Impostor Syndrome

by Sophie Milrom
November 11, 2013
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Can feeling like an outsider put you on the inside track?

impostertheory

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.

Louis Vuitton editorial shot by Zanita

REPLIES
  • brunetteletters

    This is a great post and I had no idea there was an actual term for the way I feel!
    I also have a hard time knowing what’s cool and what’s not. Perhaps it’s because I never watch TV and there are shows that EVERYBODY talks about and I have no clue at all.

    Anyways, the impostor syndrom it is. Nice writing Sophie!

    http://brunettelettersblog.blogspot.com/

  • srirachana

    This really was an outstanding post. I am also a child of two immigrant parents and struggled to fit in growing up. I think all these experiences really did make me that much more away. This article is so well put! Thanks Zanita!

  • Y.G.

    Surprisingly interesting and relevant post.

  • Leandra Medine

    So my parents and I basically got to the United States at the same time (my mom literally got here, my dad looked at her and POOF! she was pregnant) and though I’ve lived my life mispronouncing pretty quotidian words and nodding in false agreement when friends were all, “hey! did you see 101 Dalmations yet?” (101 LIVE DALMATIANS? WHERE WOULD I HAVE SEEN A HERD OF RARE HUGE DOGS IN NEW YORK CITY????), I also think the constantly feeling different, even though I ultimately wasn’t THAT different, was really good for my character building and moral fiber.

    Btw, Soph, who are The Beatles?

    • http://madamecouture.blogspot.com/ Emma Hager

      It was probably especially good for your moral fibers when that time came later in high school (not sure if it came at your school, but it is DEFINITELY at mine right now) where people were searching, scraping, begging to be different. While your differences may not have been as great as you’d chalked them up to be initially, at least it was genuine on your part and ultimately leant itself to things like sartorial endeavors, and MR, and actually wanting to create/write about the predicaments that make us SIMILAR. It’s just another perspective and in seeing differences I think we also become more dialed in to universal truths.

    • https://www.etsy.com/shop/amatoriaclothing Amatoria Clothing

      On the bright side, when you say something with an accent, or don’t know what something is, you always have the “but I’m foreign” excuse… I came here at age 12. No one really knows I wasn’t born here, unless someone brings it up. Or if my boyfriend makes fun of the way I say “Miami”.

  • http://alcessa.wordpress.com/ alcessa

    There’s this feeling about my life I have to live with … that I will forever live in a thing I decided to call “informational intermediarium”, meaning no matter how many necessary + really interesting + entertaining information I lay my eyes on, there will always be many, many more to consume, out of need, but also (strong) desire.

    While writing my diploma thesis I discovered you are supposed to sum up the research already done, do your own and point to the most important aspects you haven’t been able to deal with, because of time and quantity requirements. Anyway, somehow, some time after that, I must have transferred that to real life: you try to find out the most relevant information already existing, you do your own (lustful or dutiful) thinking and you leave some channels open for future input. This is what it is all about.

    Having set myself up as this … biological information interface (?) I have stopped worrying about the meaning of it all but concentrate on the processes themselves (discovering useful information, creating my own, establishing future input possibilities), especially if a topic is relevant or interesting. And as I grow older, I also need to discover new ways of recalling all that stuff (to drop the high flowing lingo: yes, I may or may not forget some interesting things, so there’s the question of connecting them so well they’ll bear with me … :-)

    I found out on this blog Superga is actually a brand … It is also a common noun my fellow urban Slovenes will use for any shoes of that kind (much like Birkenstocks for any Jesus slippers), but I never wondered why … :-)

  • Quinn

    There’s a mandatory course at my school called “Theory of Knowledge” aka philosophy and we are currently looking at language. Culture goes along with language and that is shown through the tone people use when they speak it and there are words that simply can’t be translated into English. This is where Google translate is at fault. I don’t know another word that I would use instead of oy! French and Hebrew have always been prominent languages in my life and I associate different feelings and memories when using each. One could argue that having a second language is like having a second soul.

    • Angela

      oooh, I like that.

    • Erica Rae Deutsch

      holy shit i’m in that class too at my university. “brain in a vat” anyone, anyone?

  • shadeofredblog.com

    I assume it is the ‘impostor syndrome’ that drives us, women, forward? Our need to prove ourselves?

  • Jessica Karalash

    Fabulous post. I’ve read about the impostor syndrome and its prevalence in women. In the moment, it can make you feel like you are “faking it until you make it”. However, taking moments to reflect on your achievements and past accomplishments make you realize that you more than deserved the moment and to be in it. The impostor syndrome can also leave you more open and willing to learn new things, meet new people – be open to the world around you. At least it has done this for me… replacing the impostor with a woman of culture, love, adventure and respect.

    http://www.kuratestyle.com

  • Qchop

    This is a thoughtful article but its message is really concerning. I struggle with ‘imposter syndrome’ in all elements of my life, but especially professionally as a phd student at an ivy league university. The conclusion of this article is not just that this kind of soul corroding self doubt has a silver lining, but the author is suggesting that it is NECESSARY in order to be the best one can be, and actually a net ‘good.’ Yet this is exactly the message that we need to be fighting and eventually overcoming if we ever want to be healthy individuals who value our innate worth/ worthiness.

    This kind of thinking is analogous to people who say “i only work well under stress.” In fact, studies show that people do NOT work better under stress. But people who buy into this mentality are too neurotic to try any other way because of whatever host of reasons makes them feel “not good enough”/ afraid of success/ afraid of failure etc etc.

    But back to imposter syndrome. The message of this article – that imposter syndrome is really good – is really toxic for people of all genders and ages but especially young women trying to make their way in the world. I think it’s a way of adapting to a male learning/ goal achieving style which says, I can accomplish nothing if my advisor/ mentor/ boss doesn’t, at first, treat me like crap, and then, later slowly allow me to redeem myself and prove my worthiness (even though all along you were worthy). Since, generally speaking, it’s harder for women to develop strong mentoring relationships (b/c most higher ranking people in any given field tend to be men) I would guess that many women never get to the point of ‘redemption’/ human worthiness because there is always a distance between her and her mentor. As a result she is stuck forever in the “i am not worthy” phase. Furthermore I think this then leeches out into our general gender dynamics/ expectations in society at large.

    Ultimately, I am very supportive of this kind of emotional exploration and exposition but only if done carefully, which is not the case here. Dig deeper, you are obviously capable.

    • Chelsea

      I completely agree. The implication of this post is that our ultimate value is excelling to the point in which we surpass others’ abilities, when what we should be valuing is achieving a sort of self-actualization and state of pure authenticity. The only thing “imposter syndrome” results in is low self-esteem. This article states that imposter syndrome may be a positive thing if it drives us to overachieve, when in fact, we can still overachieve, and will surpass out expectations in a healthier and more authentic way if our accomplishments come from a place of genuineness.

      http://www.jhunewsletter.com/2013/11/07/the-aesthetic-meets-the-eccentric-at-japan-fashion-week-2013/

    • http://alcessa.wordpress.com/ alcessa

      I only work well under some (!) stress. That’s because I suck at multitasking but need it as “one-woman-company” (aka freelancer) and a bit of stress enables me to think much more clearly and also efficiently. I usually do not overstress, however, because that would cause the opposite and I do want to reach my goals.
      Also, I like the fact that I may feel all smug about my achievements one moment and all in need of more the next one. I am not young anymore but still driven to find out about different things, partly because I feel it is never enough and partly because it is so great to find out about them. In that process, I don’t really care that much about my self-esteem – you are not supposed to ask so many questions at my age but act all-knowing instead (in the country), but that doesn’t stop me: I am too curious and information thirsty to care and it’s not just about me not being good enough, though it helps: I also want to learn all the time and even excel at some things because they are worth it.

    • http://www.glipho.com/belcusi Belén Cusi

      I’m not sure she’s saying that Impostor syndrome is actually a good thing, rather I got the idea that she’s suggesting a way to deal with it in the hopes of eventually overcoming it. It’s not an overnight process, and if dealing with it in a powerful way ultimately leads to success then isn’t that better than being crippled and defeated by it?

      Feeling “not good enough” is inevitable throughout life. The ideal thing would be to be able to control it, get rid of it, overcome it, but the reality is that our innately flawed sense of unworthiness (the human condition of loneliness) will persist and only in dealing with it powerfully can we realize our true worthiness, as you say.

      So what I think she’s trying to say, is that rather than fight the impostor syndrome that you experience (resistance leads to persistence), why not work with it, work harder and push yourself to continually improve. (Albeit there must be some presence of mind and self-acceptance, or, as you say, too much stress is deteriorating.)

      Hope this made sense :)

      -Belén
      Blog Me Crazy — glipho.com/blogging

      • Qchop

        The author in fact says “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.”
        I think it’s absurd to equate not studying with not feeling like an imposter – as if the only way you could get yourself to study, the only way to not fail to to feel like an imposter. The idea being that if you didn’t feel like an imposter you would loose all motivation to try and ultimately fail. THAT is the message here and it’s absurd. Even if feeling not good enough is recurrent feeling in life, that should not be what drives you to do everything. Aren’t there other things that drive you – such as liking what you are doing, looking forward to a sense of accomplishment, the rewards you will get from completing something etc etc.
        Moreover, even though she tries to conclude on a positive note by saying – one day we should try to eclipse imposter feelings, exactly how does she think that is going to happen? A lightbulb will go off? No, this is never going to happen for someone who feels like an imposter everyday. You cannot just have an epiphany one day that you are worthy unless you actually work on it day. And this is actually what Sheryl Sandberg is drawing our attention to when she discusses Tina Fey’s and her own experiences w/ imposter syndrome. Not just just give in to our more neurotic, anxiety driven impulses because we think that despite all the costs there is something to be gained. Rather Sandberg encourages us to question this very kind of thinking – unfortunately the author of this article doesn’t seem to get it.

  • http://madamecouture.blogspot.com/ Emma Hager

    First off, Sophie, as always, brilliant essay! Your pieces are always so poignant, funny, and true.
    After reading your essay and realizing there actually is something, somewhat official called Imposter Syndrome, it is safe to say that I totally have it. I have two very conservative friends and I am quite liberal. While we get on really, really well sometimes we get on the topic of a current event or political debate. It is, of course, two against one in this scenario which might be one of the reasons that makes me feel like I would know less than them, even when I do not. Truth is, I throw out stats/numbers/facts/names just the way they can, but I often back down because I feel like I may not know enough.
    Another scenario is with running. I do cross country and track at the varsity level at school, which means I run intensely and competitively six days a week for the whole year (save 1-2 weeks to give my legs a break in between seasons and pre-seasons, which means I am swimming or biking, not fully stopped). Yet, when people ask me if I am a runner my response is always: “No, well, I mean I run…but I am not a runner.” It’s weird, but somewhere in my head I’ve accepted this weird notion that unless I am winning gold medals at the Olympics or placing in the top ten at the Boston Marathon, then I am not “a runner.” It actually, I think, sometimes works against my full potential.

    I think part of me gets this from my mom. She is very humble — more humble than I — so she never really chalks anything up to her full accomplishments. She’s done so much more than she let’s herself accept, which might actually be cause for her brilliance, like you were saying above. In another instance, if people ask her where she went to college she’ll just respond “Oh, just a small-ish school on the East Coast” instead of saying “I attended Princeton.” So, I guess what I am getting at is the fine line that this may cause between being self-deprecatingly humble and just feeling totally inadequate about accomplishments.

    • Qchop

      This really resonates me. And just to add on – imagine what life would be like, what would be possible, if were to feel adequate and simply humble period (not self-deprecatingly so). Who knows what that would unlock – but I’m sure it would not be failure or any lower level of achievement than what we already have. After all isn’t there a fear embedded in here that something negative could come from not being self-deprecating or not feeling inadequate. That somehow if we lose that we will lose our will to achieve. When you really think about that, isn’t the totally nutty?

  • Hereshoping Themayanswereright

    I wish I had the imposter syndrome.Might have the opposite, where you do things that are only so-so and sometimes even embarrassingly bad, but you think they’re really great and it’s only when you look back yrs later that you realize how pitiful they actually were.

  • http://www.farandwildjewelry.com/ abigail lind

    i think i exist somewhere between impostor syndrome and whatever dude syndrome. i swing between days when the rabid perfectionist in me is like, “you call this your best?!” and other days when the deadbeat deadhead in me is like, “that was an awesome text. you’re nailing life man!”.

    abigail
    http://www.farandwildjewelry.com

    • Hereshoping Themayanswereright

      “that was an awesome text. you’re nailing life man!”. Totally relate to that…hahahahah

  • Zzlleenn Lee

    I love your writing and especially this article! It does summarize how I have been feeling!!!

  • Katharine

    I always thought that what music was in the charts was what I ‘should’ listen to, which is bloody ridiculous. I mean, have you listened to some of that shit recently?

    I only quite recently discovered my own taste in music. It’s great, telling friends that no, I haven’t actually heard the new Nicki Minaj song. And I’m not planning to either.

    http://theroseandherclothes.blogspot.co.uk/

  • http://www.anorexicescapades.com/ BougieHippie

    as they say…”fake it till you make it.” We all are our own worst enemies and I think that is kind of healthy to doubt yourself it give you fuel to look further and do better.

    http://www.anorexicescapades.com

  • Sarah
  • MsDenbi

    Felt the exact same way when I was younger, especially in middle school, but also through high school. I didn’t know who Queen was, and never watched the breakfast club. And when I’d say mascara, my friends would laugh.

    But I have to say, the older you get, the more you embrace those differences in yourself. However, at the time I was constantly concerned with liking and knowing all the stuff my friends deemed “cool”.

  • Tae

    The cover photo was part of a collaborative editorial

    shot by Zanita http://zanita.com.au/2013/10/louis-vuitton-the-spy-who-loved-me

    styled / modeled by Nicole Warne http://garypeppergirl.com/2013/10/louis-vuitton-the-spy-who-loved-me

    Thanks for bringing this complex to light, I don’t think most people give themselves the credit they deserve for their hard work and accomplishments xo

  • http://www.fancyalterego.wordpress.com/ Heather P.

    It’s like you get me!

    It took me a few years of teaching to not feel like I was fooling myself. Teaching is a career that you don’t have time to adjust to – you’re thrown into a classroom with paying students (in college, anyway) who want you to do your job, and do it well. They want you to know what you’re doing, and they smell fear.

    My years acting in plays helped. “Teacher Heather” is pretty much my own version of Sasha Fierce. She’s confident, stern but fair, and has a wickedly quick sense of humor. None of these are qualities I possess when I’m not at work. ;-)

  • frenchbystyle

    The worst symptom of this syndrome is, when you don’t believe in your own (sometimes great ideas) and then wonder how did everyone else achieve so much with even less originality than you have. Maybe it’s because I was always an out stander… In my country of origin as well as in my country of nationality. Non of the cultures were truly mine, and the feeling remained trough all the movings. But the bright side of this is, that by feeling an outsider you try harder to be relevant.

    http://frenchbystyle.com

  • http://www.elrincondemisalhajas.com/ El Rincón de Mis Alhajas

    Interesting your thought

  • Nenuphare24

    This is so timely! I have a “work” event that I have to “cover” as a “blogger” and I’m positively dreading it. Like I want to do it but I feel like I will make an ass out of myself. Also how does one “cover and event”?!!! It definitely doesn’t help that I realized too late that everyone and their dog now carries around a DSLR camera regardless of if they’re a professional or not and I have to walk around with my lame old point n’ shoot.
    Gaaaahhhhhh.

  • Charlotte Fassler

    Much of my success at my first internship in retrospect can be attributed to impostor syndrome. At 16 I was significantly younger than other employees and felt a great need to overcompensate for my lack of work/life experience. I remember memorizing the 3 floor office map and every employees name and initial so that I could sort mail the fastest of anyone there. I woke up early to read 4 news sites in addition to the trades and would put in grueling 13 hour days. Like Sophie’s friend, the feeling of inadequacy worked to my advantage as it forced me to soak up everything around me….Love this piece Sophie, really rings true!

  • simona

    Great post, thank you!! I feel like this every day and I fear that one of these days someone will discover the impostor that I am, but in the meantime I do my best to excel at what I do…

  • Noemi
  • http://marciayl.tumblr.com/ Marcia Lee

    also from central jersey, immigrant, spice girl lollipop collecting, subconsciously overcompensating for ESL and parents who lean exclusively on the punishment end of the reinforcement spectrum. this post really hit home, thank you Sophie.

    this post is very reminiscent of malcolm gladwell’s most recent book, david and goliath, which expounds theories of how conventional “disadvantages” may actually be beneficial to success. if you haven’t read it, i’d be more than happy to share it with you! it really helped reframe (if not change) the expectations I’ve had for myself.

  • http://www.newfoundlust.com/ Estefania N

    Sad the author is “Contributing Writer”, why not post his/her name?

    Great post!!

  • Fox

    I have just self diagnosed myself with this. My acheivements, although I could list them for my own benefit, seem to dissolve in to thin air. They remain on the résumé but the feelings of reinforcement that I am doing something well/right, fade faster than the applause when accepting an award. I am left to measure my successes in my darkest, most hopeless mind frames, by the number of photos of me brought up by a quick google image search or the dollar amounts I have been able to command for my specific skills.. Even that doesn’t resonate because I can only afford a sock on shop bop.
    I am the kid, clutching 15 soggy 1st place ribbons between my pruney little fingers without a smile on my face..
    Thanks for the post, I loved it.

  • emilyannestyle

    Great post. I remember feeling that way when I was hired for my current job. I felt like I was in a “right place at the right time” situation, and I was super lucky and had to prove myself. It’s been a slow climb of self-confidence. Painful? Definitely. Worth it? Absolutely.

    xo
    Emily
    emilyannestyle.com

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