“I’m so stupid! I don’t belong here! You should just kick me out before I fail!”
As a teacher of honors and AP students, I’ve witnessed wails and tears from intelligent, high-achieving students when a B lands on their desk.
While it seems laughable for a teenager to over-dramatize an average grade, there is something universal at work here. Imposter syndrome is the persistent belief that you are not as competent as others think you are, that you have achieved success not by skill but by fraud. It comes with the constant worry that others will find out your “true” lack of ability.
Using what I have learned from my own experiences with imposter syndrome, I have coached numerous students, my husband, and a few friends when they’ve felt like a fraud. Here are some strategies for coping with these persistent negative thoughts.
Get an objective opinion or test
People who experience imposter syndrome think that they have achieved their success through luck or fraud, not their own skill. When I try to reassure students and friends that they are competent, intelligent individuals, they often rebuff me by saying that I’m biased and am just trying to make them feel better. The solution to this doubt is to take an objective test that presents the facts impartially.
My husband experienced imposter syndrome in his first job as a computer programmer. When he took an objective skills test, he did well, which reassured him that he did, in fact, have the skills needed for his job. Many companies have a standardized test that employees must take. Ask to see your results from your interview or to retake the test. There are also skills tests available online or through employment agencies.
If there is no objective test for your skillset, seek out an expert in your field for an objective opinion: a boss, HR manager, professor, or a colleague with more experience. With my students, I am an authority figure and can tell them exactly how their skills stack up against the hundreds of others I’ve taught. A person outside the situation with more experience than you can do the same.
During the past few months, I have been dealing with imposter syndrome as I work on my certification as a master knitter. Although I have been knitting since I was 11, I found myself thinking things like, “I’m the worst knitter. I always mess up. Everyone is better than me.”
Those with imposter syndrome tend to think emotionally and in hyperbole. Pay attention to your thoughts. Write down how many times you use extreme language like always, never, best, worst, everyone, and no one. At the end of the day, rephrase those statements to be more factual. For my knitting samples, I told myself, “I made one mistake today and had to redo four inches of a project.” When you look at the situation factually, and not emotionally, the truth starts to come out.
Another way to think factually is to make a list of your strengths and weaknesses. Divide the list into three categories: What you are good at, what you are average at, and what you need to improve. It’s likely that you have more skills in the “good” and “average” category than in the “needs improvement” group. For my knitting skills, I had one skill that needed improvement, two that were average, and dozens that were good. Seeing the long list of things that I do well in comparison to the few things that need improvement put things into perspective for me.
The probability of perfection
Dr. Abraham Low was a neuropsychiatrist in the 1930s and 1940s who developed cognitive-behavioral therapy. He spoke about perfectionism, a common problem for those with imposter syndrome. He noticed a pattern in his patients: “We hope to be exceptional and fear that we are not even average.” He found many of his patients had a fear of making a mistake because of what others would think of them. His insights emphasize that most people are indeed average — and it’s okay and natural to be a normal person, instead of a larger-than-life hero.
If you look at a normal bell curve used in statistical analysis, the majority of people fall in the “average” category — 95% are within two standard deviations of the mean. There are a few outliers who are either geniuses or completely incompetent, but the greatest probability is that you fall in with the majority of your peers. So set realistic standards. Even a genius is not perfect. As Dr. Low said, “Perfection is a hope, a dream, but most of all, an illusion.”
Students with imposter syndrome often come to me and say that they know they don’t belong in an honors class because one of their classmates got a score of 100 on a test, compared to their 85. They insist that everyone did much better than they did. I encourage them to stop comparing themselves to others, and I tell them that their sample size is skewed. If you compare yourself to the top three students instead of the one hundred others, you are going to feel like an imposter.
So, who are you comparing yourself to? The valedictorian? Your coworker with 30 years experience? People on social media who only post how wonderful their lives and careers are? The genius at your workplace? Characters in movies and television who overcome difficulties in a snappy 30 minutes? Chances are good that your sample size is skewed.
Instead of comparing yourself to others, look at how far you’ve come: What were you like five years ago? A year ago? Last month? Comparing yourself to others tears yourself down, but comparing yourself to your past allows you to see how far you’ve come. Give yourself credit for your accomplishments!
You don’t have to live burdened with the worry of imposter syndrome. Some simple tools can help you fight back and regain confidence in yourself.