Fighting the Impostor Within

Deep inside you lies an impostor.  Rather than an opinion, this is a fact for many of us, regardless of profession. The impostor exists in that deep, dark place you hope no one can see, waiting to ruin everything you’ve achieved professionally.

Is this impostor your alter ego like Dr. Jekyll’s Mr. Hyde?  Perhaps.  Does he / she even resemble the real you?  How do you keep the impostor at bay?  Is it even possible?

Back up for a second. The impostor is someone you have let yourself become, existing because of fear and doubt. These two feelings shackle your mind and change your own self-perception.  Do you ever wonder if others feel the same?  I guarantee you they do.  I suspect these feelings come easier to folks who have achieved things they didn’t think were previously possible. Let’s take some examples.

An Example from the Realm of Education

When I was teaching high school math several years ago, I made students write a paper at the beginning of the year describing their general attitude toward math and what had shaped it in the past.  I asked for brutal honesty, and in most cases, I got it.  Many students hated math because they were never good at it, were discouraged because of previous teachers, or didn’t feel the subject was worth their time.  My goal was to help these students put aside the previous experiences and to help them keep an open mind to the possibility of being able to succeed.  While it certainly did not work in every case, a number of students were able to reach new heights only because they began to believe they could.  It was easy to see the pride on their faces as their grades began to soar higher than they had in previous years.

For some students, I could see impostor syndrome setting in as they advanced academically.  They were in an honors / advanced placement class after being in a regular class and began to doubt. A poor grade on a test could lead to feelings of not belonging in the class with those on the advanced track for a number of years.

In these cases, I attempted to reassure those individuals that making it to the honors / advanced placement class (which required a teacher recommendation) was validation of their abilities.  It was the attitude and mental state that needed training.  Focus on the work, on learning the material, and on getting better throughout the year rather than any specific outcome.  Take time to learn from classmates when possible, but the only one who can make you feel comfortable is you. I used to tell them “there is no intimidation.”

An Example from Sports

Every so often a professional golfer is given the title of “best player to never have won a major.”  This creates a great deal of additional pressure for the player in question.  Most players dream of winning a big tournament.  Imagine the elation once he / she wins that first major.  Now they can pass on the title to someone else.  But if you watch the player’s performance after the breakthrough, there will likely be a dip.  What no one realizes is how difficult it is to win another big tournament.  The media starts to ask questions.  Was that first win just a fluke?  Was it luck?  The mental disposition of achieving success but struggling to do it again is impostor syndrome at its finest.  Imagine being that player and being close to winning another tournament but failing.  Has the player lost the magic touch?  Maybe that first win was a fluke after all.

How does a player come out of the dark place?  After all, he / she has the talent.  It’s been proven at least once.  A number of professional athletes have sports psychologists to help build confidence and shut out the fear and doubt.

It Can Happen to You

Think of the last time you finished a successful project at work or landed that big job.  It feels great, right?  That sense of accomplishment is like pure adrenaline.  How long does that feeling last?  Think about how long you took the time to really enjoy the moment.  Maybe you went out to dinner with the family to celebrate, and then you jumped right back into the fray.

Time passes.  Yes, you’ve achieved some success, but now you’ve hit a wall.  There’s some project with a tight deadline you don’t think you can hit.  There’s something you’re supposed to know that you don’t.  This new project is more challenging than you expected in the beginning.  It isn’t working out like you planned.  Fear consumes you.  You feel yourself start to get stressed.  The anxiety starts.  Can you really do this?  Is this the right role / project for you?  Maybe you’re not cut out for this job.  If you fail, you could lose everything.  And just like that, the impostor has consumed you.  Hopefully no one will find out that you have no clue what you’re doing.

Maybe you have felt this way.  Please know it can happen faster than you think to just about anyone.  And in these times of stress / worry / fear, those successes that propelled you to where you are today probably won’t mean much.  You will be focused only on the negative.  Do you ever wonder why that happens?

Chasing Success

All this talk of impostor syndrome reminds me of a quote from Elizabethtown:

It was then that I realized that success, not greatness was the only god the entire world served. – Drew Baylor, Elizabethtown

To begin the movie, Drew Baylor has just experienced a massive professional failure (what he calls a fiasco) after 8 years of hard work on a new line of shoes.  He loses his job, and his failure is made public.  If you watch the movie you will see that he loses much more than his job.  Someone Drew meets helps him face the failure and various other challenges.  He wasn’t able to do it alone and would have taken his own life if something had not happened to stop it.

If you think about it, isn’t impostor syndrome a symptom of chasing success?  Success is like a drug to which we are all addicted.  Success propels you forward to that next level in your career.  Success provides validation of intelligence, accomplishment, hard work, etc.  But if you try something and are not successful, will your entire world be destroyed?  It depends.  You can chase success with your only goal being achievement and recognition, or you can chase success with the attitude that no matter the outcome, the effort you put into it will make you better.  So instead of just chasing after success blindly, chase after it with a purpose.  Let’s change the metric used to measure our success and not let someone else define it for us.

In Closing

When times are tough and the impostor overpowers you, the community is here for you.  Hang in there.  Whatever you do, don’t keep it all inside without asking someone for help.  I think you will find there is plenty of help out there if you’re willing to ask.  And once you’ve triumphed over the impostor, remember that experience.  The impostor may get the best of you again, but you’ll be better equipped to handle it next time.  Be ready to use your experience to help someone else when the opportunity presents itself.

I’ll leave you with another quote from the same movie:

You’re an artist, man.  Your job is to break through barriers.  Not accept blame and bow and say thank you, I’m a loser, I’ll go away now.  Oh, Phil’s mean to me, whaa, whaa.  So what.  So you failed.  Alright you really failed.  You failed.  You failed.  You failed.  You failed.  You failed.  You failed.  You failed.  You failed.  You failed.  You failed.  You failed.  You failed.  You think I care about that?  I do understand.  You wanna be really great?  Then have the courage to fail big and stick around.  Make them wonder why you’re still smiling.  That’s true greatness to me.  But don’t listen to me.  I’m a Claire. – Claire Coburn, Elizabethtown

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