A few weeks ago I went to breakfast with a new acquaintance. Our friend circles had been trying to set us up forever because apparently we were meant to be friends (spoiler alert: we were). After a few lattes, she said something that made my stomach do flips, “you’re so inspiring and motivating.”
Any normal person would lap this up and let it make them feel good for the rest of the day, but no, not me. It’s bothered me ever since, mainly because I feel like a big huge phony.
I’ve got a successful lifestyle website, I run a women’s group, I’m a woman in tech, and I’m respected in a lot of circles-I’ve got a lot going for me. Yet, I still can’t seem to shake the fear that one day everyone is going to wake up and figure out I’m a fraud who has zero ideas what she’s doing.
I feel a tremendous amount of pressure to live up to the image of this perfect woman who’s successful, has it together, available to everyone, and eloquent and poised that everyone seems to think I am. That kind of woman definitely doesn’t go home some days and eat ice cream for dinner while she ignores the pile of dirty laundry that’s piling up on her bathroom floor or cries when the asshole she’s dating hurts her feelings, but I do. So, how can I possibly be that first woman that everyone seems to think I am?
Apparently, I’m not the only one that suffers from what psychologists call “imposter syndrome,” or the concept that we can’t internalize our accomplishments and a persistent fear of being discovered as a “fraud.” The great novelist Maya Angelou once said, “I have written 11 books but each time I think ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now, I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.” Angelou was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and won five Grammys for her spoken recordings, plus a myriad of other awards- yet despite all the acclaim she couldn’t shake the feeling she’d be “found out.”
So, I’m not completely crazy (well, maybe I am) for thinking that at any moment the Fraud Squad is going to find me and rip the rug up from underneath me and expose me for what I really am, a clueless 23 year old with a week old Chick-Fil-A cup in my car who still calls my dad crying when I get into fender-benders. So, how do I start internalizing my success and seeing the worth that other’s see in me when I look back into the mirror?
A few months ago I was talking to one of my mentors lamenting on my struggles to feel perfect all the time. She shelled out some tough love and told me, “You’re doing this to yourself. Stop acting like you’re so damn perfect and people will stop believing you are. Own up to your own mistakes and be willing to say, “I have zero idea what I’m doing” when you need to.” She drew three big circles on a white board like the one below and explained to me that just like when you throw a pebble in a pond, your actions have a direct effect on how other people perceive you. Am I the direct cause of my own feelings of inadequacy and never quite feeling like I measure up?
While there are many causes of imposter syndrome, women tend to be subjected to the feeling more frequently than men. This is mainly due to pre-existing sexist stereotypes that call our professional competence into question. Simply put, as women, we have far more to prove than men after decades behind a stove instead of in the workforce. If you compound that with social media, a glossy newsreel of our lives versus the messy psychological reality, you’ve got the recipe for self-doubt. But maybe despite all the obvious cultural reasons to feel this way, maybe we really our own worst enemy when it comes to imposter syndrome.
As the saying goes, we “compare our insides with other people’s outsides”, and judge ourselves for what we feel we lack as a consequence. Since we’re isolated to knowing only knowing our own thoughts, we can’t hear others barrage of self-doubt or feelings of inadequacy. It’s easy to assume that everyone around you has it “together” and that you’re the only one who feels like you’re stumbling around adulthood like one of those cartoons that’s slipped on a banana and goes on a 10-second graceless fall before they face plant.
Maybe our mothers and all of those self-help books really had a point when they told us to “fake it till we make it?” Men sure as hell do, so why can’t we as women? Women don’t even apply for positions unless they’re certain they meet 100 percent of the prerequisites. (Men, meanwhile, tend to send in their resumes if they possess a mere 60 percent of the job qualifications.) I think if we’re ever going to start getting over our imposter syndrome and seeing ourselves as the successful women we are, and we’ve got to start seeing our achievements as products of our best inner qualities like our talent or work ethic. It’s okay to let the world see you fail, sweat, or struggle. We do not have to be the glossiest version of ourselves. The only way we can change our behavior is through reflection, and the only way we can reflect is to accept that we are not perfect, and we don’t have to be.