At first, you think it’s just a simple lack of self-confidence.
You think this can be fixed just by “changing your mindset” and that this can happen faster than a cat decides to ignore you.
Eventually, you realize that there’s more to it than that.
You start to learn that you’re far from being the only person out there who feels like an unqualified spy behind enemy lines. You feel like this even when, theoretically, you’re perfectly qualified for what you’re doing.
If it’s any comfort, you’re far from being alone. Imposter Syndrome is actually very, very common. It’s both a comforting fact and a sad one; there are a lot of us who don’t feel confident even when we should.
Imposter Syndrome is a type of chronic self-doubt that can haunt you during your education and in your career like a hungry ghost. The Harvard Business Review defines it as “as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success.”
There’s no one-size-fits-all onset time for Imposter Syndrome.
Even as a professional with over five years of professional working experience under my belt, I still feel it at times. I’ll start to do something, pause, and wonder why in the world I’m doing when I’m clearly so unqualified.
Then I forcibly remind myself no, I have a degree, I have work experience, I am qualified.
Your sense of feeling inadequate and feeling like a fake could happen while you’re still in high school or college. It doesn’t necessary happen the moment you start working.
Being put on the spot when you feel like a fake is a trial by fire.
It’s terrifying, it’s difficult, but it might just help you grow.
For me, even as a student, demonstrating my subject matter expertise was stressful.
One of the symptoms people with Imposer Syndrome feel is that they “give the impression that they are more competent than they are and have deep feelings that they lack knowledge or expertise.”
That was me all around.
When I was put on the spot, I felt like I was going to be unmasked and revealed.
As an undergrad, I once took a class focused on contemporary learning institutions.
It was an education course, but a low level one.
There were many students in the class with varying majors who just needed that writing intensive attribute the class had.
In fact, there were hardly any education majors in the room.
As a literature student interested in teaching someday, it felt like a good fit for me.
Our professor got clever and asked each person to demonstrate their mastery of their major.
Fun in theory, terrifying for someone who feels unqualified.
It was all very spontaneous; he asked us to say our name, major, year, and then he figured out a question on the spot. The year was important because he often would remind students that the closer you are to graduation, the closer you are to putting yourself out there claiming to be a professional in your field.
He asked the art major to draw the state of New Jersey on the whiteboard. He asked the architecture major to make a rough calculation on the exterior square footage of the lectern.
In a class of mostly freshman, sophomores, and a few transfer students who were juniors, not everyone was quite deep enough into their major to answer without a bit of deliberation first.
Nevertheless, there was a lot of laughter in the class, since the questions were random and the answers sometimes even more out there.
Eventually, after going from front to back in the first two rows closest to the wall, he came to me, seated front and center in the room.
Before you ask — yes, I was that student.
It was a fun activity, but since it was so spontaneous, I was positively terrified when it came to be my turn. My stomach was churning like I ate a bad Chipotle burrito from the cafeteria.
All eyes in the room were fixed on me. Worse, I was one of those juniors, one of those older students in the class, one of those transfers from community college. I was someone who should have the confidence of a junior but just feels like a fish out of water in her first semester at a new school.
Was I overthinking a cool, interactive classroom activity? Absolutely.
Were we graded on our answers? Not at all!
There was no real reason to be sitting there with such plummeting anxiety, but I always had Imposter Syndrome in college. I felt like an illiterate person in my literature program, as illogical as that was.
He came up to my desk and quirked a small smile. I returned the smile with some strain, my heart illogically pounding and my hands hilariously sweating.
I recited my major and status and then sat in suspense as he pondered it for a moment. It only took him a second or two to think of a fitting question for me, but it felt like a small eternity.
“Recite me something written by Shakespeare.”
My mind whirled for a few seconds, trying to recall some specific couplet or quartet.
Something that would really impress him and the others, since at that moment, that’s what I was concerned about.
Of course, the red second hand was cheerfully marching on the clock by the door, and I was sitting there stupidly in silence.
When in doubt, look to the foundation of your knowledge and expertise.
My thoughts also went to a highly implausible scene that I clearly remembered from Othello, where evil-mastermind Iago was trying to frame the hapless, innocent Cassio for adultery.
Iago was sharing his quarters with Cassio and essentially claimed that Cassio sexually assaulted him, thinking he was Desdemona, Othello’s wife.
He said that Cassio snuggled up to him, practically straddled him, kissed him, called out the commander’s wife’s name, and all these other very forward movements.
The crux of this tall tale was that Iago said that Cassio was allegedly asleep the entire time. It simply does not make sense. This goes far beyond the range of movement and verbosity even for a sleepwalker.
It’s an absurd thing, even by Shakespearean play standards.
Here’s the exact few lines from Othello Act 3, Scene 3. I don’t ask me why I memorized at least half of this, but I did.
“In sleep I heard him say ‘Sweet Desdemona,
Let us be wary, let us hide our loves;’
And then, sir, would he gripe and wring my hand,
Cry ‘O sweet creature!’ and then kiss me hard,
As if he pluck’d up kisses by the roots
That grew upon my lips: then laid his leg
Over my thigh, and sigh’d, and kiss’d; and then”
This was on my mind to start reciting to the class since I could almost recall the exact words Iago used to tell his bizarre story.
Most of us were still only halfway through our cups of coffee.
No one was ready to hear about Iago claiming to be groped by a fellow soldier.
But I didn’t think this eight o’clock in the morning class was ready for all that and that I’d sound crazy if I couldn’t explain the context of the scene.
Crazy Shakespearean drama aside, this honestly would have been a pretty impressive thing to recite, even if I only did get half of it out.
Yet in the throes of Imposter Syndrome, I couldn’t think of myself as a valid literature major, even though I had weird lines of Shakespeare memorized.
Finally, through my imposter panic, I supplied an answer.
I’d like to tell myself that these moments of deliberation were just as brief as when my professor brainstormed the question, but I suppose we’ll never know.
“Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t,” I said, not quite loudly enough. “Polonius in Hamlet.”
It was short, but people managed to hear my quiet, little voice.
To my utter surprise, I actually got an impressed nod from the professor.
He then turned to the class and asked them what answer they would have supplied if asked to recite Shakespeare.
There was a deafening chorus that rose from more than half of the students as they all spoke the same line.
“To be or not to be.”
I grinned in relief at first when he said I passed and sounded like a fine literature major, but the answer from the group surprised me.
Too caught up in wanting to be that student and say something impressive, the most obvious answer never crossed my mind.
You’re far more of an expert than you think you are.
All of this silliness, the anxiousness, the showing off, the eagerness to please, and to be impressive — it’s all just Imposter Syndrome ruling the day.
Let’s go back to the Harvard Business Review’s definition of Imposter Syndrome for a moment.
I’m sure you’ve had enough Shakespeare at this point.
“‘Imposters’ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.”
It didn’t matter that I had extremely specific quotes memorized.
It didn’t matter that I knew Othello like the back of my hand.
I felt like a fraud of a literature major and nothing could change my mind until I got that validation of an impressed nod.
You need lots of small victories to eventually feel confident in yourself.
This long story is just one time when I had a day where I briefly conquered Imposter Syndrome.
It wasn’t the cure-all to make it go away forever, but it added a brick to the low wall of my confidence.
One good instance or one good piece of validation won’t fix your Imposter Syndrome. It takes lots of small victories and lots of reprogramming your thought process.
It won’t happen as fast as Iago accused Cassio of sexual assault, but it will happen eventually. Celebrate every little victory and validation you get.
Hold on those positive feelings, those reminders that you do know exactly what you’re doing, and keep working toward conquering your Imposter Syndrome every day.