On Impostor Syndrome

Dear blog readers: Posting will be sporadic, if at all, over the next two weeks. I’m working two different jobs that each require a significant time investment. When not working, I’m planning to make sure that I’m practicing good self-care habits so that I come through the next few weeks with my health and sanity intact. I should be back to posting regularly the first week of May.

Last week, my RSS reader alerted me to several news articles about Impostor Syndrome (including this one from Slate that argues that Impostor Syndrome is not an actual syndrome, but rather a phenomenon). I did not regard this sudden spate of articles as a coincidence. So, as per usual, I decided to write a blog post about it.  

Whether or not Impostor Syndrome is or should be considered an actual syndrome or a phenomenon, it is, at its core, the fear of being exposed as a fraud. High achieving people (including, but not limited to PhD holders) often feel like frauds, unable to believe in themselves and their abilities despite their considerable successes and achievements.

I am no expert on Impostor Syndrome, but here’s what I know: every writer I know feels like a fraud.

I know this because Impostor Syndrome currently has me by the throat and won’t let go. I’m working on an article that I don’t feel like I know enough about or understand well enough to write about. I’m terrified that someone is going to call me out on it. I’m afraid of being exposed as a fraud, for trying to pass myself off as a real writer and scholar.

Every single one of my internal voices of doubt, fear, and shame begin have begun to whisper to me.

“Who told you you could do that?”
“Who the hell do you think you are?”
“What gave you the right to write about X?”
“What makes you think you’re such an expert?”

The voices are trying to convince me to give up, to admit that I have no idea what I’m doing.


What I’ve come to realize is this:

It is entirely okay to feel like like a fraud, even if it is seriously fucking uncomfortable.

At the first sign of any emotion we (I) deem “negative,” like feeling like an utter fraud, we often feel we must do something (anything!) to restore our equilibrium and make ourselves feel better. So we do things that we think will alleviate the feelings. We stuff down the uncomfortable feelings with food, set them aside with Facebook, or anesthetize ourselves with alcohol. Unfortunately, all of the stuffing, denying, and anesthetizing our feelings only works for a little while. The feelings don’t go away; they fester, smolder, and eventually leak out all over the rest of our lives.

What if we honored our uncomfortable feelings and vulnerable moments? What would that look like?

Maybe we could start by validating our own feelings. I’ve started trying validate my own uncomfortable feelings, hollering to empty rooms, “I FEEL SO MASSIVELY UNCOMFORTABLE RIGHT NOW!” We might even just letting the feelings be there for as long as they need to be there. There’s no reason to fight them. (Thank you, meditation practice for that insight.)

We might start caring much more about ourselves and much less about what other people think about us. We’d realize that we are not alone. We’d let the people closest to us see that we feel like frauds, even though we look like we have our shit together. We’d share our stories of Impostor Syndrome with each other. We’d feel more connected. We (I) would stop trying to look cool all the time. We might, at times, fully embrace our uncool selves and give ourselves permission to be dorky.

We might ask for help when we’re struggling. I struggle mightily with asking for help, like I wrote here. As a person with a PhD, aren’t I supposed to know everything in the world? What if I had to admit that I didn’t know something? Wouldn’t the whole world then know I was a fraud? I’m trying to learn to use the phrase,“I need your help with X.” with sincerity and without shame.

But here, I think, is they key. Letting the feelings just be there and feeling them doesn’t mean that we let them hold us back from what we want and need to do in life. As I learned way late in life, just because you’re feeling a certain way doesn’t mean you have to act on the feeling.  Just because I’m feeling like a total fake about my article doesn’t mean that I have to let those feelings control whether or not I write it. I can write despite the feelings.

In the end, we’re all feeling like frauds, but desperately trying to make other people see that we’re competent people and worthy of love and care. Because we are worthy of those things.  


[Photo: the nose of an old car I spotted in Boulder, April 2016. Full image available here.]