Oh, the places you’ll go…actually, wait, you might never get there…thanks to crippling anxiety caused by an inability to see yourself as worthy of your accomplishments, accompanied by an uncanny tendency to build yourself up in your mind as a total fraud.
See, I was going to write this article a week ago…but first I had to spend at least a few days mulling over every reason I could think of as to why I wasn’t qualified – I mean, who am I to publish my thoughts on any subject to the world-wide-Web? I’m not even a “real” writer! And surely, once I submit the article for review, the editors will realize this and reject it so what is even the point?!
Does the thought-process I just described feel familiar to you? If so, you may be living with a really fun mental complex known as Imposter Syndrome.
The term “Imposter Syndrome” was coined in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, to describe a large number of high-achieving female academics who were convinced they would eventually be exposed for the intellectual “phonies” they [believed] they were. The syndrome has since been found to affect a great number of men as well. In recent years, several high-profile dynamos including writer-turned actress Tavi Gevinson, Coldplay frontman Chris Martin, and author-poet Maya Angelou, have confessed to their struggles with Imposter Syndrome and an underlying feeling of fraudulence in the work they produce.
While the misplaced feelings of anxiety and fear that are part of living with Imposter Syndrome can be debilitating at times, there are ways to harness your self-doubt and turn it into a sort of superpower! Below are seven pros and cons of living with Imposter Syndrome (focus on the pros!)….
Pro: You produce high-quality work.
The funny thing about Imposter Syndrome is that it often affects high achievers – people you would never think suffer daily from crippling self-doubt. The funny thing about high achievers is that their work is never truly finished because they are perfectionists. There’s nothing quite like the rush of spending hours, days, weeks, up until the very deadline, on a project only to have a sneaking feeling after you’ve sent it out to the powers that be, that it could still be improved “just a tad” with this or that minor change. Good news is, while you’re slowly working yourself into a meltdown over that minor change that should have happened, your colleagues and higher-ups are congratulating you on a job well done. So relax, let yourself be a hero for a day (there’s always tomorrow to brood over your “failure”)!
Con: You set impossibly high standards for yourself.
The downside of course to being a perfectionist is that you can work yourself into a frenzy over one tiny detail to the point where your work is completely halted until you figure out how to get past the “roadblock.” Unfortunately, reality, with its deadlines and time constraints, doesn’t allow for this type of workflow. This is why sometimes you have to let things go, make small concessions here and there. Your work is never going to feel “finished,” so just push through, do the best you can within the allotted time, then let it go and move on to the next task or project.
Pro: You’re not an egotistical maniac.
A very cool thing about somebody with Imposter Syndrome is that, often, they’re unaware of the extent of their achievements. In fact, they often have to be convinced they’re not a total screw-up! Sometimes this level of self-deprecation can be seen as annoying but it’s a genuine part of the Imposter thought process. Besides, in a world of people who can’t seem to get enough of themselves, it’s probably a good thing to be perceived as “low key” about your achievements.
Con: You can’t take a compliment.
In fact, compliments make you cringe! The reason they make you cringe is because you genuinely don’t feel you deserve the accolade for your work. But compliments are one of the good things in life and it’s important to allow yourself to appreciate them, despite your feelings of inadequacy and maybe even embarrassment. What I’m trying to say is, if the crown (or tiara) fits, don’t take it off and throw it on the ground!
Pro: You’re constantly “doing.”
Have you ever been called a “workaholic” by your peers? Are you one of those people who always has too much on their plate? Achievement is the crack cocaine of people with Imposter Syndrome. This is because Imposters constantly feel the need to “measure up” to their last achievement because they still feel like a fraud. Each new task or project they take on is really an effort to feel worthy of the work they’re doing. The upside of course to this mentality is an incredible work ethic and, often, high productivity levels.
Con: You never feel less “fraudulent” with each new achievement.
In an interview with Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy, bestselling author Neil Gaiman admitted that, even after his first few books were published, he would still have nightmares that somebody was going to show up at his door telling him he didn’t deserve to write every day for a living (as opposed to having a “proper” job). Such a sad statement coming from such an accomplished and talented individual, but therein lies the deep, dark secret of those living with Imposter Syndrome: no matter how many framed certificates line office walls, regardless of how many trophies sit on shelves gathering dust, despite constant praise from everyone around them, Imposters never truly feel that they belong where they are in life.
Pro: You’re putting out fires and saving the world!
Some of the highest achievers, on a global scale, have admitted to struggling with Imposter Syndrome. Dr. Margaret Chan, who served as the Director-General of the World Health Organization from 2007 – 2017, attributes her achievements to luck. Reportedly she has said, “There are an awful lot of people out there who think I’m an expert. How do these people believe all this about me? I’m so much aware of all the things I don’t know.” Even Albert Einstein, towards the end of his life, confided to his friend Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, “the exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.” To think that people who have worked so hard to make the world a better place for people like you and me to live, have struggled daily with crippling self-doubt and feeling like a fraud – it’s both heartbreaking and reassuring at the same time. Maybe you aren’t at your office every day creating groundbreaking solutions to end world hunger or diseases like AIDS, but whatever you’re doing, there’s a reason for it, and you’re the person that was hired to get the job done. You’re qualified, you’re capable, you’re talented, you are, in fact, the real deal. So go put out those fires, keep saving the world (a.k.a. getting that weekly report to your boss’s desk before lunch), and maybe get some nicer, shinier frames for those certificates hanging on your wall!