Imposter syndrome is the feeling that your achievements don’t matter. That you only scraped by because of luck or by fooling others into believing in you. You feel deep insecurity about your work and accomplishments, always anxious that you’ll be exposed as a fraud.
While arrogance isn’t good, I think impostor syndrome is far more prevalent than most of us realize. This is because the fear of being “found out” causes those who suffer from it to languish in silence. They don’t want to admit their insecurities for fear that this may trigger the revelation of their “true” worthlessness for all to see.
Impostor syndrome doesn’t just strike those who are high-achieving, but can hit even people who have more modest success.
It also seems to impact women more at higher rates than men, which makes sense if you don’t see yourself as fitting the stereotypical image of what a “successful person” looks like in your field.
My Own Struggles with Insecurity
There’s some irony in writing this post because rather than being brimming with self-confidence, this is definitely a feeling I struggle with daily. Indeed, I feel awkward writing about it, as if admitting my own insecurities might somehow bolster proof of my own inadequacy in the eyes of others.
However, if I step back, I can notice a pattern in my own life. I start by looking at someone else who has achieved something, I will compare myself to such a person and imagine that they are successful, while I am not.
Later, if I happen to reach the same benchmark, what I did now feels trivial, and there’s a new standard that needs to be reached if I can qualify as having accomplished something.
Publicly, I’ve learned to suppress this instinct somewhat, but I find it dominates a lot of my private thoughts and feelings.
An example would be language learning. When I first started learning French, I was in awe of Benny Lewis and his ability to speak several languages. Later, when I did so for myself, the achievement no longer felt special, but simply trivial.
Now, my feeling is an anxiety that my level might not be good enough. While I would have previously considered holding extended conversations to be “good enough,” now I felt like it was inadequate compared to complete fluency—I should be able to understand everything perfectly and speak without mistakes.
This pattern—finding something special, reaching it, and then immediately discounting that as not being a “true” accomplishment—is something I’ve found pervasive in my own life. Perhaps it is a pattern you notice in yourself as well.
There’s nothing wrong with setting harder goals. The problem with impostor syndrome is that you erase your own past progress by changing your standards to put it “below” what you consider successful.
Why Do Successful People Often Feel Like Failures?
To understand impostor syndrome, we need to look at what can cause it. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but here are two big factors that distort your thinking about yourself
Factor #1: Achievements are Objective Yet Feel Relative
Let’s start with the first factor: relative status.
Intuitively, it’s easy to step outside and take a birds-eye view of any field of achievement. From there, you can rank people on their overall level of success. Within a company, there is entry level, manager, vice president, C-level executive. Academia has masters, PhDs, professors and prize-winning researchers. Athletics has regional, national, Olympic and world-record performers.
However, in reality, we’re much less sensitive to this absolute scale of excellence than we are to our relative position within it. As such, we see the rungs above us and below us in much greater detail and conscious awareness than those which are quite distant.
For me, all the rungs of achievement much above me are far enough away that I can basically ignore them. Authors who are world-famous. Linguists who’ve mastered 40 languages. Polymaths who were recognized for their brilliance in many subjects. These accomplishments are so beyond what I’ve experienced, that they don’t cause me any anxiety at all.
Insecurity Comes from Magnifying the Levels Just Above You
However, I am more aware of people who are slightly above me in the rank. When it comes to topic expertise, therefore, I compare myself unfavorably to those who have studied subjects deeply in grad school. I compare myself to people who run “real” businesses with dozens of employees. I compare myself to people who speak a language I know fluently, instead of my intermediate level.
The problem is that once you go up one rank, the rank above that suddenly snaps into view. When I went from a solo business to a team, immediately that new accomplishment became the baseline and my comparison grew. If I were to get a PhD in something, I’d become immediately aware of the difference I had with tenured professors or recognized experts.
In short, our relative status perception means that there’s always a clearly-defined rung above us and below. Insecurity therefore, can come from an over-emphasis on the rung above you, rather than recognizing the rungs you’ve already climbed and the successes you’ve already surpassed.
Where imposter syndrome differs from this, is that it tends to make even the current rung seem untenable. The position you’ve reached was through luck, circumstance or because others incorrectly perceived you to have done something impressive. Therefore, there’s a constant fear that you’ll slide back to earlier rungs or fall off the ladder altogether in a spectacular crash.
Factor #2: Invisibility of Insecurity
Another contributing factor to imposter syndrome is that you may not be aware that other people are experiencing it. The fact that others seem so confident, secure and full of self-esteem may reinforce your belief that your own doubts are proof of your illegitimacy.
When asked how many of their peers have had sex or how much alcohol they drink, college students grossly overestimate the promiscuity and partying of their peers. Everyone else, it seems, is having a raucous time and it’s just you who is alone and boring.
This overestimation seems to be from an availability heuristic. The people who seem to be having wild fun are highly visible, whereas those staying at home studying are not. Therefore, we overestimate their occurrence.
This may also lead to some depression, especially if you think having fun and going on lots of dates is an important goal in your student days. It feels like you’re the only one, and thus your insecurities deepen. If you could see the reality (most people aren’t getting laid and partying as much as you think) then you’d probably feel more secure in yourself.
Similarly, if you could enter into the private lives of many successful people, and see how they struggle with their insecurities or worries that they may have reached levels of success exceeding their merit, you’d probably be reassured that your own feelings are normal. Yet confident people are highly visible, those who struggle with doubts keep their mouths shut.
Overcoming Your Imposter Syndrome
I think the first step to overcoming your own insecurities is to realize how normal they actually are. That much of the seeming confidence and bravado people display is really thinly covering up their own doubts about themselves.
Once you see self-doubt and insecurity, not as a unique disorder you exhibit, but something that impacts many people, it’s a lot easier to get comfortable with those feelings.
Another useful tip from me has been to read successful people’s biographies. The reason is that you’d be surprised how many extremely successful people spent their whole lives grappling with intense self-doubt and insecurities. Famed poet, Maya Angelou once wrote:
“I have written 11 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.’”
Next is to consciously adjust your fixation away from that rung of the achievement ladder immediately in front of you. It may not be habitual, but focus on the rungs you’ve already climbed and the difficulties that came with them. This can avoid the temptation to write down your past achievements as being trivial and the ones in front of you as being those that truly matter.
Finally, I would recommend taking a softer view when evaluating the works and accomplishments of others. Attack and criticize others constantly, and you’ll end up attacking yourself. When you start exaggerating the flaws of others, your own will seem to be magnified as well.
I don’t know of any bulletproof cure that will immediately fill you with lasting confidence in yourself. I’m not sure if one existed it would necessarily be a good idea to use it too often. But, moderating your own tendency to discount your achievements and feel more comfortable in the position you’ve reached is something we can all aim for.