Have you ever heard the piece of advice “Fake it ‘til you make it” and thought, “I could never!”
While there is value in using a bit of false confidence to get through the tough early stages of any great endeavor, be it career or academic, I can also see why many people are uncomfortable with the idea of possibly feeling like a phony or a liar.
All too often, though, that aversion goes too far, to the point where you feel like you’re a fraud even when you’re not. This feeling is known as imposter syndrome. It’s when you look around at all the people who seem so smart and talented, and you wonder whether you deserve to be here. You think that you just got lucky – perhaps a moment of brilliance that impressed the right people – but if these people really knew your abilities, they would kick you out of the club.
Even Albert Einstein suffered from imposter syndrome, thinking that his past achievements were overrated as he struggled to come up with a unified field theory. And that’s the thing: imposter syndrome has nothing to do with your actual abilities. Imposter syndrome is the fear and doubt that those abilities are not enough, that one day people will see through them and the house of cards will come tumbling down.
While we all probably have encountered people who would serve as models for the Dunning-Kruger effect – whereby people with actual low ability overestimate their skills – its opposite, the imposter syndrome, has qualified people underestimating their skills and is more prevalent than you may think. Indeed, you might have multiple people in the same group suffering from it, but because no one talks about it, they think they are the only ones. And like two potential lovers who are attracted to each other but are paralyzed because they are unsure if the other shares their feelings, imposter syndrome can really get in the way of realizing one’s full potential.
If you think you are secretly inferior, you might shy away from drawing attention to yourself and purposefully skip on great opportunities. For example, you may refrain from sharing your ideas for fear of ridicule or from asking questions for fear of exposing your “true” abilities. Maybe you don’t apply for a scholarship or try for a promotion because you don’t feel worthy. At its worst, imposter syndrome can even lead to people cheating in order to keep up their image.
Overcoming imposter syndrome is not easy, but acknowledging it is often the first step. We have to remember that, like other types of insecurities, this is often rooted in irrationality. Fight against this by reminding yourself of your accomplishments and reflecting on how hard you have worked to get to where you are. Although it can be intimidating, talking about it with others can also be a huge help, especially when you find that they might feel the same way. Then perhaps you can help build each other up, so that your knowledge and skills get to a point where you don’t worry about it anymore.
Finally, if imposter syndrome is rooted in how you think you stack up with others, then how about shifting how you define success? When you set your goals to be based on how much work you put in or how much progress you make (rather than how you stack up to others), you are going to feel happier and much more in control of your destiny.
Remember that it is your knowledge and skills that enable you to identify your weaknesses in the first place. Remember that these weaknesses are not permanent and that you may be blowing them out of proportion. Remember that failure is not a death sentence and that you need to take risks in order to grow. Remember that every expert was at your level at some point and that if someone is better than you, then that is someone that you can learn from. And most importantly, remember that you BELONG.