Impostor syndrome is the worst. It is self-doubt on steroids, the culmination of every bad thing anybody has ever said to you, and it tries to convince you that nothing you ever do will be enough, because you, yourself, are not enough. But though it can make you feel isolated and uniquely miserable, you're not alone: Everyone else suffers from it too.
Your most high-achieving friends succeed not because they aren't subject to impostor syndrome but because they overcome it.
Here's how you can join them.
Arguably, I'm about to sound like your mom or your (hopefully favorite) elementary school teacher, but being tired or under the weather or hungry can make you vulnerable to mental disaster.
Before you begin second-guessing everything you've done since birth, stop and ask yourself:
- Are you hungry?
- Are you tired?
- Are you stressed out?
- Are you sick?
- Might there be another extenuating circumstance — including but not limited to grief, a break-up, or an argument earlier that day — that's contributing to the way you feel?
Recently, I chose to check and write back to my emails even though it was 7:30 p.m. and I hadn't eaten since noon. Within minutes, I realized I was done as a writer; it seemed clear, based on what I was reading, that editors everywhere had determined I was a fraud.
Then I stepped back, had something to eat and drink, went for a little walk, came back to the computer and re-read my messages in a better frame of mind. I realized that they were actually super friendly and enthusiastic.
Lesson learned. Take care of yourself before you take care of work.
Say you've just finished your lunch and had your coffee and you've made sure to stretch and refill your water bottle and you still feel like everybody at work knows you're unqualified.
Challenge the mean voice in your head. Ask why it's saying you don't deserve to succeed.
I mean it. Mindy Kaling's brilliant phrasing of "Why the hell not me?" is one of my favorite pep talks to give both myself and my friends, particularly when they follow up good news with a reason why they didn't deserve it.
So much of impostor syndrome can be defeated by making your fears explain themselves. Don't run from them; face them, listen to them and then tell them they're wrong about you.
Logic helps: When you write down the good and reasonable explanations for why you should have that job, or that opportunity, or that dream come true, you remind yourself you are worthy.
Your fears don't tell the truth. In reality, no person is thinking about you the way you're thinking about yourself. No one is looking at you, wondering how you got where you are, or why, or how long it will be before you fail. And if they are, who cares?
Some people will always say terrible things because that's the way people can be. But most people are too wrapped up in what's going on in their own lives to worry about a project you were assigned or the new title you have at work. And the ones that make it their business to focus on you? That's not your problem. Especially since none of them are going to impact your trajectory, anyway.
This is good advice for both them and you: Keep your eyes on your own paper.
Admittedly, this one's hard, because accepting compliments can be difficult for many reasons. Start small by choosing to accept kind words and not refuting them.
It can be very easy to dismiss compliments by countering with reasons they aren't true, so learn to just say, "Thank you." And that's it.
If somebody says something nice about your work, you say, "Thank you." They don't need to know why you don't like that particular piece or why you think you could've done better. You're allowed to accept positive feedback. You're even allowed to agree with it.
All of this gets easier the more you do it. Just remember that you're not alone in your quest to defeat impostor syndrome: Most of us battle through it weekly, daily, and even hourly. If you can push back even a minute, you're making progress.
Anne T. Donahue lives just outside of Toronto and has a hard time with the word "high-achieving."