The Imposter Syndrome

I have been thinking recently about the Imposter Syndrome. You know, the fear I sometimes feel that I will be found out. That it will be revealed that I don’t have what it takes. That people will discover that I’m a fraud. A poser. A complete phony.

“All I can see is everything I’m doing wrong that is a sham and a fraud.” ~ Don Cheadle

Research shows that many people struggle with these feelings of self-doubt. Hopefully, we shrug them off and not let them actually paralyze us – and most of the time we are able to press through to do what we need to do. But every time – at least for me – they creep in and rear their ugly head and make their presence known…to the point where I have to intentionally fight them off. In my head I am like, “what the heck, get off of me, that’s a lie and I refuse to believe it and this is a totally normal feeling and I am not an idiot and I do know what I am doing and I just need to remember the truth about myself.” But it’s super hard sometimes.

What is interesting is that I don’t ever think that I am an imposter when it comes to my faith, or my fitness, or the relationships I have with others. I’m acutely aware of the gap between where I am and where I want to be in those areas of life, but for the most part I don’t feel like I’m ever faking it. I falter and flounder and fail sometimes, but I’m not faking it. I’m doing them as well as I can, and I’m good with that.

“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.” ~ Maya Angelou

Like the quotes I’ve pasted throughout this blog entry, for me it is mostly tied into my profession. I’m trying to figure out why. Maybe it’s because when it comes to my occupation, others are depending on me. It’s like, they need me to come through for them and be amazing for them, because they only view me through the lens what I do for work, what I do for a living.

To them, I am what I do.

That’s it. They don’t know my heart, they don’t know my foibles, they don’t know the ups and downs of my life. They just know that I am a:

teacher

researcher

speaker

writer

advisor

mentor

role model

And they expect me to dominate in all of those areas. They expect me to be on point, like a boss, and kill it every single time. And I don’t think these expectations are only in my head. I mean, my students sit in my class, and anticipate that I am going to blow their mind with a vintage “Sameer” brand of knowledge delivery every time we meet. And this is heightened by the fact that they’ve read reviews online, and talked to other students who have previously taken my classes. And part of me is like, “man, I am exhausted, I wish I could just suck for once, and for it to be okay.”

“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.” ~ Dr. Margaret Chan, Chief of the World Health Organization

It’s the same with when I have had a job interview in the past. I can make myself seem so extraordinary in my resume and in my cover letter, and discuss all these proficiencies which I have (or have had? or think I have? or should have by now?). And yes, they are factually true; I’m not lying in my application materials. But it still feels like I will be found out. It still feels like the tendency is always there for someone to ask me a question and for me to blow it. For my lack of a correct answer to “out” me as someone who isn’t all that he makes himself out to be or, rather, all that they thought and hoped I was.

When that happens, it definitely hurts. Like a sucker punch to the gut.

Actually, it feels catastrophic. Like the world is going to end. Like I just want the earth to split behind me, and for its mantle to rise up like a tidal wave of broken rock and mud and debris and just swallow me whole, from head to toe.

Like a geological atomic wedgie.

Because the humiliation just seems too much to bear.

The bottom line is, I simply cannot remember everything that I’ve learned in the past. And I can’t recall it from the recesses of my brain as fast as it’s sometimes expected. And I sometimes just don’t say the right thing, or even know what the right thing is to say. And I just don’t want to have to feel all the time that everything in life is a test, set up to constantly make me prove myself or my education or training or intellect or abilities.

“Sometimes I wake up in the morning before going off to a shoot, and I think, I can’t do this. I’m a fraud.” ~ Kate Winslet

At job interviews and when I’m teaching or presenting on a topic, my mentor professor Christina once taught me that it’s totally okay to say “I don’t know” or “I’ll find out for you and get back to you on that.” The worst thing to do is for me to make up an answer, because I might dig myself into a deeper hole and will probably be found out in time. So I’ve been trying to do that.

And sometimes I mess up on grading an assignment, or have the wrong answer choices for a test question that annoys my entire class, or forget to get back to someone in a timely manner, or accidentally miss a conference call or meeting. I just flat-out screw up. And it feels like everyone is like, “what the pez is wrong with this guy!!!” and “dang, can’t he do anything right???” and “wow, I wonder how many times he’s blown it before….” But I just want and need everyone to know that I am doing my best. I would totally wear that t-shirt: “I’m doing my best.” And then people would know. But maybe it should go without saying, for you, and for me. Just because I don’t do everything perfectly doesn’t mean that I am an imposter.

Plus, I am way harder on myself than anyone else could possibly be. Really.

And I bet that’s the case for you as well. Maybe you feel this way often. I think it’s so natural, and some of it gets easier as we get older (because our perspective changes as to whose opinions matter) and some of it gets harder (because we think that by now we wouldn’t screw up as much!). And I think that honestly, we all just need more space and more grace to be human in these fallible ways. That’s really it. I mean, that’s all I am asking for.

How can we fight off this feeling that we’re an imposter? Here’s what I’ve been thinking. And no, I don’t do these things all the time, but I really do want to. Because in my head, I know it will help a ton. I just need to make it a lifestyle….

First off, don’t give other people (whose feelings vacillate and whose moods are temperamental) the power to invalidate you. I think it starts here. For me, it helps to remind myself that my worth and value does not come from the opinion of others, no matter what. For me, it comes from the opinion of a never-changing and forever-loving God. It’s easy to forget that, but that is one truth I have built my life on, and it has mattered so much. Remember the truth about yourself, and who you are deep down.

Second, be gracious to yourself. We’re all human, and we all make mistakes. Sure, some of those mistakes occur on bigger platforms and in higher-visibility situations than others, but they happen to all of us. And you don’t want to hang out with, or work for, or give your best to, individuals who expect impossibly high standards from you. Then you’ll just be walking on eggshells whenever you’re around them, and that’s an awful way to live. Seek out friends and colleagues who understand and live out compassion, and give your best to them instead.

Third, be gracious to others. To be honest, I’m way better at this than the first two, probably because I desperately want others to do the same for me. With my words, and body language, and laid-back attitude, and constant reassurances and warmth, I always try to counter the pressures that others feel to be perfect, to act perfect, to seem perfect. I try to provide them with a safe place – not to be “on” and not to “perform,” but just to be. They don’t deserve it because they’ve earned it, they deserve it because life is hard for all of us. And then at least I am doing my part to contribute to a more kindhearted humanity. My hope is that they will be changed forever, and that they will continue to pay it forward. And I bet most do.

Hopefully, I’ll keep doing my part, and they’ll keep doing their part, and we’ll get better at going easier on ourselves. And this should lead to so much more freedom in our lives, and more freedom will increase the likelihood that we can be at our best. Whenever I’ve felt free from the pointed and weighty expectations of others, that’s when I am able to completely rock whatever it is I was supposed to do. In those moments, the imposter syndrome has no bearing on me at all – it feels irrelevant. I just want that to be the case all the time, for all of us.

Please let me know in the comments if you’ve ever struggled with the Imposter Syndrome, in what ways it affects you, and how you face it.  I would honestly like to hear from others on this topic!

(Image source: http://www.bbb.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Man-with-Mask.jpg)

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