Let’s talk about imposter syndrome. If you’re not familiar with the term, Harvard Business Review defines it as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success.
Many people who struggle with imposter syndrome were naturally intelligent, high-performing, well-behaved children who were abundantly praised for their achievements. These children grew up feeling like they were born smart, talented, etc. and learned to lean heavily on their natural abilities. They learned to perform for praise, rewards and acceptance from parents, teachers and peers rather than achieving because of their own intrinsic motivation (behavior driven by internal rewards).
Most of the research and writing about imposter syndrome is framed within a workplace context, but it can also show up in relationships and parenting. Those who feel like imposters in relationships assume they’ve somehow tricked their friends into liking them, always expecting rejection. Parents experiencing the imposter cycle question themselves constantly, feeling personally responsible for their children’s development, choices and achievements.
This phenomenon is incredibly prevalent among millennials. We grew up with more opportunity, technological advances and wealth than most prior generations. Expectations were high, and college was not optional. We flooded the workforce just as the economy tanked in 2008, riddled with student loan debt and viewed with suspicion by older generations. Many of us are in our 30s, still feeling like the “young kid” who has something to prove, even if we out-perform our older peers.
Outside of work, we came of age alongside budding social media networks and smartphones. We began life with organic friendships among people we knew in real life, handling conflicts and hearing about big news in person—blissfully unaware if people were hanging out without us. We passed folded notes in class and only compared ourselves to the girls immediately around us rather than airbrushed influencers we’d never met.
But by the end of college, Facebook connected us to every person we’d ever known and constantly made us aware of what they were thinking, doing and achieving. Instagram flooded our minds with image after perfect image. Likes became the new currency of praise and popularity. And, of course, somewhere in there Pinterest burst onto the scene, adding additional pressure for women to dress, decorate and cook with perfection.
So what does all of this do to us? What does imposter syndrome look like in real life?
- It looks like a high-achieving individual who constantly downplays his strengths, chalks up success to luck and fears being exposed as a fraud.
- She deflects compliments, feels like she has something to prove and struggles with anxiety.
- He’s never able to rest, fearing if he stops hustling, someone more qualified will take his spot.
- She constantly feels like she’s failing her children and being silently judged by those around her. She compensates by posting her best moments on Instagram, making sure everyone sees how hard she’s working.
- She can’t fully let her guard down around peers, fearing she’ll be rejected for not fitting into the right mold.
I feel this. For me, the past decade has been a marathon of striving—to “make a difference,” for professional success and to garner admiration, friendship, approval and respect from as many people as possible. It has felt like a cycle of mountaintop moments when I felt brilliant and universally loved followed by dark seasons when I was convinced I had zero skills and every person I knew pretended to like me because they were being polite.
Anyone else? Do you feel it? The exhaustion, the pressure, the fear of rejection, the addiction to external rewards for behaviors that should be intrinsically motivated? How do we overcome this? What is the cure?
Here are a few things I’m learning. I’d love to hear ideas from you, too—I’m smack dab in the middle of this journey.
- Push through self-doubt and pursue what you love. I struggle so hard with this. Even with this newsletter, I haven’t promoted it like I know I should from a marketing standpoint because I’m worried people will think I’m conceited or that they’ll subscribe and think, “This girl thinks SHE’S a writer?” Even though I’ve been paid to write for over 10 years and have had hundreds of articles published, I still have a hard time calling myself a writer. I still have anxiety every time I submit a piece of writing for a magazine or a marketing client, regardless of the positive feedback I receive.
The only advice I can offer on this point is to DO. THE. DAMN. THING. I love writing. I want to improve. I feel compelled to share my thoughts with others. I can’t get over it. There is nothing else I want to do. It makes me happy, and I want to do it even if I never receive any financial compensation for it. So here we are.
What is your dream? What are you good at, and who do you want to share it with? DO IT SCARED, SISTER. Don’t do it for praise. Do it for passion, purpose and dare I say... fun?
- Develop those intrinsic motivation skills. This is extremely difficult when we have the ability to share everything we do—from taking our child to the park to cooking a healthy dinner to getting a promotion—with hundreds of people, guaranteeing instant praise. Those likes and comments are addicting! And sometimes, sharing our lives online is part of our work. What can we do?
TRY THIS: ((I do not currently practice any of these suggestions, but I’m loving these ideas that just popped into my head and I’m going to start TODAY… so please hold me accountable, Instagram friends))
*For social media specifically, take photos and feel free to post them, but make yourself wait. Instead of snapping the pic and immediately sharing, wait until a specified time each day to share—after the kids are in bed, maybe? Sometimes, you’ll realize after a few hours that you want to keep those sacred, wonderful moments private. Or maybe you want to share. The point you've given it some thought.
*Ask yourself why you’re sharing—will this content elevate you in the minds of others, or will it bring some kind of value to their feed? Cute kid pics are always of value, in my opinion. But that dinner you made—are you sharing the beautiful picture to make yourself look good, or are you also sharing the recipe to help another mama out? I LOVE following people who give me ideas, hacks, tips and wisdom. I feel super inadequate following people who share their achievements without sharing their secrets. 😉
*If social media is not your external reward addiction center like it is mine, identify yours and put some parameters around it.
- If you struggle with imposter syndrome at work, discuss expectations and keep an open line of communication with your supervisor. Do you assume your position is on the line unless you are constantly working, yet receive stellar performance reviews every year? Maybe no one is holding you to that impossible standard but yourself. Find a way to do good, honest work with integrity while also acknowledging that you’re an asset to your company and deserve respect, compensation and boundaries.
TRY THIS: It’s OK to only work the hours you’re paid to work and to discuss overload with your boss if you’re unable to complete your workload during work hours. It’s OK to ask for more specific feedback in a performance review. It’s OK to stop checking your email and answering calls after hours. If your job can be done from home and the office is a distracting environment, it’s OK to ask for a work-from-home day. Your supervisor cannot read your mind, and if you don’t tell them, no one knows you’re working 65 hours a week, but only getting paid for 40. Even if you’re the youngest person on staff, you are valuable to your company, and you deserve to be heard and respected. If nonstop hustle and burnout is part of your company’s culture, evaluate if that’s the company or industry you want to work for long term.
- If you struggle with feeling like an imposter in relationships, try focusing on one friend at a time instead of trying to juggle a huge group of friends.
Check out my essay on friendship for more on this.
- Find a deeper way to define your identity than your bank account, what other people think of you, your children or your professional success. For me, this has always been my faith. That may not be yours, but whether it’s faith or some other higher calling that transcends a Pinterest-perfect birthday party for your 1-year-old or that big promotion at work, FIND IT. Find your purpose and your “why” and center your life around THAT instead of fleeting, fragile things that can disappear in an instant. Enjoy those things while you have them (it really is OK to have fun and ENJOY your daily life!), but hold those things with open hands instead of clenched fists. Anchoring yourself in something bigger than your little world will put so many things into perspective. At the end of the day, it’s just not as much about us as we think. The pressure is off. Really.
Relax. Enjoy. Laugh.
So, friends, what suggestions do you have? What has been your experience with imposter syndrome? Please share! Just hit the “reply” button and your email will come directly to me. I can’t wait to learn from you.