Impostor Syndrome is kind of a buzzword these days. Everyone is talking about it. Time defines impostor syndrome as “the idea that you’ve only succeeded due to luck, and not because of your talent or qualifications.”
For me, it’s been a constant voice that has taken up residence in my head. I’ve tried to cut ties with it, but it still manages to reappear, even after long periods of silence. Just when I think it’s gone for good, it pops up when I least expect it.
The voice resurfaced most recently when I started grad school. Like a childhood bully, it sidled up to me and started whispering in my ear as I walked to class:
“What business do you have in this class?”
“People are probably wondering how you even got into the program.”
“Who do you think you are anyway…a writer? HA! You’re not smart enough.”
I’d ignore it, but of course, the more I tried to smother the voice, the louder it would become. It felt like my brain was turning on me. A certain part of myself believed I was capable, but another more sinister part was terrorizing me. These thoughts would multiply under the surface, as I projected a seemingly “happy” exterior. I’d be plagued by doubt as I ordered my latte, or talked on the phone, or cheerfully socialized with peers, never sharing how low I was feeling. It’s a shameful, secretive act, to wallow in these thoughts. Because no one wants to admit that they’re the bully’s target.
I had one particular class that was full of intellectuals. They’d have intense debates on philosophy, politics, gender, religion. I felt out of my league. Even if I had something intelligent to say, I’d constantly question it and decide to say nothing. The voice of the bully was holding me back, assuring me that I didn’t belong, that I wasn’t good enough. I noticed that every Monday, on the morning of class, I would start to feel physical sensations: a tightness in my chest, loss of appetite, fatigue. Then, like clockwork, the negative thoughts would start.
This may sound like nothing to you. It’s just a class, right? What’s the big deal? But the idea that “it’s not important” is precisely why everyone is struggling with this issue. Our mental health deserves attention, no matter how trivial the details sound. Over 70% of people deal with imposter syndrome (according to Time) and it’s just recently become an acceptable and familiar term in the mainstream. These moments of internal struggle mean something, and the more we dismiss, ignore, and diminish them, the more powerful they become. For a problem so crippling and emotionally painful, we owe ourselves more than just shaking it off.
So I decided to start talking about it. I told my friends, my husband, even classmates that I felt close to. I described the thoughts I was experiencing, and how I felt physically. The more I did that, the more the internal voice softened. It was still there, but now that I’d acknowledged it, it wasn’t quite as loud or abrasive.
The Annoying Friend
The acknowledgement was like an immediate pressure release — the brain got the signal that it was heard, rather than ignored. Sometimes I will actually say, “I hear you.” This voice, like any bully, loses its interest if you stare right back, if you choose not to resist. Over time, the thoughts started to change in intensity. Rather than a bully, the voice sounded more like a negative, annoying friend. You know the type: the friend who brings up everything that could possibly go wrong, and who absolutely hates to see you do well, or try for new things.
“Are you sure you want to do this?”
“What if people make fun of you?”
“Remember before, when you made that stupid comment? You should just stay quiet this time so no one judges you.”
Of course these are not pleasant — they are annoying thoughts, nothing more or less. Sometimes they simmer down, and other days they get loud again. But being able to identify and acknowledge the thoughts will make them less scary. Lean in and listen…and you may realize they have less power than you thought.
The Big Sister
Over the past few years this relationship with my impostor syndrome has evolved — from enemy/bully, to irritating friend, to now, a protective older sister. Like a big sister, I’ve realized the voice is trying to protect me from harm — from unexpected humiliation or pain. I sometimes hear it when I’m traveling somewhere unfamiliar, meeting new people, or learning something I don’t feel confident doing. In the moments when I’m living life safely — not taking chances or doing anything out of my comfort zone — I don’t hear the negative thoughts. But when I start living more boldly, and trying for things that scare me, that is when it surfaces.
What I think everyone should know is this. To hear negative or self-defeating thoughts is not a “sign” that you should change course, that you’re a failure, or an idiot, or completely crazy…it’s an indication that you are doing something exciting. So try to use that to change your perception. I encourage you to acknowledge and thank that big sister instinct for trying to protect you…but also realize that it doesn’t have control over your actions. This is your life after all. You are the one in control. Are you going to let personal doubt stop you?
Most days, I tell myself I am strong. I go to class, or work, or have an uncomfortable interaction, and sometimes I still feel scared. But more and more, I force myself to speak. I gently disengage from the protector in my mind. I say “I hear you” and I keep doing what I set out to do. And those are the days I feel most authentic.
I’m not saying this is easy. This is not a “follow these steps to beat impostor syndrome” blog. Most things don’t fit neatly in a box with simple solutions. What I hope, though, is that we can recognize what’s happening in our minds and accept it without letting it own us. And if it does own us, we recover and keep trying. In this current era of women’s empowerment, we should be able to talk about our struggles without fear of judgement, and support each other so we can accomplish the things we truly deserve. Comment below with a time you struggled with impostor syndrome and what helped you get past it.