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Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]

"You think that adulthood will hit and you'll suddenly be more capable. But that doesn't happen, ever, does it?"~ Sally Hawkins

"You're not very good at taking compliments," a friend recently told me. I wanted to object, but I knew she was right and there's really no use fighting an obvious truth. I just shrugged awkwardly. "I'm just not sure what to do with them," I answered. As if a compliment were a tangible object, a knick-knack I never wanted or needed. It could be that I don't think I deserve a compliment, but that explanation feels a bit shallow. I recently read that ~70% of adults feel some degree of imposter syndrome at least once in their lifetime. People experiencing imposter syndrome believe that they are undeserving of their achievements or that they aren't as competent or intelligent as others might think.

For example, if I do well at work, I might chalk it up to luck. If I do well in a race, I might downplay the amount of work and hours of training that went into my performance. And if someone, or even a lot of people, compliment something I write, I still usually hate it. We are our own worst critics, after all.

I'm fairly affluent in a few disciplines, but I'm also baldly aware of how much I don't know. So much so that the things I'm quite sure about pale in comparison to the vast landscape of things-to-know-that-I-currently-don't. On the flip side of this a keen awareness that if I don't know much, a lot of other people don't either. And although I'm sure that most of us are faking it 'til we make it, my standards for myself are incredibly high while my standards for others are scraping the bottom of the bare minimum.

The final dynamic in feeling like an imposter, or being bad at taking compliments, is that I know I could be better, as a writer, as an athlete, as a human. But knowing that you have unrealized potential is no excuse to feel inadequate, or to feel like you don't deserve a compliment. On your way to realizing your potential, you're likely to encounter a success or two, or three. So here are my tips for combating imposter syndrome. Some came from my therapist, and some came from my brain (you're welcome).

1. Know that the feeling is normal.

Most healthy people experience a version of imposter syndrome at some point in their life. It might even be healthy to a degree, because people who always feel entitled to praise and success are often egomaniacs or dealing with narcissistic personality disorder. You are entirely prosaic.

2. Remind yourself of everything you’ve accomplished.

Academics keep a curriculum vitae, roughly translated as “life’s work.” More than a resume, it lists everything they have accomplished. I once applied to a teaching position and had to craft one myself, and it helped to see all of my accomplishments laid out in one place. It may be helpful to do the same, and revisit it every time you feel like an imposter.

3. Find a mentor.

Ask a senior colleague, manager, teacher, or coach to help you navigate situations that might be intimidating. Watch how they navigate those same situations and try to emulate their habits. For example, I watched how a mentor of mine would prepare for important meetings and emulated her working style going forward. This helped me feel more prepared and less like I didn't belong at the table.

4. Mentor someone else.

On the other hand, it might help you to become a mentor. Helping someone else can illuminate how much you know. Because many of us are conscious of everything we don't know, we may feel extra fraudulent. Helping out someone who is a beginner can give you a renewed perspective on your own success.

5. Expect to fail.

The author Anne Lamott titles every new work “Shitty First Draft.” And Winston Churchill said, "Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm." When you start something new, you're bound to mess up. If failing makes you feel like an imposter, you'll never avoid it, so it's better to just accept failure, learn from it, and move on.

Every so often, I look back on how far I've come: in the workplace, in writing, in athletics, and I'm often surprised by how much I've grown and how much more able I've become. Notice what you can do if you get out of your own way. Acknowledge your success, enjoy it, and then keep on working.

P.S. Watch a video animation of Ira Glass's beginner/mastery quote, listen to a recent episode of the Smart Athlete podcast featuring yours truly, or watch this Ted Talk about imposter syndrome by Elizabeth Cox.


Sarah Rose

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