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The Truth about Imposter Syndrome

“Imposter syndrome.” The phrase popped up in the late 70s and early 80s, and at the time was related to a study done on high-achieving women who felt like a phony in the workplace. Now, it’s everywhere. People talk about experiencing it often regardless of their position, experience, or achievements.

Imposter syndrome is a social construct that we have been exposed to, telling us that we are not good enough, that we aren’t capable of doing something, that we shouldn’t try for that job, or that we don’t deserve to have what we want. For as many motivational websites and accounts that exist, even more negative messages are reinforced by news, social media, and toxic workplaces. We start to believe that a poor environment is typical, that we can handle it, that there’s no point in applying for a different position because we’ll never get called for an interview anyway. Even when we accomplish something great – get the promotion, publish the dissertation, obtain the degree, complete the project successfully – many times, we feel we don’t deserve the accolades because we’re not supposed to brag or we could have done more or better or faster. Here’s the thing: someone will always do more or be better or faster than you, but that someone doesn’t take away from the incredible, unique, and talented individual that you are.

We create these feelings of inadequacy for ourselves. That’s not to say that you should never doubt or fear or question yourself. Your feelings, all of them, are valid and important, and you can learn from them. What happens, though, is that we listen to the voices in our head and on TV and in social media, and internalize the negativity. No one will ever be as hard on you as you are on yourself, and we have to shift our thinking from, “I don’t know if I can do this” to “I am skilled and qualified, and I am here for a reason.”

If and when you find yourself slipping into the pit of despair, use these strategies to course correct:

  • Celebrate your successes in as many ways as you can. Your wins can be monumental, and they can also be minute. All positives – from a well written email to a newly landed client – deserve to be recognized.

  • Talk to yourself in the same manner that you would talk to a friend or trusted colleague. We often say things to ourselves that we would never say out loud to someone else. When you realize that you are berating yourself, pause for a moment, and reframe the thought as though you were talking to someone you respect or care about.

  • Be okay with not being okay. You’re human, and (spoiler alert!) you’re not perfect. Know that you have flaws and weaknesses, and lean into them. That said, be realistic about your opportunities, and don’t overdramatize. Sure, you have things to learn, and the good news is that you are fully capable of learning them.

  • Stop apologizing. Generally speaking, we apologize too much, and frequently for missteps that aren’t our own. Find ways to say “thank you” instead. Rather than “I’m sorry, I made a mistake,” say “thank you for bringing this to my attention.”

  • Find a mentor. In other words, ask for help. Doing so is a benefit to you and to the other person. Seek someone past or present in your life who will be honest, who will assist in setting realistic expectations, and who will call you out when you overthink.

  • Most importantly, revisit this statement as often as necessary: You have enough, you do enough, and you are enough.

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