“We’d like to make you an offer,” the e-mail began. I gasped, whispered yes!, briefly soaked in the feeling of sweet victory, and breathlessly shared the good news with a few people.
Then, a few minutes later, it turned to disbelief with a tinge of doubt. Wait, what? They chose me? I wonder why… Note to self: STOP right there.
I should’ve Googled it much sooner. Type > > I m p o s t o r S y n d r o m e, and within seconds, I would’ve realised that I wasn’t alone—that feeling like a fraud was more common than I thought.
It wasn’t until I came across Natalie Portman’s Harvard Commencement 2015 speech that it dawned on me: it’s NOT just me. Natalie Portman experiences it. Even Natalie Portman. The Natalie Portman.
I felt a huge sense of relief. I was then able to detach myself from the “feeling” and look at it objectively. I read article after article and found out that it’s more common among women, and it’s common among high achievers—from Emma Watson and Tina Fey, from Sheryl Sandberg to Justice Sonia Sotomayor. In a way, it makes sense: the more you achieve, the cost of failure gets higher and the more exposed you are to judgment, scrutiny, or even envy, which is why successful people tend to feel a lot more of it.
Tina Fey : “Ah, the impostor syndrome!? The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania, and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh god, they’re on to me! I’m a fraud!’ […] Seriously, I’ve just realized that almost everyone is a fraud, so I try not to feel too bad about it.” —The Independent, March 2010
Natalie Portman: On being a Harvard student: “So I have to admit that today, even 12 years after graduation, I’m still insecure about my own worthiness. I have to remind myself today, You are here for a reason.” —Harvard Commencement 2015, May 2015
Emma Watson: “It’s almost like the better I do, the more my feeling of inadequacy actually increases, because I’m just going, Any moment, someone’s going to find out I’m a total fraud, and that I don’t deserve any of what I’ve achieved. I can’t possibly live up to what everyone thinks I am and what everyone’s expectations of me are. It’s weird—sometimes [success] can be incredibly validating, but sometimes it can be incredibly unnerving […].” —Rookie, May 2013
While the knowledge that this feeling of being a fraud puts me in the company of such strong, empowered, successful women, it doesn’t mean I’m ready to accept it as an inevitable part and parcel of success. It isn’t. And we can cut off this train of thought at the roots.
I recently asked a few high-achieving women if they’ve ever felt like an impostor. Almost all of them said yes they have, except for one. This woman was a jet-setting executive leading a team of engineers in a multinational company and a mother of two young children. She’s barely 5 feet tall and is so soft-spoken that one of their new company security guards once mistook her for a child looking for her father (no joke!). So I asked her:
“Have you ever felt like an impostor?”
“It’s when you feel like a fraud; that you’re not actually as good at your job as people think, but you’re faking it.”
“Huh? But why? No, I’ve never felt that.”
That’s when it hit me: it’s absolutely possible to genuinely not have a shred of self-doubt for things you’ve worked hard and prepared for. It’s not arrogance. It’s just an honest belief in one’s value and abilities as a result of hard work and dedication. Look at it this way: if you’ve put in the work, you’ve put in the hours, you’re constantly trying to learn and improve, why wouldn’t you be as good as people think you are?
When I feel strong negative emotions (self-doubt, panic, fear, anxiety, embarrassment, anger) in a public setting (i.e. at work), I employ a little mental technique. I mentally step out of the situation and visualise myself looking at myself in that setting as if watching a movie. Doing so allows me to be an observer, distancing myself—the person—from the blinding emotion of the moment.
When that impostor feeling starts creeping, quickly remind yourself that every single person in that room has insecurities. It’s okay to have them, but what will set you apart is your ability to overcome them.
There’s a wealth of information on ways to overcome—or at least, handle—the impostor syndrome. Find out what works best for you. And maybe keep a few things in mind:
1) You’re not the only one.
2) It doesn’t define YOU.
3) You do deserve your success.
4) It’s quite common, so take it easy. But don’t be complacent.
5) YOU’VE GOT THIS.