No one knows what they’re doing. This realization changed my life.
I grew up thinking that one day I would know what I was doing. I would learn how to work and how to live, like everyone else seemed to. I am coming to accept that I never will. For a control freak, like me, this is hard to swallow. But it makes it a little easier knowing that this feeling has a name, and that I’m not the only one who feels this way.
Impostor syndrome is a strong feeling of inadequacy; it’s the sense that you are just pretending, and that someday everyone will discover you’re a fraud, no matter how successful or capable you are.
Sound familiar? It’s more common than you might think.
The struggle is real
I remember when Julie Zhuo, director of product design at Facebook, shared her powerful story in a Medium post. Julie is one of those people who seem to have it all figured out. People in tech, particularly women, look up to her. But even she had moments of serious self doubt. She wrote:
“You don the disguise long enough, and you can’t even recognize that you are acting. That you are behaving inauthentically, from a place of fear and insecurity.”
One of the greatest writers of the 20th century, Maya Angelou, wasn’t immune to this feeling. She won a Pulitzer, a Tony, three Grammys, a Presidential Medal of Honor, and over 50 honorary degrees. This list goes on. But even she felt like an impostor:
“I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”
I mean, come on. Maya Angelou? You’ve gotta be kidding me. But she’s one of us.
It’s a reminder that even great people can feel inadequate, and that I don’t have to be perfect. I don’t have to be an expert to help people. And I don’t have to know everything to do awesome things.
A vicious cycle
At my first job in tech, I started as an intern and hustled all summer to get hired full time. Over time my responsibilities grew, and I was challenged and happy. But by the end of my two years there I was miserable. Somehow, I had gone from feeling empowered to feeling like a fraud.
If I was tasked to write copy and didn’t feel confident about it, I’d ask for feedback to make sure I was heading in the right direction. But, in my insecurity, I’d ask for feedback way too early, showing my team work I wasn’t completely proud of.
With certain managers this would not go over well. I could feel their respect for me dwindling. Though that’s likely a mixture of my imagination and reality, these insecurities affected my job performance which further damaged others’ perception of my work. It was a vicious cycle.
Sadly, the world can legitimize our feelings of inadequacy. At my previous company, this often expressed itself in the “brush-off.” For example, I would go to a manager with an idea. Since I’m excited about it, I’ve prepared my arguments in favor of it, with evidence, a plan to implement it, and a hypothesis of the impact. But this particular manager would brush it off after only a few seconds.
When this happens once in a while, it’s not a problem. But it became a pattern. And in turn, I stopped contributing my ideas. I stopped fighting for what I believed in. I thought that nobody would listen, and maybe my ideas weren’t that great after all.
By contrast, on another product, a different manager would listen to my ideas and we would work on them together. He appreciated my input and even sought it out. When I fought for an idea, he’d take note that it was important to me. With him I was able to sidestep my vicious cycle of self-doubt.
It made me realize how crucial it is to be aware of how other people affected my confidence. Awareness of your environment can help you understand how irrational impostor syndrome really is.
A source of power
After I left that job I was able to gain some clarity. I understood that when we are afraid, we deprive the world of our talents. And we deprive ourselves of our full potential. It’s hard to accomplish big things without taking risks. We don’t take risks when we live in crippling insecurity.
I came to realize that impostor syndrome wasn’t the worst thing in the world. With effort, it’s possible to turn it around, take hold of it, and make it a positive thing.
Feeling like an impostor means you’re at least somewhat self-aware. You care enough to set high expectations. You know where you need to improve, and you want to improve.
Whenever I start feeling like a fraud, I let it power me. I take it as an opportunity to improve. It’s a slow process, but practice makes perfect, right? Every step forward is a win. Here are a few things that have helped:
You’re not alone
The internet has exposed us to thousands of people that are smarter, more experienced, and more successful than us. It’s just a fact of life.
But everyone has real problems, and some of them might even feel the same way as you. Don’t assume that everyone is doing great, especially on the internet.
Assume the best
If we live in a world of assumptions, it’s easy to completely lose perspective. You never really know what’s inside another person’s head. Once lost in that little world it’s remarkably hard to escape.
So assume good intentions and best case scenarios. Jumping into negative-land doesn’t help anyone. If you really, really care and need to know what someone is thinking, just ask them. Use email if you have to.
Allow yourself to be vulnerable
We are all vulnerable at many points in our lives. It’s impossible to avoid. But it’s where the real growth and learning comes from. When we let down our walls, ask questions, embrace our flaws, and admit our failures we put ourselves in a position to become better humans. Being vulnerable can suck, but it builds character.
Recognize your subconscious thoughts
We have many tiny, almost imperceptible thoughts that impact who we are. When I listen closely to myself, I can recognize the moments when I’m letting negative thoughts affect me.
Let’s say I want to dance like a weirdo when I’m at a show. A small thought in the back of my mind tells me that someone will judge me if I do. With practice I can catch those thoughts and tell them to go away. Because they’re dumb.
It makes it a little easier knowing that this feeling has a name, and that I’m not the only one who feels this way.
This isn’t easy. But you don’t have to do it perfectly or completely. Just trying is enough to make progress and feel more like a confident person who is awesome and deserving of success.
Believe in yourself
I can’t control what’s going on around me, or how other people think of me, but I can control how it makes me feel. When I look back, even to just a couple of years ago, at how I saw myself then and how I see myself now, I see many differences, all of them good.
You’re the only one who knows you’re afraid. Embrace it. Let it power you. Allow yourself to move past it. Impostor syndrome is real, but remember that you’re never alone. We’re all impostors in one way or another.
It’s not always easy to talk about feeling like an impostor. Share this article with your team to get the conversation started.