For years, I’ve kept a file. It’s in the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet and it’s labelled ‘letters for rainy days’. In it I keep all the nice ones. The thank you notes, the occasional letter of recommendation, the acceptances, all the ones that start, ‘I am pleased to…’. I don’t look at it very often but I always add to it, and, most importantly, I know it’s there. It’s the tangible evidence, the other column on my balance sheet, the one to counter all those niggling self-doubts, the lack of confidence and the feeling that I’m a fraud, an imposter.
Despite the name it often goes by, the so called ‘Imposter Syndrome’ is not a medical condition. It is not a form of mental illness nor something that needs to be cured. Really, it is an attitude, a way of thinking about how we measure up in the world, and it is as common as having brown eyes.
Have you ever sat in a meeting and looked around the table and heard an inner voice say what are you doing here? How did you blag your way into this company? You know they’re going to find you out, don’t you?
Have you ever given a presentation of your work after a poor night’s sleep, unable to settle because of the anxiety that they’ll all know more than you, they’ll ask you questions you don’t even understand, they’ll realise you’re just a fraud?
Have you ever got the job and told yourself, they must have been desperate, or there must have been a mistake, or simply put it all down to dumb luck?
If you recognise yourself in any of these scenarios, welcome to the club. And it’s a very big club. Well over two thirds of everyone who has ever achieved anything has thought like this at some point. As a phenomenon, it was formally described in the late 1970s by American clinical psychologists, but of course it’s been around a lot longer than that and crops up in unlikely places.
For example, the Academy Award winning actress, Jodie Foster said:
When I won the Oscar, I thought it was a fluke. I thought everybody would find out, and they’d take it back. They’d come to my house, knocking on the door, ‘Excuse me, we meant to give that to someone else. That was going to Meryl Streep.
And interestingly, on another occasion, Meryl Streep, Foster’s role model and the actress she thought by rights should win all the awards, expressed her very own self-doubt:
You think, “Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?
But in case you think it’s just a trait of hugely talented and successful Hollywood actresses, look at what one scientist had to say when reflecting on his professional achievements:
The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.
That was Albert Einstein, the most celebrated physicist of the last 500 years.
So what do these people have in common? You might think not much, but they’re all people, they’re all talented, they’re all very hard working and most importantly they are all successful. Real frauds and the true incompetents rarely if ever feel like imposters. The former don’t care enough and the latter achieve nothing that might make them feel undeserving.
But, perhaps it’s not all bad. Imposterism might just be a manifestation of that combination of ability and self-doubt that helps us achieve great things or as the lead singer of Cold Play, Chris Martin, puts it, some paranoia with the arrogance. He says, ‘If we were all paranoia, we’d never leave the house,’ but, ‘if we were all arrogance, no one would want us to leave the house.’ And that goes for performers and scientists, for graduate students and bricklayers, in fact for anyone who successfully builds, creates or achieves anything.
So, why do we do this to ourselves? It’s quite simple really and stems from the fact that the only mind we can access is our own. We have an internal life — thoughts, feelings, emotions and insecurities — that only we can glimpse. Of course, everyone else has exactly the same, but we can’t see inside their heads, we can only see the surface and often that looks completely at ease with the world. As such, we naturally start to think that it’s just us who feel like this. That we are the only ones in the room, or on the panel, or on the short list who really shouldn’t be there. Everyone else is smart and assured, confident and deserving, but not us. We have an internal balance sheet of all our little failures and screw-ups in one column and our achievements and successes in another, and we can see just how imbalanced it is. As one writer put it:
It’s a classic case of “comparing your insides with other people’s outsides”: you have access only to your own self-doubt, so you mistakenly conclude it’s more justified than anyone else’s.
My mother’s contribution to all this, long before the Imposter Phenomenon had a name, was her mantra, ‘You are no better than anyone else, but no one is better than you.’ And it helped me, the first person in my family to go to university, to weather some of the social storms ahead. You cannot see inside other people’s minds, you cannot feel their self-doubt first hand or share their secret insecurities, but what you can do is realise, quite objectively, that they all have them and that really they are no different from you. And you can even let some of that arrogance temper the self-doubt. You know you’re not the best or most talented person in the room (because my mother would have told you so) but just how talented are the rest?
Former First Lady, Michelle Obama admitted to feeling like an imposter when giving a speech at a London girls’ school, where her young audience was hanging on her every word. She felt like a fraud being viewed as someone with all the answers, of being smart. But her concerns were softened when she reflected on her own experiences.
Here is the secret,’ she said. ‘I have been at probably every powerful table that you can think of, I have worked at non-profits, I have been at foundations, I have worked in corporations, served on corporate boards, I have been at G-summits, I have sat in at the UN; they are not that smart.
The emperors, as it turns out, really aren’t wearing any clothes.
While a realisation that you’re not alone in feeling like this is a first step, what more might you do? Next time you feel like an imposter, catch yourself and change the narrative. Ask yourself what you did to earn it, whatever the ‘it’ is. Don’t dismiss the effort and the hard work that got you there, acknowledge it. And don’t just put it down to luck. We all benefit from luck and equally we all suffer because of it, but probably we give it too much credit. ‘Chance favours the mind that is well prepared,’ said Louis Pasteur, or to put it more prosaically, you make your own luck. It wasn’t luck that got you into College, or got you that degree. It wasn’t luck that helped you make that discovery or get that job. It wasn’t luck that made them award you the prize. It was a very little bit of talent and very large amount of hard work.
But there will still be rainy days, and on those you need to be reminded that you’re smarter, more accomplished, more deserving than you allow yourself to imagine. And that’s why I have a file. Maybe you should have one too.
© Allan Gaw 2019
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