If you haven't heard of impostor syndrome by now, it's that voice many of us (especially women) have in the back of our heads that wonders, "Am I really qualified to do this?" It's not easy to deal with, but once you learn how to beat impostor syndrome, you become a whole lot more confident.
Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes first identified "the imposter phenomenon" in the '70s. "The term impostor phenomenon is used to designate an internal experience of intellectual phonies, which appears to be particularly prevalent and intense among a select sample of high achieving women," they write in a 1978 paper. In other words, it's when you feel like you don't deserve your accomplishments, despite evidence to the contrary.
Clance and Imes write that women often chalk up their achievements to temporary factors like luck or effort due to internalized stereotypes about their own incompetence, while men are more likely to view their accomplishments as results of their strengths. Given numerous studies showing that women are less confident than men, it's no wonder we're prone to believing we're impostors.
If you ever feel like you didn't deserve your job or admission to the school you attend or other people's favor and fear that your own incompetency will be exposed sooner or later, here are things to remind yourself when imposter syndrome strikes:
1. Nobody Really Knows What On Earth They're Doing
Most people with impostor syndrome feel like they're the only ones who don't quite get what everyone in a conversation is talking about or what the professor just said in lecture. But chances are, a lot of other people feel out of place, too — they're just faking it better (or they believe they understand things they don't, in which case they're just overconfident).
This hit me when I had to write about the optimal architecture of big data personalization software in a previous job marketing at a tech company. I felt as lost starting my first article as you probably did reading that sentence. One day, I asked a few engineers at the company for their input. Turns out they had the same questions I did! From then on, I realized that maybe I didn't totally get everything, but that didn't disqualify me, since I was no more confused than anybody else.
People who don't know what they're talking about share their perspectives all the time, so you should be able to as well.
2. You've Gotten Great Feedback From People Who View You More Clearly
If you have impostor syndrome, you may ignore others' feedback and focus on your own negative self-assessment instead. Don't! Other people can see you more clearly than you can typically see yourself.
Going back to my personal experience in the tech industry, since that's one area where women tend to especially underestimate themselves, I later took a job at a PR firm that required me to ghostwrite articles for tech executives on everything from secure messaging to APIs. I gave it all a shot because I had nothing to lose, but I felt like I was BSing my whole way through and was counting down the days until my boss fired me. The next time she called me into her office, though, it was instead to tell me how pleased she was and offer me a raise! This goes to show that you shouldn't take your own assessment of your work at face value. Instead, trust others who aren't viewing you through the lens of impostor syndrome.
Your bosses or professors have no reason to build you up if they're not genuinely pleased with you. To the contrary, it's their job to find areas for improvement. So, if they think you're doing a good job, you're probably doing a damn good job.
3. Your Self-Doubt Could Be The Patriarchy At Work
If you're having trouble challenging your impostor syndrome for your own sake, do it for the sake of feminism. According to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, women tend to struggle more with confidence, and the authors theorize that this could be because we internalize societal perceptions of our inferiority. Women are also less likely to consider themselves qualified for jobs, according to a Hewlett Packard internal report.
So, next time you're feeling inferior, ask yourself: Are those worries about your own incompetence really coming from you? Where did you learn them? It might instill a healthy dose of indignation in you to realize that your impostor syndrome may come from being taught as a kid that girls weren't good at math or shushed when you tried to speak your opinion or called bossy. Once you realize how problematic the sources of your self-doubt are, you're less likely to believe it.
4. Nobody Is Trying To "Catch" You
Have you ever been in a conversation where somebody expressed an opinion about something nobody else had heard of, but they all nodded along in agreement because the speaker seemed really sure of themselves? That's how conversations work. People pay more attention to body language and tone of voice than to what someone's actually saying. If you don't feel qualified to participate in a conversation, just remember that plenty of people who are less qualified than you have convinced people they were experts.
People don't tend to see through these acts. Politics, business, and other areas focused on public figures thrive off overconfident people with good persuasion skills. It's rare for somebody to be called out even when they're overconfident. As public speaking experts like to say, the audience is rooting for you, not looking to catch you in a lie.
Now, I'm not advocating that you go around making stuff up, but too often, women don't add to conversations because they aren't completely sure of what they're saying. It's OK if you think you read something but can't remember exactly where or have more of a speculation than an assertion. Your perspective is probably as insightful as anyone else in the conversation's.
5. So What If You Don't Deserve What You Have?
Just as a thought experiment, let's imagine a hypothetical scenario in which you do not in fact deserve to be in your PhD program, or your relationship, or to have published your book. Does that mean you shouldn't take full advantage of it? If you found $20 on the ground, would you leave it there just because you didn't work to earn it, or would you go buy yourself something?
Life isn't by nature fair. People get things they don't deserve all the time. In fact, people get really shitty things they don't deserve. It only seems right that we'd occasionally get good things we didn't earn, too. Instead of feeling guilty for gaining acknowledgement or privileges we're afraid we didn't earn, we should feel lucky and use those gifts to our advantage. If that makes you feel guilty, you can remind yourself that you'll experience plenty of disadvantages to make up for it.