Have you ever felt like you aren’t good enough to be where you are? Like surely someone made a mistake in admitting you? Or maybe that you got in to balance some diversity ratio and not because of your abilities?
That’s Impostor Syndrome.
I’ve known men who’ve admitted to it, though it seems more prevalent among minorities such as among women in science in engineering. I think I first heard of it, experienced it, and saw others live with it when I was in graduate school at Caltech. That’s also where I figured out how to work around it.
We all have fears, needs, wants, and passions that are in some way unhealthy. We can choose to accept and live with them, and with the negative effects they have. We can choose to try to change them, and while ultimately this may be the most powerful option it’s also the hardest. Or we can find tricks to keep ourselves from acting on those unhealthy urges. For example, you can write a nasty email telling off your stupid co-worker but click “Delete” instead of “Send”. That’s what I figured out for my Impostor Syndrome: I came up with a trick that did not cure me of feeling insecure but that did let me not act on my insecurity.
My trick is to shift the responsibility. If I’m not awesome enough to be at Caltech, surely I’m not awesome enough to be personally responsible for Caltech. It’s not my responsibility to protect Caltech from it’s own decisions. It’s not my job to protect Caltech from me. Caltech accepted me and so it’s Caltech’s responsibility to suffer the consequences. It’s not my job to protect a large, successful institution from itself. So what should I do while Caltech is suffering with me? To make the most of the situation, I should take advantage of being here. I should learn as much as I can until they figure out their error and do something about it.
That’s the core of my trick: Reframe the notion of “I don’t belong here” to “it’s not my responsibility to worry about whether I belong here, but it is my responsibililty to make the most of this opportunity.”
As a cognitive behavioral therapist might tell you, if you practice a behavior long enough it will become habit and influence your thinking. I’ve had years to practice accepting opportunities without questioning whether I deserve them (or at least without acting on those questions). I’ve had years of intentionally learning from good opportunities, which has given me experience and thus justification for confidence. I don’t need my trick anymore. I am good enough.
This post is duplicated on my old blog.