Over brunch recently, a friend was excitedly telling me about a new job she just accepted. But after I congratulated her, she said with a distressed expression, "I'm worried I won't be able to succeed. Maybe I played up my skills too much in the interview. What if I start my training and fail miserably and then they'll wish they hadn't hired me?"
My friend was a smart, accomplished, and motivated young woman, so why did she suffer from this self-doubt? To me, it didn’t add up.
And yet, strangely enough, I knew exactly how she felt.
When I was in graduate school for social work, part of our training included an internship working with real clients. I remember my first week and being so scared that my clients would somehow call me out as a fraud. Every time I informed a new client that I was in training, I’d mentally brace myself for a request to change therapists—a request which never came, much to my relief.
I remember another experience where I was slated to present a research report to a team which included a member of senior management. I spent the minutes before my presentation going over my report again and again, convinced that I was going to be called out during the meeting for putting together a miserable report. In the end, I was able to handle every curveball question thrown at me. Then why, with all my training, experience, and preparation, did I feel like a fraud?
As it turns out, my friends and I were not alone in feeling this way. This common and all-too-familiar feeling (especially for women in the workplace) is actually known as the impostor syndrome. Even though they have the training and experience, many women are convinced that they are a fraud, that it is only a matter of time before someone finds out, and that their success was pure luck. Why? And can we do anything about it?
WHY DO WE FEEL THIS WAY?
Despite the rather ominous-sounding name, impostor syndrome simply means attributing one’s successes and accomplishments to luck, feeling like a fake in a room of experts, and discounting one’s own successes. Valerie Young, Ed.D., one of the leaders in the research on this topic, delves into the origins of impostor syndrome and how to overcome it in her book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive In Spite of It. She emphasizes that feeling like an impostor is different from experiencing low self-esteem because often, it is successful and high-achieving women who find themselves feeling like an impostor.
Young points out that 70 percent of participants in her study reported feeling like a fraud at some point in their life and that these feelings tend to surface during times of transition, new situations, or an important assignment. If you find yourself making excuses for your success such as, “I just got lucky, that’s all," then you are likely selling yourself short, she says.
Megan McArdle echoed a similar sentiment in a recent article she wrote for The Atlantic entitled “Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators”. McArdle reasons that many writers procrastinate because while English classes were incredibly easy, each looming deadline represents another test of the writer’s talent. The fear of turning in subpar writing leads to procrastination, writes McArdle, because if it hasn’t been written yet, it can’t be awful.
Procrastinating is a form of “self-handicapping” which is purposely engaging is a behavior that will inhibit your ability to succeed. Why do we do this? Because then if we don’t meet our goal, we have a built-in excuse. Procrastination is just one of several ways we tend to make excuses for our lack of success. Over-preparing or holding back from doing our best can be equally problematic.
At the root of our fear of failure is often the tendency to compare. Many young women struggle with this on a day-to-day basis. Whether comparing jobs or relationships or bodies, we have all done it at some point or another. And social media doesn't help the situation. We see the highlight reel of everyone else's lives on Instagram and Facebook—Jane was promoted! Sally got into that amazing graduate program! Mary is traveling to Paris for work!—and it's exhausting. Our typical daily lives and jobs pale in comparison.
Keep in mind that when you compare, you're never getting the full picture of that other person's life. But each of us has our own skills and talents. Focus on those instead, and the ways that you can contribute individually, and you'll start to feel more empowered in all aspects of your life.
WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?
Fortunately, quelling those impostor feelings can be done. Young has a few suggestions to help you feel your best, most confident self in your career and beyond.
01.Make an objective list.
Create a list of your successes, accomplishments, and qualifications to remind yourself that you are not a “fraud” and that you are capable of excelling in your career. All of these items on the list are facts and demonstrate the many things you should be proud of.
02. Fake it till you make it.
Act as if you are the accomplished, smart woman you wish to be, even if you do not feel that way at first. Often after pretending to feel confident, you are likely to actually be more confident. Young says this a more effective strategy than waiting until you feel confident before acting.
03. Consider your definition of success.
Think about what success means and how this affects your view of what it means to be competent. Many of us women set completely unrealistic standards of success and rely on the idea of "having it all." This idea can affect our feelings about our own abilities and potential to succeed. As great as it is to follow your dreams and go after the job you want, it's important to remember your career does not define you.
Of course, there is always more to learn in life. You should be able to acknowledge your limitations—but acknowledge and honor your achievements and talents too. Try making a list of your accomplishments (even the littlest ones) and you might surprise yourself by all that you have achieved.