Real Stories: Imposter Syndrome

One of the hardest things about struggling with your mental health is how alone the experience makes you feel. You assume that no one else is going through the same thing, feel uniquely bad or incompetent, and fear others might found out you’re not doing well and judge you. The truth is the complete opposite.

We all struggle. We all go through ups and downs in our lives, we’re simply less likely to talk about them in public. We post funny GIFs and personal successes on social media, not descriptions of life unhappily ever after.

The disconnect between what we see and what we collectively are is why we’ve started a series of interviews and surveys at Kip. This series asks real people to share their stories of the side of life that social media doesn’t cover. We talk to people about the downs, the bummer days, the lonely nights, and the times when life doesn’t feel like it’s going your way. These stories are anonymous so that people feel comfortable sharing the full, unedited truth. We also want to emphasize that these stories, while unique, are everywhere and felt by everyone of us.

Imposter Syndrome

Last week, we asked people to tell us about their experiences with imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is often described as feeling like a fraud. It’s more than a simple lack of confidence or self-esteem; people with imposter syndrome have a hard time accepting compliments, don’t internalize their success, and feel like frauds or failures even though they have a string of accomplishments to their name. Both men and women can struggle with imposter syndrome but women, minorities, and high achievers are most likely to have it.

I know that I first struggled with imposter syndrome in my first three years of college. I kept wondering how I got into Yale and what would happen if my classmates and professors found out that I wasn’t really as smart as everyone else. It led me to not speak in class, delay or avoid taking courses I wanted to take but thought I’d fail, and be less outgoing than I usually am. I still struggle with these issues sometimes, but I’ve learned how to cope and manage my confidence.

Here are some of the stories that people generously shared with us.

What does imposter syndrome feel like? How has it affected you or the actions that you took?

“I never negotiated salary because I was scared i would get ‘caught.’ I thought that I should prove myself before asking for more money.”

“It’s hard for me to give thorough/complete updates during scrum because I feel like I haven’t accomplished much. My teammates are usually the ones to point out [that I have].”

“I have a tendency to say yes to everything regardless of whether the work is feasible, timeline-wise and workload-wise. It’s led to some 13-hour days at work because I’d bitten off more than I could chew.”

“I almost talked myself out of taking a promotion because I didn’t think I deserved it/could do the new job.”

“This feeling makes me want to leave my current career and has made me contemplate going back to school and taking on a different job.”

“I don’t try so hard or contribute to group conversations as much. I feel very embarrassed. Even if I contribute an idea that is well received my heart rate goes up and I feel very warm (similar to when I feel panicky).”

“I question my knowledge of subjects well within my expertise to the point of deferring to the opinions of others who do not have my level of expertise. I often turn out to be right, but I question myself so much in the moment that I never assert that I know what I’m talking about. Those few times that I’m wrong serve as proof that I really don’t know anything.”

“I expected to be hired as an intern at my first job and was extremely surprised when the offer was for a legit position at the company. Three years later, I’m still very bad at making sure that I’m acknowledged for my work. I am not pursuing a promotion as hard as I should be, because some part of me doesn’t believe that I deserve one. This is despite my leading many high-profile projects and receiving nothing but positive feedback.”

“Severe anxiety, an inability to be assertive with my boss, defensiveness. Self-reviews are the worst. I’m in senior management and I occasionally misuse my power when I feel like someone is going to expose me/challenge my decisions.”

“[Imposter syndrome] makes me try not to stand out, so that no one will notice.”

“Self-doubt; inhibition; fear; dread; anxiety; [choosing] mundane tasks and not going for anything uncertain and interesting.”

“I find it very hard to describe [imposter syndrome]. You could say that it was motivating and demotivating at the same time. I feel like I’m constantly chasing a ghost version of myself that I will never actually catch, but I seem to be getting closer to every day.”

If you’ve felt like the people above, remember that you aren’t alone. Also remember that there are ways to manage and overcome imposter syndrome. Here are a few ways that you can:

Go to therapy: Tied in with imposter syndrome is anxiety and self-doubt. Therapy can help you understand yourself better, become aware of what triggers your imposter syndrome, teach you skills to manage the self-doubt and negative thoughts that perpetuate imposter syndrome, and teach you new behaviors to build confidence and overcome feelings of fraud and fear of failure. Kip’s therapists specialize in helping young professionals with exactly these kinds of needs.

Get a mentor: Mentors have the tremendous benefit of having been in your shoes. They have the perspective to know where you’re succeeding and where you’re holding yourself back. I treasure my mentors and appreciate all of the times that they’ve reminded me that I’m doing just fine (or given me a kick in the butt). A good way to find a mentor is to invite people you admire to grab coffee. Get to know people and, eventually, you should find someone who clicks with you.

Seek social support: There is nothing quite as comforting as knowing people who are feeling the same way that you are and going through the same problems. Having friends around you who can support you–to listen to you vent, help you solve a problem, or just give you a high-five–can make all the difference in the world when you are going through a hard time. If you don’t have that social support yet, reach out to a friend or a colleague who you think would be open to chatting. It’s a little scary at first, but you’ll be surprised how many times they’ll respond with, “I get it.”

Here are some other tips from the people who took our survey:

“Meditation and a boosting confidence workshop.”

“Yes. I take a step back and ask or tell myself: “Is this an opportunity I want to act on? YES; qualifications be damned. I am the only one who decides that I deserve a seat at the table. I qualify myself. The real catastrophe is not having the courage to do it; it’s me walking and never knowing…I also recommend writing all your WINS in a journal and draw STRENGTH from those memories in moments of self-doubt.”

“Meditation, exercise, therapy.”