I know I’m hardly the only person in my circle of acquaintances who suffers from
an occasional frequent constant bouts of imposter syndrome, so I’ve had it on the brain lately.
Just so we all know what we’re talking about, here’s the Wikipedia definition:
The impostor syndrome, sometimes called impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome, is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.
Kind of the polar opposite of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, Impostor Syndrome is a fairly common feeling, sources note, among smart and accomplished people. Which is ironic, because I’m willing to bet that as soon as most of you read that, you thought “But then I can’t have impostor syndrome, because I’m not really smart or accomplished!”
This, ladies and gentlemen, is what we in the business call a Catch-22.
Ahem. In any case, I started thinking about this feeling of being an imposter who will be found out at any moment at dinner the other night. There were 12 or so people at the meal, and I was seated next to a lovely lady that I know slightly. She politely asked me about my work and I spent a minute or two giving a very simplified explanation of what I do for my employer’s website.
The nice lady smiled and admitted that such technological talk was over her head. I laughed and admitted that music (her husband’s lifelong career and love) is a complete mystery to me! But a small part of me was thinking about the ways in which my work is perfect for me.
I wonder…how much of our impostor syndrome feelings are caused by our being good at what we do? Or at least caused by a particularly good fit between our job and our skills/personality/talents.
For example, I love editing. Whether it’s structural editing or simple copyediting to check commas and capitalization, editing is satisfying in a deep way. To me, editing is such an obvious and easy thing to do, so natural, that I don’t see my editing abilities as anything particularly interesting.
However, non-editors are frequently astonished that anyone would enjoy the nitpicky world of editing. They express admiration for my skill, but inside I squirm and think “If they only knew how easy it has been for me, they’d know I was an impostor.” It doesn’t feel like I struggled to learn how to be an editor, so consequently I’m not sure it has any value.
I’ve always had terrible feelings of impostor syndrome at work (aided and abetted by a few spectacularly toxic work environments that made me a shaking wreck of a human being). In general, most of my bosses have declared themselves pleased with my work and praised me, but I’ve always believed that if they just learned more or came to their senses, they’d realize I’m actually a terrible employee.
I’ve always had the fear that at any moment my employers would realize their terrible mistake, notice that I have no idea what I’m doing, and fire me. Over the years, thanks to a lot of therapy and good medication (Zoloft: It’s what’s keeping me from killing you!), I don’t actually think that every day.
Just, y’know, once a week. Maybe twice.
Why would I think I’m terrible at what I do? Because I make mistakes. (Nobody else makes mistakes, doncha know, just me.) Also, sometimes I have to redo work. (Clearly something that only happens to me.) And…sometimes I have to ask for help because I don’t understand what I’m doing. (Off with my head!)
At least for me, impostor syndrome is clearly related to David Burns’ list of cognitive distortions. But I’m beginning to think that there’s more to it. Perhaps I need to spend more time remembering that not everyone can edit, write, and generalize from search analytics to improve search results. And even if I’m squirming right now to even type it…maybe I can do those things. Maybe I might do them well? Possibly?
Or not. I’m going to, uh, go bury my head under the pillow now, okay?
(In a hilarious coincidence, when I was halfway through writing this, I looked at Facebook and realized that the amazing and talented Greta Christina had written an essay on TheHumanist.org about impostor syndrome and I immediately thought “Why should I bother finishing? She’s so much smarter, nobody could possibly want to read what I have to say.” And then I thought “Waitaminute…”)