She told me that it matters less what the audience thinks and more about if I thought what I had to say was important. That I had to focus on that versus controlling the result.”
Put together a “failure resume.” The idea was shared in the journal Nature, when scientist Melanie Stefan documented that for every hour she logged on a successful venture, there were another six attached to something that was rejected. Stefan wrote, “It will be six times as long as your normal CV. It will probably be utterly depressing at first sight. But it will remind you of the missing truths, some of the essential parts of what it means to be a scientist—and it might inspire a colleague to shake off a rejection and start again.”
Befriend your self-doubt and use it as a source of motivation.
Foster and model greater transparency around vulnerabilities, mistakes, or failures at the managerial, team, or organizational level. Rejecting the workplace myth of perfection, leaders and organizations can instead create space and dialogue around the learning that can come from missteps. Effective managers can normalize mistakes and use them to facilitate learning and innovation. As a conceptual framework, the IT concept of a blameless postmortem has broader, cross-industry potential when it comes to facilitating a culture that removes blame and fear, assuming good intentions on the part of staff. When people can talk about mistakes or failures with a sense of psychological safety, they’re able to focus instead on refinements or adjustments to information, resources, and practice. Development, learning, and improved performance are more likely to follow. Hey, it works okay for Google.
All this is to say, don’t let the shadow of setbacks loom larger than they deserve. We all make mistakes in work, school, and life. A mistake, however, does not and should not reflect on your capabilities or worthiness. A disappointing grade or a frustrating week is a normal human experience and not a reflection of your talents or value. You may not be perfect, but you deserve to be here.
Liz Hruska is the Interim Associate Director for Student Career Development with Career and Internship Services