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Woman Standing on Dock
Woman Standing on Docks

See yourself through someone else's eyes

Confiding her fears and doubts about her new internship wasn’t easy for my young friend Sarah. Because she feels like an impostor, she has a strong compulsion to hide her fears. After all, confident people who know what they’re doing aren’t afraid of anything, right? Admitting her insecurities would tip everyone off to her fraud.
 
Of course we know that’s not true. Self-assured, competent people are plagued by the same fears and doubts as everyone else; they just don’t allow those fears and doubts to halt their growth. They accept mistakes as a part of their development, welcoming errors as an opportunity to begin again more intelligently, as Henry Ford once said.
 
Confessing her fears was Sarah’s first step towards overcoming the limitations imposed by what psychologists refer to as impostor phenomenon. She bravely faced her fear of judgment and made room for the possibility that maybe what she was feeling could be simultaneously normal and irrational. Normal in the sense that an estimated 70% of the population experience impostorism at least once in their lives; irrational in the sense that her reasoning skills, her ability to accurately judge her own value, has been overcome by baseless self-doubt.
 
I have a strong suspicion that Sarah was awaiting confirmation that the advertising firm had goofed in their records of interviewees. However, by getting her fears out in the open, she was able to face the fact that maybe she was misjudging her future employers’ competence. After all, they didn’t become successful by haphazard hiring practices. 
 
It’s old hat now to say that the first step towards solving a problem is admitting you have one, but there’s a reason we’ve clung to the saying. It’s true. By sharing her fears, Sarah was able to begin playing with the possibility that they are unfounded, that the problem that she needs to overcome isn’t a lack of intellect or skill, but a burden of self-doubt, that the only person she’s fooling is herself.
 
That’s the problem with impostorism. The fact is, you got where you are because of your talents and your skills, your efforts and your perseverance. But impostorism feeds you a line about luck and lies. 
 
Your GPA isn’t a product of a professor’s generosity. Maybe we should give up that old idiom, “My teacher gave me an A.” In fact, in nearly every case that a student receives a high score on a test, it is the totally predictable result of the student learning the material. 
 
Your boss didn’t hire you based on false pretenses. You earned a degree. You gained experiences. You built a portfolio. 
 
You did that. You should be proud. While it’s a necessary part of growth to acknowledge your mistakes and weaknesses, it’s equally important to acknowledge your victories and accomplishments. 
 
If you’re feeling like a fraud, like you just lucked up when you got that promotion or passed that test, try sharing your fears with someone whose opinion you value. Don’t keep it to yourself. Let others help you see yourself the way that they do. It’s not a cure for the impostor blues, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Eileen Wynne, PhD.

References:

Alexander, J., & Sakulku, J. (2011). The Impostor Phenomenon. International Journal of Behavioral Science, 6, 73-92.
 
Cokley, K., McClain, S., Enciso, A. and Martinez, M. (2013), An Examination of the Impact of Minority Status Stress and Impostor Feelings on the Mental Health of Diverse Ethnic Minority College Students. Jnl Multicult Counseling & Dev, 41: 82–95. doi: 10.1002/j.2161-1912.2013.00029.x

Weir, K. (2013). Feel like a fraud? GradPsych, 11, 24-27.
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