There’s a moment early on in “The Good Place” – before the spoilers, the reboots, the philosophical conundrums. It’s in the very first episode: Eleanor asks Chidi if she can trust him – then reveals her big secret: “I’m not supposed to be here.”
It’s a theme that runs through the whole first season and beyond: who belongs, and why? In the case of this show, Eleanor’s revelation makes quite a bit of sense — she’s been mistaken for another person. But the feeling that Arizona-dirtbag-Eleanor had when surrounded by good people is relatable.
We’ve all had that sense of feeling out of place, like you don’t belong, like you’re a fraud and you’d better hope that nobody finds out. And that you’re the only one who has ever felt that way.
That feeling is a lie. It’s so common a lie, in fact, that there’s a name for it: imposter syndrome.
“Imposter syndrome is the lies we tell ourselves,” says Katie Rapier, PhD, assistant professor of philosophy at Boston College. “We … try to hide the fact that we feel this way even though our peers are suffering in the same way.”
And it’s a lie that’s shaped by the environment we’re in. “Imposter syndrome only thrives in environments that foster feelings of inferiority and unhealthy competition,” she says. People in college or grad school, competitive work environments, or on social media are especially susceptible.
The most sinister lie that imposter syndrome tells us is also the key to unlocking the cure: it’s about overcoming the feeling that you are alone, that you’re the only one who could feel this way. And the best way to do that is to share experiences with other people in your situation.
I talked to several young adults with different jobs about their relationship to imposter syndrome and how they cope with it. What they had to say revealed some common patterns.
What it looks like for our generation
Imposter syndrome can mean different things to different people, and it manifests in different ways. Some people get defensive; others work as hard as they can to prove themselves; while others might become overwhelmed and swallowed up by it. But the uniting thread is that feeling of inadequacy — that you aren’t where you should be, and you’re the only one.
Katie, professor of philosophy: “When I was in graduate school I never outgrew the sense I didn’t belong… that I could never do enough and that I would never be successful.”
Rebecca, content specialist: “I’m not an artist or a designer, so when I started my job I immediately felt out of place — and sometimes I still do. I often feel like I continually remind myself, especially when it comes to collaborating with others who have a different lived experience than I have, that I’m not a ‘traditional’ creative. That’s when I start comparing myself to people.”
Patrick, graduate student in psychology: “Figuring out the best way to take my skills and apply them with a client was difficult. And there are times when I felt like I wasn’t doing that, that I wasn’t able to provide what the client needed to get better. And then I would start to think, ‘Why me? Why are you seeing me, and what benefit am I giving to you as a therapist over someone else?’”
Meg, social media strategist: “It’s a constant comparison game. Also, when you work with clients who are putting their money on the line for a ROI (return on investment) that is hard to definitively measure, it can sometimes feel like you’re grasping at straws to show that you are the ‘expert.’”
Kelly, graduate student in history: “A lot of people were really very driven and would talk in these lofty elevated terms that I didn’t understand. I engage in my area of study very concretely, so I felt like I wasn’t doing things right because I couldn’t engage on the same level as them and didn’t know what they were talking about.”
So, how do we fix it?
Hope is not lost if you feel like a fraud at work or school. There are many ways of dealing with imposter syndrome, but I wanted to hear from my conversation partners about how they overcame this paralyzing feeling and reminded themselves that they are competent. Together, we came up with a few simple strategies to overcome this feeling of overwhelming underperformance.
1. Talk it out
One thing came up time and time again in my interviews was the healing power that comes with realizing that you’re not alone, and that you’re not the only one that feels this way. It lessens the feeling of being a fraud who’s going to be “found out,” and it can help put those feelings of inadequacy in check.
Rebecca: “Whatever you’re involved in, develop relationships with those people. Don’t be afraid to have conversations about those doubts you might be having about something, because you never know — the people around you who may seem like they have it all together are probably having thoughts just like yours. Check in with each other. For all you know, none of you really know what’s going on in that class discussion about *insert philosopher’s name here* and you’re all just faking it until you make it. Then laugh about it.”
Katie: “Talk to other people about what you enjoy about your job and the things you still don’t understand. The latter involves a level of vulnerability that often doesn’t feel safe, but sometimes others are waiting for someone to breach the topic. I also found mentors that were encouraging and helped me confirm my progress. I’m trying to be one of those mentors, myself.”
Kelly: “I was in a course where I left the classroom to cry. I didn’t understand what was going on. I felt like I was being dismissed. I felt so out of place and I went and took a lap around the building and got a text from another student who’d actually meant to send it to her boyfriend. She basically said, ‘I have no idea what’s going on. I feel like I don’t belong in this class. So maybe I don’t belong.’ Well, me too — that’s why I wasn’t in the classroom! We ended up talking with our class and the entire class felt the same way.”
2. Remind yourself of your strengths
Here’s the real secret: impostor syndrome is a liar — it is a voice of fear that wants you to stay safe and avoid risks. So one of the best ways to combat that feeling of not being enough is to remind yourself of the many ways in which you are so much more than enough.
Meg: “Honestly, I cope by keeping some of my favorite work that I’m really proud of nearby to look at when I’m feeling like I am not cut out for this.”
Patrick: “One of the things that has been really helpful for me is realizing I do have a certain amount of expertise in this area. I have developed a set of skills that other people don’t have. Because when you’re surrounded by other people who are developing along the same lines as you are, it’s easy to forget that those things are actually skills.”
Kelly: “I am shy. I have trouble participating in class and drawing ideas together right in the moment. But I realized I research really well, and I can regurgitate them in a way that’s expressible to general audiences. That’s a thing that’s hugely, massively important, but grad school does not reward whatsoever — but it’s a skill I’m proud to have.”
3. Allow yourself to fail
And finally, you’ve got to allow yourself to fail. You are not perfect — none of us are — and it’s okay. You cannot succeed at everything — but that doesn’t change the person you are.
Patrick: “Part of it was being okay with recognizing that I wasn’t always going to be good at everything that I did. And that some days I’d feel more competent as a researcher. Other days I feel more competent as a therapist. And that was okay with me.”
Imposter syndrome is a monster that preys on our biggest insecurities and tells us we’re alone. But imposter syndrome is only as big as we let it be, so remember: You are in control, and you matter. And in Katie’s words, don’t forget that “success is personal, not comparative. You are not an imposter. You did not deceive anyone into letting work this job or study at this institution. Don’t believe the lies you tell yourself — you are capable!”