Imposter syndrome is a debilitating psychological phenomenon that results in an inability to appreciate one’s own abilities and talents. As a result, it creates a predisposition to perfectionism, anxiety, procrastination and underachievement.
I became aware of this term a few years ago, and promptly recognized the traits in myself. In spite of being reassured by my peers that I was competent, even excellent in some areas, I constantly doubted myself. It has caused me to accept exploitative work situations and to settle for much less than I am worth. It has also caused me great emotional pain and shame for not living up to standards others seem to have set for me and to not pursue my passions and creative projects as fully as I would have wanted.
Imposter syndrome is tricky because it can manifest in many different ways. Once you have identified the crippling tendency towards self-doubt and self-flagellation, your brain moves on to other tactics. When faced with a creative idea or a project, my first tendency is to conjure up all sorts of bottlenecks. I become convinced that I need a certain number of things to happen before I am prepared to execute my idea, like purchasing expensive equipment or reading a certain number of books.
When I become interested in a topic, I feel I need to become an expert in it before I am allowed to write about it or create around it. I will imagine I need to write about the entire history of the field and to become acquainted with the minds that have advanced it. Anything less and I will consider myself to be hopelessly ignorant. I become easily consumed by the thought of everything I do not know, both the known unknowns and, more terrifyingly, the unknown unknowns. My brain conjures up comments and criticisms by real experts tearing down my knowledge. When I do pursue the project, I do so more from a place of anxiety, rather than simple curiosity.
What is most insidious about imposter syndrome is that it hardly matters how much you have studied, researched or practiced a topic or skill, or how many years you have devoted to your craft, or any awards, certificates or diplomas that you might have earned. In your brain, you are perpetually a hopeless amateur.
In fact, developing one’s expertise in a particular field is hardly a cure, as often the more you know about a topic, the more you become aware of all that you do not know. The stakes are high on even the simplest projects. If you have called yourself an expert publicly, the fear of making even the slightest error can cause you to lose sleep, as you believe you will be publicly laughed at and exposed as a fraud.
But there is hope for those with imposter syndrome. First of all, becoming aware of what it is and how it affects your self-perception can go a long way. Understanding its mechanisms is also incredibly important. Often, perfectionism gives way to procrastination, as the pressure to produce something that is up to our very high expectations becomes so overwhelming that one begins to push off everything, often until there is so little time left one has no choice but to settle for lower standards.
The key here, then, is to establish realistic goals on a realistic schedule. This does wonders for me. I become more focused on accomplishing a certain task within a certain timeframe or by a certain date than on whether I feel I have the necessary skills and knowledge to perform. I focus on doing my best within the allotted time, and on getting the work out the door.
A third suggestion is to practice self-trust. I suspect imposter syndrome is ultimately about control. People with an impaired sense of self-worth and anxiety disorders may feel a greater need to control all the variables for everything that could go wrong in their lives. Becoming comfortable with uncertainty (a big ask indeed) and learning to trust ourselves to do the best we can in any circumstance can help us push forward with our projects and execute on our ideas, no matter how insecure we might feel.
Living with imposter syndrome is a lifelong process that requires self-awareness and self-compassion. Ultimately, what keeps me moving forward is my desire to create new things, to share my work with the world and to connect with others. Focusing on that has also helped me overcome that nagging voice in my head that tells me I can’t or I shouldn’t.