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Imposter Syndrome

Ema Ida Kukovec, Lead developer

Dear impostor,

you with an amazing job you were really lucky to get. You, whose success is based on luck and some good circumstances, and your flaws and insufficiencies are fatal.

Living in the silent fear that maybe tomorrow you will finally be caught and revealed for the fraud that you feel you are. You might have done it so far, maybe you succeeded this time, but next time, who knows?

You graduated and worked hard for years, but that is expected, nothing to feel accomplished about. You give your best at your job, but that is never enough because you did not meet your own expectations. You have to crush it just to be au pair. You do not deserve to be here. You are out of your depth.

It's not you. It's not me. It is one of the very common human conditions and a set of behavior patterns. The term Impostor Phenomenon was first described by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978, discovered among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success. Although the impostor syndrome isn't an official diagnosis listed in the DSM, psychologists and others acknowledge that it is a very real and specific form of intellectual self-doubt.

The syndrome has been found to impact men and women in roughly equal numbers (International Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 2011). It is not only reserved for high achievers. Anyone can view themselves as an impostor if they fail to internalize their success.

It does not vanish or fall back at any set number of accomplishments or career success. Australian billionaire, Co-Founder, and Co-CEO of the software company Atlassian Mike Cannon-Brockes reveals in his TED talk that people think highly successful people don't feel like frauds, but that is not true.

So, if there is no hope, we will grow out of it with a dozen more accomplishments, or any form of success, what can we do?

Be aware of its presence in your mind

If it has a name, then it is not unique to us, and it is much less likely those thoughts we have about ourselves are factual and true. It is OK to feel out of your depth, just try not to freeze. You are obviously doing a lot of things right.

It is more common than you think

We all suffer from it. The feelings and emotional states connected to it are anxiety, self-doubt, fear of failure, and painful perfectionism (toward oneself especially). So, impostor feelings are both normal and irrational. There is a pluralistic ignorance going on in relation to this subject. We all doubt ourselves privately, but we believe we are alone in thinking that way because no one else voices their doubts.

Be aware of what you do and did well

People with the impostor trait fears reject positive messages about their personal contribution because such messages are incompatible with their own perception of their mechanics of success. So, we are not prone to hear positive feedback or anchor it in our capabilities. Be aware of this, too. And consciously seek out your good traits, competence, contributions to others, and accomplishments, write them down in lists, and revisit them every now and then. Think about asking a safe person in your current or former team, „What are the things I do well (or great)?” and write their feedback down.

Realize no one is perfect

Comparing ourselves to others can be painful. Mainly because we compare the best and outer results of others, with the worst and inner expectations we hold for ourselves. At your colleague's certification celebration you might think to yourself: "How successful he is! And then, you compare that situation, not with your own certification 2 years ago, but with how you are currently delaying the preparation process for your next certification, and breaking your own inner optimistically-too-short deadline. Maybe your colleague also had to stop preparing a couple of times. Maybe he was expecting himself to get certified a year ago.

Try talking to people / a safe person

It will immensely mean to hear „me too” from a colleague. Talk to some of your colleagues. Maybe they sometimes feel the same, but this is not a topic opened lightly. Maybe they do not feel like impostors, but you will discover they do not consider themselves as successful as you consider them to be, and they have enormous expectations of themselves, as well. Keep in mind that it is impossible to really know how hard our peers work, how difficult they find certain tasks, or how much they doubt themselves. It is also impossible for a person to say „me too” if they are not aware of their own anxiety and perfectionism, so there is no easy way to dismiss the feeling that we are less capable than the people around us.

Share your knowledge

Great teams are made of people who are passionate about knowledge sharing. Although you might think you are the weakest link, write down specific knowledge you stumbled upon on the project and share notes with your colleagues. Think about mentoring a trainee. Working closely with a beginner will show you how far you have come.

Talk to someone who can help

You cannot make it go away or shut it down. The basis for this state developed in early childhood and it was a great survival mechanism. Therefore, it had an important role in your survival to adulthood, and it is a part of your psyche. This part of you deserves loving thankfulness for all the accomplishments it motivated you (unfortunately, very harshly) to do. It also is very valuable, full of ideas and knows what quality work is. After learning some new ways to treat yourself, the impostor part of you could become like a dear cousin that you meet occasionally, but whose advice you almost never follow. For many people going through impostor feelings, individual therapy can be extremely helpful. It is possible not to feel so anxious and fearful all the time, to live your life in a more grounded and loving place.

A note for your computer desktop: You belong. You have talent. You are capable. You know and do more than you give yourself credit for.

Source: Sakulku, J. (1). The Impostor Phenomenon. The Journal of Behavioral Science6(1), 75-97. 

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