Illustration by: Sara Miller

Am I Allowed to Call Myself Successful?

The Modern Day Impostor Syndrome

I spend a lot of my time honestly questioning if I deserve any of my own success. I also really don’t know how to write this piece without sounding narcissistic but I think that’s exactly the point I’m trying to make. I know a lot of really incredible, really accomplished people who aren’t able to say they’re successful.

I’m a filmmaker and I do some writing, photography, and social media work. I’m a pretty cool person. I’m smart, I’m a good friend, and deep down, I know I’m really good at what I do.

I’m 21 years old. In the past 2 years, I’ve done 5 different media internships, freelance work for Spotify and Millennials of NY, was profiled on Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, and started my own website called The Light Leaks, to serve as a place for female and non gender conforming filmmakers. Soon, I’ll graduate with a BA in Journalism and Media Studies, minor in Gender and Media, and a certificate in Digital Filmmaking.

By most standards, I’m doing pretty well. But, I still can’t seem to shake this deep desire to be detached from my work. I find myself deflecting compliments, calling my work “no big deal”, or thanking others for work that I did alone.

I have friends who are writers, teachers, social workers. I have friends studying to be lawyers, artists, scientists, and doctors. Their careers and respective paths are all so different than mine but I’ve noticed that so many just don’t see their light. Just like me, they don’t accept compliments or apply for jobs that they’re qualified or even overqualified for, and they sometimes can’t even highlight their best qualities on their resumes (or in conversation).

It’s beyond a “confidence issue.” It’s been found common of overachievers that they often do not believe that their work is ever enough or even truly their own doing to begin with. It’s impostor syndrome.

The first time the term “impostor syndrome” appeared anywhere, it was 1978 in a report entitled “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention” by clinical psychologists, Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes.

“Women who experience the impostor phenomenon maintain a strong belief that they are not intelligent; in fact they are convinced that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise” (Clance, Imes).

I found it not only to be a trait solely in women but one that could be felt by anyone, regardless of their field or education level. The main facet of impostor syndrome is feeling like a fraud. It’s the sense of not belonging in a room full of colleagues or professionals or even in a classroom.

It’s constantly fearing that you’ll be discovered for something and ousted from your circles.

For years, psychologists have identified it as a very specific form of self doubt for perfectionists and overachievers. There’s absolutely strains of anxiety disorders to be found in impostor syndrome but it’s not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, meaning it can’t actually be diagnosed. It’s a very real thing for a very real feeling that many people can’t seem to explain. It’ll manifest itself in different ways depending on the person, maybe you’re able to write an amazing resume but can’t let yourself shine in person or maybe you know and actively talk about your incredible skill set but feel completely at a loss when put in the situation to use them.

The origins of impostor syndrome are individual to each person, it could have been your family raising you to aim higher, coworkers doubting that you deserved that promotion, or hearing what some people think about you or your work. But impostor syndrome also seems to play off of the innate human desire to be both recognized for what you’ve done but also remain humble and likable. Impostor syndrome is self doubt on steroids. Some believe it to be an excuse used to slack off in the workplace, just speaking for myself, if anything it’s served as a motivator to work harder.

Recently, I’ve been able to get a hold of my feelings with it. I used to not want to go to networking events especially anything dealing with showing my work in public. I used to not want to post anything about my work online. Impostor syndrome isn’t the need for validation from anyone else for your work. It’s having that validation but feeling overwhelmed with it, displacing it.

Sometimes I look at my resume and I feel actual gaps in my memory. The past 2–3 years of my life have felt like I was running constantly. I have time off and I give myself breaks- but if I were looking at the years as a unit of time, it’s been a marathon. I know deep down that I’ve put in the work for everything I deserve but sometimes it takes longer to actually remember that. Past me would have been so proud of where I am now- so I‘m learning to let myself be proud in the present.

I’ve worked towards managing my “imposter syndrome” a few different ways.

I’ve found that the most successful solutions have been found in identifying and transforming negative reactions (instead of: why was I invited to this event?, change to: it’s so great that I’m going to be around so many cool people! yay new friends!) exercising (exercise has always been a great tool for myself to focus on the present and to shake off excess worry/energy), and understanding why I may have certain feelings at a specific time. With understanding why I might feel insecure about a certain aspect of my work or life, I can develop a solution for the future that isn’t temporary. These solutions are based off of what I feel is best for myself but I will always recommend any form of productive self care.

At the end of the day if you’re a good person doing honest work, then there’s no way you’re an impostor, so keep working hard and don’t listen to the self doubt. I know it’s easier said than done, but when you start to work towards that balance, your life and work will get better.

Good luck!