Back when Sheryl Sandberg, who is the current chief operating officer of Facebook, was a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society at Harvard, she felt like she had everyone fooled and that “one day soon, the jig would be up.” Even after the success of her book Lean In, she said, “There are days when I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.” Maya Angelou wrote eleven books and won several prestigious awards, yet, she often thought, “I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.” Even after becoming the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice, Sonia Sotomayor frequently questioned if she measured up throughout her years at Princeton, in law school, and in her professional jobs.
I recently graduated with my doctoral degree in August and although I felt a sense of pride for this great accomplishment, I was quickly overcome with feelings of fraudulence and self-doubt, questioning my own credibility to earn this degree. My feelings of being an imposter are actually not uncommon. The “imposter syndrome” or “imposter phenomenon” could be characterized by feelings of self-doubt, attributing success to luck rather than effort, and worrying that other people might find out that you are a fraud. The imposter syndrome can present in many forms: discounting praise, fear of failure, overworking, or perfectionism. If you feel like you can relate, you are in good company. In fact, approximately 70% of people in the United States will struggle with imposter thoughts and feelings at one point in their lives.
So what can you do to combat imposter thoughts and feelings?
Talk about it
“Shame needs three things to grow: secrecy, silence, and judgment.” – Brene Brown
When imposter feelings arise, talk to a loved one, a good friend, and/or a mental health professional. A strong support system does not need to be a massive support system; choose a couple of people you can trust and confide in them. If you are a student or an early professional, look for a good mentor who can offer understanding and provide guidance. Chances are, you are not alone in feeling as an imposter.
Build your own reservoir of evidence that your success is hard earned. Acknowledge your strengths, document your successes, and celebrate your accomplishments. Recognize the effort you dedicate to your work, school, and other responsibilities. This might feel uncomfortable for some people so I challenge you to lean into the discomfort and give yourself permission to recognize and applaud your own successes.
Understand that perfectionism is not attainable
Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Although you will excel in some things, you will probably be average or even below average in other things. Embrace the area that you succeed and do well in and work on accepting the other areas in your life where you might not be the top performer.