You get a promotion at work, and you don’t think you deserve it.
Or someone compliments your work, and you think they’re lying.
Maybe you get a good grade on a paper, and you assume the grader is being lenient.
Many of us have experienced imposter syndrome before.
When I first started working for Everyday Feminism in April of 2014, I felt the exact same way. I applied to be a Contributing Writer thinking there was no way I’d be able to get in. When my editor wanted to schedule an interview with me, I was surprised and excited.
But there was something that went along with the shock and excitement: guilt. I felt like I had tricked people into thinking I was a better writer than what I was. I’m not really a good enough writer, I thought. Once I start writing for them, they’ll realize they made a mistake.
It was so bad that I literally combed through my cover letter, looking for where I lied or exaggerated my experience. I felt like someone with my experience and skills didn’t deserve the position.
Nearly three years later, I still have this issue. Sometimes, I hand in articles hesitantly, cringing when my editors accept them. I don’t believe I’m a good writer, and I feel like one day, people will realize that I’m actually just a fraud.
When I learned about impostor syndrome, I immediately related to it.
Clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes coined the term in 1978, describing it as a phenomenon where people who’ve been somewhat successful feel like a fraud or an impostor because they struggle to internalize their accomplishments. Because of this, they have a fear of being exposed as the “fraud” they believe themselves to be.
The working world has taught me that imposter syndrome is something that affects many people. I’ve met brilliant artists who think they’re average and their work is just a sham, and actors who don’t think their success was earned.
It’s definitely not limited to the arts.
I have friends in the sciences who believe they’re doing well only by sheer luck. I once met someone who was getting her PhD in physics who suffered from it – she thought that being good at math was simply luck, and not a result of being skilled or hard-working.
Society tries to socialize girls to be modest in how we dress, how we act, and how we feel about certain things. We’re often expected to react to compliments with disbelief – so much so that we’re actually taught to disbelieve compliments.
While career-related confidence in men is encouraged, women are encouraged to seem modest about our achievements. When we downplay our achievements, and when we learn that self-confidence is often undesirable, we tend to let self-doubt sink in more.
Women are certainly not the only people who face impostor syndrome, although we make up the majority of sufferers. Non-binary people and men – especially those who are marginalized by society – face it, too.
When society continually erases your achievements and treats you as inferior, it’s hard to have much faith in your capabilities.
Because of this, impostor syndrome is both a psychological issue and a social justice issue. That’s why it’s important for us to discuss it here at Everyday Feminism.
Here are a few actions I’ve taken to ease impostor syndrome. Hopefully some of these tips can work for you.
1. Remember That You’re Not Alone
Having a name for an experience really helps you label and describe it.
For one, it helps you realize that you’re not alone. Being amongst friends who meet the words “imposter syndrome” with a solemn, understanding nod has been so validating, because I realized that even some of the most awesome people in the world experience it, too.
The inimitable Maya Angelou once said, “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.”
Dr. Margaret Chan, Chief of the World Health Organization, said, “There are an awful lot of people out there who think I’m an expert. How do these people believe all this about me? I’m so much aware of all the things I don’t know.”
I mean, if Maya Angelou and Margaret Chan suffer from it, we know it’s not a sign of inferiority!
2. Get Feedback and Validation – And Remember It
While dealing with an onslaught of online harassment, a thought occurred to me: I was taking what my trolls were saying to heart. However, when I get compliments from friends or coworkers or editors, I never take it to heart.
Why did I believe the people who troll me over the people who I should trust?
Why did I believe the words of a random, anonymous person who spent most of their time harassing women on the Internet? Why didn’t I believe the words of my editors and friends?
This realization prompted me to start taking feedback a bit more seriously. It’s highly unlikely that my editor – who wants me to produce good work – would lie to me about the quality of said work.
I’m lucky to have bosses who validate me. Often, our employers don’t actually compliment us when we do a good job.
In this case, seek out validation. Ask your lecturers, employers, or even friends to give you feedback. Ask what you’re doing right and where you can improve.
By “feedback,” I don’t necessarily mean compliments only. I’m talking about engagement. When someone engages with your work instead of simply saying “good job,” it feels more validating because it seems like they understand what you’re saying and they want to discuss it further.
I sometimes struggle to remember certain things, which is a result of PTSD. Because of this, I keep a file of nice things people say to me – screenshots of kind e-mails from readers, memories of times when I felt validated, feedback from my editors that made me feel good.
When I feel like crap, I take a look at those compliments and remember that, unlike my anti-feminist trolls, none of those people have a reason to lie to me.
3. Let Go of the Idea of Perfection
Perfection is unattainable. Striving towards perfection might sound like a good idea, but if we don’t acknowledge that it’s unattainable we set ourselves up for failure.
This is a truth that so many of us understand, but so few of us internalize. Often, we believe that the mistakes we’ve made disprove that we’re good at something. Sometimes, we fixate on our mistakes when we achieve something or when people compliment us.
Truthfully, though, making mistakes doesn’t mean you’re bad at something, and it certainly doesn’t mean you’re a sham. If we expect perfection from ourselves, we set ourselves up for disappointment.
When we let go of our fixation on perfection, we give ourselves space to make mistakes without punishing ourselves for it. Sometimes we think that we’re an impostor simply because we’ve made mistakes and we’re not perfect.
But the truth is that nobody is perfect, and you still deserve recognition and validation despite making mistakes.
4. Realize That Being Good at Stuff Doesn’t Define Your Worth
Imposter syndrome is a result of our fear of being bad at something.
We fear being exposed as a fraud, not only because we’re afraid of seeming dishonest, but because we don’t want to look like we’re actually bad at things.
Personally, I’ve been so terrified that I’ll be exposed as an awful writer – even though I honestly believe everyone can be a great writer! I often feel certain that my writing is bad, and that it’s a waste of paper (or in this case, bandwidth).
It’s understandable that we fear being bad at things, especially since we live in a capitalist society where we’re taught that our productivity defines our worth.
I feel like if I’m not a good writer, my life would be pointless – that I have no use beyond my words.
Ultimately, though, that’s a lie. You don’t have to be good at anything to be deserving of love and care. You don’t have to be a productive or talented worker in order to be valued.
Imposter syndrome has led to me self-sabotaging a lot. Because I’ve had so little confidence in myself, I haven’t taken all the opportunities I’ve been given – although I’ve definitely deserved them.
Slowly but surely, I find myself working through those feelings every day. And while I’m a work in progress, I definitely feel like I’m accepting my own self-worth and learning to meet praise with belief.
While they’re not foolproof, these strategies have helped me treat myself better. I hope they can also work for you!
Sian Ferguson is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and full-time freelance writer based in South Africa. Her work has been featured on various sites, including Ravishly, MassRoots, Matador Network, and more. She’s particularly interested in writing about queer issues, misogyny, healing after sexual trauma and rape culture. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Read her articles here.