I find the idea of the impostor syndrome endlessly interesting. Many of us have this horrible habit of minimizing our own achievements. We attribute our accomplishments to luck instead of work. We assume that others have an inaccurate and inflated opinion of us. We feel that we have somehow tricked our way into our current situation and that one day we will be found out and it will all be taken away from us.
I’ve experienced quite a bit of this in my own life. I was one of the youngest people in my graduate school cohort. Counseling is a predominately female field, and I hadn’t done tremendously well in my undergraduate program, so I assumed that I was accepted in the name of diversity (which is an odd assumption for a white man). It took me quite some time to shake this feeling.
During my internships, there were some understandable uncertainties as to my abilities and being able to hone my counseling skills and make a career of it. A few moments of panic aside, I handled it well. Once I was out on my own, however, I frequently had to deal with self-doubt and my self-assigned status as an impostor.
I was no longer an intern. I was a real therapist with clients who depended on me to help them address their mental health needs. And let me tell you, I threw myself to the wolves, accepting a position where I was working with clients who had quite severe diagnosis and symptomology. I beat back the impostor’s best efforts to scare me away from my abilities and competencies, and managed to do my job well.
Eventually, I would find myself as one of the directors of that agency, where the impostor syndrome would remind me frequently that I had no business being a manager. This is one of the instances where it was correct – I don’t really have a managerial skill set, and was promoted because I did a lower level job extremely well, which isn’t always the best way to promote people. This was a moderately disastrous decision, so I eventually left the company to become a therapist again.
In my career, I have conquered my impostor self. I can’t recall the last time I felt like a fraud at work. Being the generally anxious person I am, though, I have allowed the impostor syndrome to sneak into my personal life. Probably because I have trouble allowing myself to be happy, which is something I should really work on.
I published my first book last year. It has been reasonably well received, even by those that don’t feel personally obligated to be happy for me. It hasn’t made me rich and famous, or even infamous, but it has done well for an unknown self-published author writing a non-fiction book. I am an author now, whether I like it or not. The impostor frequently reminds me that I am a fake – someone who slipped under the radar and will be ostracized as soon as some fictional powers-that-be notice me.
The same can be said for parenting. For months I didn’t feel like a great parent because I was still learning how to be a dad. I felt like CPS was going to burst through the door at any moment to take my child away, because it was obviously some sort of mistake that I was allowed to procreate.
What explains this sort of thinking? Why am I, and many of my peers, riddled with self-doubt? In my case, it could be easily dismissed as my general predilection to be anxious about things. I like to think it’s more than that though.
My generation was subjected to massive amounts of arbitrary praise. No matter what we did, we were praised for it. As adults, this river of praise is sometimes reduced to a trickle, leaving us to wonder if we are doing a good job. Because of this, we are insecure about our own abilities, and often feel like we don’t belong or are not capable.
Many of us look outside of ourselves for validation to counteract this, with predictably bad results. Kevin Smith is a good example of this. I assume that Smith has often faced the impostor syndrome in his film-making career, given his history of seeking out validation from the internet. This got the better of him, and he went as far as announcing his retirement a while back.
Once Smith defeated his own impostor syndrome, he became a happier, more confident person and director. He stopped seeking out external validation and decided that he was going to make movies because that’s what he loves to do. He seems validated by his work instead of crushed by the lack of external validation from anonymous assholes on the internet.
Perhaps the impostor syndrome is growing in response to our increasing need for validation. When we aren’t constantly (over) praised, we assume we aren’t doing our job well and probably don’t belong. This is ridiculous. We shouldn’t need praise to feel like we belong or are performing adequately in our work. It would be beneficial for society in general if we stop seeking out praise and focus on internal ways of analyzing our performance instead.
Chances are, you aren’t an impostor and neither am I. Owning our accomplishments and achievements instead of seeking out validation, helps us to build the confidence we need to defeat our impostors.
My perception that the impostor syndrome is becoming more prevalent pales in comparison to the increases in the Dunning-Kruger Effect, but that’s a conversation for next week.