4 Ways to Counteract Imposter Syndrome

On Accepted Students Day, I was surrounded by bright-eyed fellows who were equally as excited and shocked by the fact that we were sitting at a small gathering at Brown University. I made the cut; I got the stamp of approval I was seeking. Why is it that I had a pit in my stomach and was still waiting for someone to poke their head in the room and say, “Ginelle Testa? There’s been a mistake. You actually can’t go here.” I held a deep perception of being a big phoney; a very real sense that I had somehow managed to weasel my way through the application process and the gig was going to be up very soon. I couldn’t shake the idea of being an imposter.

Imposter syndrome disturbs many of us. In fact, according to the California Institute of Technology Counseling Center, over 70% of people studied reported experiencing this phenomenon at some point in their lives. Perhaps it’s right before a presentation, in an intimate relationship, while getting a raise at work, or when given a leadership role.

It’s the feeling that we don’t belong in a role or situation, that we’re going to be found out, and anything that has come our way is the result of luck or a mistake. It’s thinking that we are the only ones with imperfections and that others somehow have it all together more than us. Part of the issue is also drawing worth from external sources, thinking that if we just get the next thing or recognition, then maybe that is when we’ll feel solid and like we’re enough.

What is so strange about this phenomenon is that there is often substantial proof that contradicts the dialogue of not being worthy playing out in our heads. As Psychology Today explains "The telltale sign of imposter syndrome is a disconnect between perceived and actual performance. 'Imposters' have ample objective evidence that they are doing well - good performance reports, promotion history, grades, etc. Yet they feel that somehow they've been faking it or skating along on thin ice." 

Why is it that we feel this way? Where do these driving thoughts come from? Much of it seems to stem from a fear of failure, though some researchers believe that “attitudes, beliefs, direct or indirect messages that we received from our parents or from other significant people in our lives early on may have contributed to the development of imposter feelings.” It’s not uncommon for parents to have certain expectations for their kids, no matter how unreasonable. I have a friend who jokes about her stereotypical Asian parents who had wild expectations for her that lead her to have crippling doubt and low self-esteem, no matter what she achieved.

Ironically, habitual overachievers and those who are highly intelligent and successful are more likely to suffer from symptoms of imposter syndrome. I found this most fascinating when I heard an NPR Story about a huge portion of MIT students dealing with the phenomenon. Consequences can range from six suicides in 14 months, like at MIT, to disruptive anxiety and constant unease.

Although this phenomenon has the potential to be detrimental to living the life we’re meant to, imposter syndrome does not have to be crippling. There are ways we can meet the fear and doubt with fiery validation of ourselves, brave non-judgement, and by calling on loved ones to help propel us forward when all else fails.

Here are 4 Ways to Counteract Imposter Syndrome:

1.) Remember that Everyone has their own Unique Struggles

How often do we look at another person and paint a picture in our minds of what their lives must look like? Social media doesn’t help with the issue of comparison, we’re always putting our best selves forward, and leaving the rest tucked away. I was in a long term relationship a few years ago and would always put the sweetest photos on Facebook. Some acquaintances were shocked when the relationship ended because they had the perception that things were perfect. In reality, the glossy images were a facade. The relationship had been in shambles long before I took down our misleading photos.

It’s important to remember that everyone has their own unique struggles and stories playing out. We’re often acutely aware of what we perceive to be our own downfalls, while looking at others and thinking, Gosh, he's got it all figured out. What a cool life he's living. We don’t take into consideration that others also have struggles, even if they emanate envy-sparking perfection while backpacking across Europe. Perhaps he’s trying to travel away his problems, who knows! It’s helpful to soften our unreasonable expectations of ourselves and remember not to compare our insides to others outsides. 

2.) Celebrate Yourself and all of Your Victories

I recently heard on an NPR Podcast, Invisibilia, that it takes 8 compliments to balance out 1 criticism. In that case, we should be stockpiling validation and admiration! When someone doesn’t like something about me, it can eat away at me. When they compliment me, I often shrug, or interject some sort of disclaimer. Why is it so hard to take compliments and celebrate our victories? We should be gentle and loud and celebrate them: big, small, all the victories. Get a few things done that you intended to do for the day? YAY! Get out of bed in the morning? Wahoo! Get the guts to ask out that cute girl? High five! You rock! 

One of my favorite body positivity authors, Lauren Marie Fleming, says that we judge the greek God Narcissus too harshly. What is so wrong with celebrating ourselves?

It’s so easy to focus on the ways I perceive myself as not good enough, and if that’s constantly the lens that I use to view my life, I will always find ways that I’m falling short. I struggle with being incredibly self-deprecating when it comes to playing in a recreational street hockey league, telling myself that I suck, no one wants me to play because I ruin everything, and that I'll never get better. But, I have to remind myself that even the fact that I’m showing up to play in a co-ed street hockey league twice a week makes me a bad ass bitch, let’s be honest.

3.) Know that you are Already Good Enough

Look at the diet industry in our country. We’re flooded with messages about how we’re never good enough and the next fix is going to change that. What that’s lead to for many of us is tirelessly striving for a gold star in all that we do. It’s endlessly reaching for a mirage of absolute validation that we did the thing and we are the best. Perfectionism is Imposter Syndrome’s equally rapacious cousin. The two are inextricably linked. Despite chronic overachieving, perfectionists are left with a persistent empty feeling in their guts, feeling like anything good that comes their way is an illusion.  

Perfectionism takes many forms, but for me it often looks like procrastination. I’ll agonize over a task so much that I avoid doing it entirely, or I’m left to do it at the last minute with heaps of anxiety. If I can’t do something perfectly, my inner child stomps her feet and doesn’t want to do it at all. I found this happening during the web development portion of creating my website. I wanted to cry and give up because I couldn’t get it perfect. This all or nothing thinking disrupts creativity, productivity, and happiness. To break free from perfectionism, I’ve found that it’s been so important to remind myself that I’m already “good enough.”  Launching my blog required me to accept that none of it was going to be perfect, there are still quirks that I could do without. But, nothing would ever get done if I lived that way all the time. I had to just be gentle with myself and know that it was going to be beautiful and worth it, with all its imperfections.

                                                         Picture Source - David London

                                                         Picture Source - David London

4.) Employ Your Friends as Mirrors

So much of imposter syndrome is seeing myself through a fun house mirror. Sometimes I see myself as tiny and insignificant while other distortions reflect myself back as grotesque and enormous. I find that my lens for viewing myself is often foggy and crooked, but my friends have more objectivity.

Their mirrors are straighter and hold more clarity. They’re often able to remind me of simple truths by reframing things I’ve stated or by pointing out the distortions in my thinking. Sometimes I’m so quick to say I’m failing, doing something wrong, or that I’m innately bad. My loved ones are able to list the actions that I’m presently taking and the character I’m embodying that contradicts my my meandering perspective.

The theory that those around us can be mirrors is one that I have been exploring more recently. One of the most profound experiences I had was with my meditation instructor, a lovely woman I meet with weekly who serves as a mentor to my practice and journey in our lineage. I was telling her that I’m a total mess and never feel like I have my shit together. Her response was that she does not experience me that way and she imagines that others also do not experience me as a mess. She said with a concerned face “I wonder what saying ‘I’m a mess’ is doing to the atoms in your body.”c

Her utter compassion for my humanity stopped me in my tracks. Rather than saying “I feel like a mess” or, “I’m having an off day,” I realized I was making the statement into a judgement call on my sense of self. All it took was her reflecting back to me what I was saying without the critical distortion I was viewing myself through. Loved ones that we trust and respect can act as neutral mirrors that guide us towards loving ourselves as we are.  My friends’ mirrors are often gentler, with softer edges.

In Sum

Gentleness is the key to counteracting imposter syndrome. It’s a thread that runs through each of the tactics outlined. The phenomenon is sneaky, often speaking to us in our own voice. But when we learn to practice gentleness, we’re better able to identify the cruelty in the tone of imposter syndrome and instead cultivate the feeling that we’re enough, we’re human, and we are worth celebrating.