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Read this if you doubt yourself

Unpacking the imposter syndrome

Izzi McDonnell | 11/30/16 11:39am
| Updated 11/30/16 11:39am

Cagatay Orhan/ Unsplash

It’s a sharply cold morning. I’m trying to get all my assignments done: just another typical day of college life. But, staring at my laptop screen, I begin to feel a creeping heaviness in my chest. An unbearable weight on my shoulders. I can feel the tears coming. It always happens like this. Hours later, all I’ve been able to do is write three words that seem to stare at me from my computer screen because I’ve been crying in bed all day. Inept. Unable to do any of things my peers have been doing all day.

Have you ever doubted yourself so much, that you felt nothing you do would ever merit any value or praise? It’s a lot of feelings at once that it becomes too difficult to explain. Your emotions become uncontrollable, whirling eddies that prevent you from getting anything done. It’s the “washing machine of negativity”, as my Dad would call it when I was growing up and would call him every time I had emotional breakdowns like this.

The term “imposter syndrome” was coined in 1978 in a study by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes of Georgia State University, which originally concluded that the syndrome affects mostly women in professional fields, but now is applicable to anyone in society. Their research illustrated that many high-achieving women tended to believe they weren’t intelligent and that they were over-evaluated by others. Imposter syndrome refers to the experience when you are most vulnerable and when all your doubts come crashing down on you: it is an experience of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement”. While these people “are highly motivated to achieve,” they also “live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds”. I experience the imposter syndrome often, and these feelings have only gotten worse after being in university for four years. The piling up of pressures to achieve and be a certain way, sometimes become suffocating. I wanted to understand more about it so I could better address where these feelings of inadequacy and helplessness were coming from.

In our society, there’s a huge pressure to achieve, succeed, and be productive. You then have a situation where self-worth becomes contingent on achieving said success. Furthermore, women are also asked to be and do many different things all at once, (such as achieving financial success, while adhering to societal expectations of motherhood and unreachable, ever-changing beauty standards) and that can become extremely overwhelming.

These past few weeks, especially following the result of the election, I felt like I was desperately needed to function in a capacity that I was no way near ready to handle. I was desperately needed to become an activist. And a strong one, like that of my idols such as Gloria Steinem, Malala Yousafzai, Emmeline Pankhurst and the like. But I’m still a student, just trying to figure myself out. Just trying to remain centered and balanced. Just trying to look after my own physical and mental health. Trying to feel ok.

With imposter syndrome, you have problems believing you are worthy of any praise at all. I’ve had this problem of perfectionism throughout my life, and I thought it had gone away for a while, but when new challenges arose i.e. a renewed fight for inclusion and freedom, all my doubts came crashing down me once again in a way I could no longer contain and control.

Millennials can also feel impostor syndrome more as they enter the workforce during a time of so much technological advancement and with constant comparison of themselves on social media. According to the same report by Clance and Imes, “Anyone can view themselves as an impostor if they fail to internalize their success”. Even internationally acclaimed writers, actresses and activists can experience imposter syndrome. A few examples are Maya Angelou, Tina Fey, and Kate Winslet. But, if we don’t let ourselves internalize our successes, or reevaluate how we see ourselves, impostor syndrome can lead to serious anxiety and depression. And once we get into these mental states, we aren’t able to help ourselves or help others.

Social media is definitely a huge part of what drives my own imposter syndrome: having so many beautiful women, who look nothing like me, at my fingertips, only brings back all the feelings of inadequacy and self-hatred. That might mean I’m overly sensitive, but that’s how I feel. Or maybe it’s the effect of so much body monitoring and the media’s effect on female self-esteem. Constantly seeing women who are the ideal, and knowing I look nothing like it; not ever seeing anyone who looks remotely like me present in the media. With technology and social media, we have become a society of images. Of the superfice. As Omar Bradley once said “Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants”. We’ve come so far in terms of technological advance, but we haven’t taken the time necessary to reflect upon developing our own selves. There’s a particular quote that helps to balance myself and keeps my critical mind in check: “To blame yourself for one mistake, is like blaming mother nature for the seasons”. Sadly, I don’t remember who said it.

I know my deep-rooted feelings of inadequacy aren’t going to disappear overnight. But I also know if I analyze why I’m feeling a certain way, and look at where these feelings are coming from, I’ll be better able to overcome imposter syndrome. Below I’ve written down a few points of how I try to overcome self-doubt:

  • Own your achievements. Don’t push away praise and good feedback. Let yourself feel good about it and then move forward. While big goals are important, it’s healthy for you to celebrate the little wins that bring you closer to those goals.
  • Realize the value you provide. Write down things your closest friends and family say about how wonderful you really are. Take note of how you make others feel.
  • Comparisons don’t mean anything and will just get you down. So stop making them. Get better at recognizing your personal growth and progress instead of comparing yourself to others because growth is what counts.
  • Keep a record of the nice things people say about you. Revisit those notes when the imposter syndrome comes back to haunt you.
  • Lean on others – let yourself be supported by people who care about you. Talk to your mentors, family, friends, roommates, peers.
  • Create real connections. Hug more and drink tea often. Have meaningful conversations that will allow for human connection rather than comparison.
  • Remember what you do well and build upon your passions.