What is impostor syndrome? Is this the same as existential angst? Or low self-esteem? Or ADHD? Any of us who has waited for the other shoe to drop, or for having our bluff called, or for the boss to finally tell us the jig is up, all of us know the feeling of secret incompetence.
We've all felt like frauds and we've all wondered why no one notices—even very “successful” executives and leaders feel this way, according to surveys starting in 1978. In her Slate article, Katy Waldman of Slate Magazine tell us that Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook feels this way, and Dr. Margaret Chan, head of the World Health Organization, and three quarters of Harvard Business School students!
- Do you chalk your success up to luck, timing, or computer error?
- Do you believe that if you can do it, anybody can?
- Do you agonize over even the smallest flaws in your work?
- Are you crushed by even constructive criticism, seeing it as evidence of your ineptness?
- When you do succeed, do you secretly feel like you fooled them again?
- Do you worry that it’s just a matter of time before you’re found out?
I suspect that we are taught that we are somehow inherently unacceptable by caregivers who feel the same way about themselves. And that we are taught to feel so ashamed of our not-good-enoughness that the most important thing we can do about it is keep it a secret. We are taught that this awful truth is a family secret to be lied about and hidden from view. Yet all the while, our families point their fingers at other families, knowing they have shameful secrets too. Ironically, when we get out on our own, we somehow forget about those other “less-than” families, and we feel surrounded by folks who are better at everything than we are.
And what about an expanded view of impostorism? Is the reason you don’t get caught being a fraud is that the people in a position to judge you are too worried about being found out themselves? Were the people in control of your young life, who had a chance to build your confidence, too destroyed by their own parents to have any nurturance left for you? This vortex of psychic dismissiveness has got to end. Not for the whole world--that’s too big a project for us—but we can end it within ourselves. And there are just three steps and we can start right now.
Step two is to consider the notion that we are okay after all. Consider it, play with it, hold it, and even believe it. For all you or anyone else knows, you ARE okay! So go with it. Run with it. Collect "thank-yous," "good jobs," "attaboy's," and "attagirls." Take them seriously as genuine appreciation and acceptance. Let those messages replace the crappy ones from childhood. And remember to give appropriate praise to others. You may not feel worthy to judge someone else's worth, but you can start by being thankful for what these people in your life do. Even when they try and fail, they deserve your thanks. And when you catch yourself thinking someone else is good enough, remember that you're good enough too! Try saying, “I’m good enough,” out loud! Say it enough, and mean it enough, and it will come true. I promise you, it’s true. You are good enough and so am I.
Step three is persistence. Spend more time with uplifting people and less time with naysayers. Don’t give up on yourself. I won’t if you won’t. We’re in this together.