I didn’t know who The Beatles were until high school. Right now you might be wondering if I grew up in a cave or in a bomb shelter, and, if so, my response is two-fold: I think that even a kid raised in a bomb shelter with only Dippin’ Dots for sustenance would know who John Lennon was and no, I was raised in a New Jersey suburb about halfway between Manhattan and Princeton University.
For a while I blamed my lack of pop culture awareness on having an immigrant parent and being the oldest child. Without anyone to show me the ropes, I was always taking cues and clues from friends on what was cool and more importantly what was uncool. It was exhausting and left me with pretty questionable purchases like Spice Girls posters and JNCO jeans.
But feeling like an outsider also had more serious implications. For many years every single accomplishment of mine was underpinned by a strong sense trepidation. No matter how hard I worked toward a goal, I couldn’t reach it without thinking that I must have fooled someone along the way, be it a teacher, a boss, or the Scantron machine that grades standardized tests.
Eventually I found out I wasn’t alone. In fact, what I experienced was pretty common, and there was even a name for it: impostor syndrome. According to Wikipedia, this is:
A psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.
Data shows that impostor syndrome is especially prevalent among women. And it’s not limited to professional life. I’ve heard stories of executives feeling like frauds in board rooms and doctors in operating rooms, and others telling themselves “fake it ’till you make it” every time they put on a gown and heels. I’m also convinced no one can place a really complicated order at Starbucks without feeling like an actor.
But expert Dr. Valerie Young explains that there is also value in feeling like an impostor. She explains that those who experience it “have unsustainably high standards for everything they do.” According to Young, “The thinking here is, ‘If I don’t know everything, then I know nothing. If it’s not absolutely perfect, it’s woefully deficient.’” Tina Fey and Sheryl Sandberg have supposedly suffered from these impostor syndrome symptoms.
Anxiety induced heart palpitations aside, I agree that not always feeling at ease has advantages. For years I compulsively read three newspapers front to back every morning. I was terrified that someone might bring up a current event and discover my ignorance if I wasn’t up to speed on world news. I hit rock bottom when I stopped recording “How I Met Your Mother,” hoping it would force me to watch the National Geographic Channel instead.
On the other hand, even after becoming well versed in everything from the sports to science sections, I still felt insecure. You just can’t reason yourself out of an unreasonable concern. Then one day I got tired of acquiring knowledge for the purpose outside consumption. Forgiving myself for not caring about baseball statistics actually allowed me to cultivate a real interest in the news, and ironically, I read and retain more now.
Overall, I benefited from the seeds planted by impostor syndrome. It was a net gain, as they say in accounting. Self-improvement isn’t always pleasant, but it’s very often worthwhile. Like a trainer who keeps yelling “Give me ten more!,” the voice in my head demanded hard work and dedication to worthwhile pursuits. I studied hard because I was always sure I would fail, but that’s still better than not studying at all.
Or take my friend, who described feeling like an impostor of her first day as an entry level employee of a high profile company. Surely, she thought, there had to have been some kind of mistake or oversight when they hired her. Her “syndrome” caused her to overcompensate and absorb everything around her. She ended up excelling there. Her hyperawareness was invaluable, even if it came from a place of discomfort.
So I say let impostor syndrome motivate you, with the goal of one day eclipsing it and relishing in what you achieve. If you’re a freak who can actually do the trainer’s extra push ups, that means realizing your own physical strength. For Tina Fey, that means admitting you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread. For me, it means playing “Here Comes the Sun” en route to work each morning and taking pride in knowing every word.
Written by Sophie Milrom.