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Unmasking imposter syndrome

When I arrived at Yale Divinity School to pursue a Master of Arts in Religion, I was excited, eager to start classes, and ready to meet some fellow classmates. I also secretly felt like a fraud.

Somewhere inside, I felt like I slipped past the admissions committee, or they made a mistake, or the recommendations from my professors carried me in without real merit. I was scared that I wasn’t up to the caliber of my fellow students, especially since my classmates at YDS are some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met and do important work. Even as I excelled in my coursework, I had a small nagging fear that my professors were going to wise up and show me the door. I felt like this after being hired in my current position; what do I know about fundraising and why would anyone give me money? I was half-convinced the first five donations I brought in were a fluke. Rationally, I know I earned my place in grad school and I’m a competent fundraiser, but that didn’t completely quiet the small voice in the back of my head.

It wasn’t until I read about imposter syndrome that I put a name to my feelings and realized I definitely wasn’t a fraud and I’m not the only one to feel like I snuck into my role by mistake.

In The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, Valerie Young defines imposter syndrome as the condition in which people “have a persistent belief in [their own] lack of intelligence, skills, or competence,” even when there’s loads of evidence that suggests otherwise. Smart, capable, rational people think their success is based on luck, being in the right place at the right time, personal likeability, a mistake, or based entirely on the help they received. The irony is that people who feel like imposters are most likely not – they’re competent, qualified high-achievers. Most often, women, people of color, people who come from a working class background or other marginalized groups feel the effects of imposter syndrome.

Young’s book is a good resource, especially if you’re deep in thinking you’re a fraud or if you’re making life choices based on fear of being “discovered” (i.e. changing jobs often). Here are some basic suggestions on dealing with imposter syndrome (note - Young points out that imposter syndrome largely affects women, so some of my tips are specific to a woman’s experience):

Fake it till you make it.

Valerie Young and Ask a Manager’s Alison Green suggest you pretend like you’ve got it together and fake your way through it. Or ask what would someone else in that position do? Eventually, you’ll realize that “faking” success is actually you being successful all along.

Name it and claim it.

Own up to your accomplishments, wholeheartedly. Women especially have an awful tendency to explain away their accomplishments. This Amy Schumer sketch about women being unable to accept a compliment is hilarious because it sadly rings so true (language NSFW):

One of the best personal development exercises I ever did was with the Leaders of Today and Tomorrow program. After spending five months getting to know other brilliant, driven emerging leaders, we had to come up with compliments for our fellow program participants. Others shared insightful compliments about me, and the only thing I could do was listen and say “thank you.” I think of that experience every time I feel the urge to explain away a particularly great accomplishment, and instead merely thank the compliment-giver.

Be your best advocate.

When I was a kid, I really wanted one of those goofy-looking marionette puppets. I’d go into the toy store and play with the marionette, thinking that the toy store staff would notice my brilliance and just give me a puppet because I was a marionette prodigy (seriously, guys). Sadly, I never became a marionette superstar. As a group, women are notoriously bad at self-promotion (because of all the help, or luck, or whatever excuse for success we conjure up). They could stand in the toy store, quietly demonstrating their puppeting skills, but will never be given that marionette.

Once you claim your own accomplishments, tell someone about it, preferably your supervisors. Tell someone you crushed the fundraising goal. Forward the email praising your partnership skills to your boss. Share on Twitter that you just ran a personal record at the 5K race. No one cares about your success unless you tell them to care. No one will think of you for that special project or promotion unless you tell them when you rocked a similar task. Plus, sharing your achievements will help you internalize that “yeah, my accomplishment really was that awesome.” Would I have been gifted a fuzzy marionette puppet if I asked? No, that’s not how capitalism and toy stores work… but you get the idea.

If Sandra Day O’Connor, Jodie Foster, Meryl Streep, Maya Angelou and Tina Fey felt like imposters and survived and excelled, so can I. Your accomplishments are yours - not because of luck, not just because you had help, not because people made a mistake. Next time you have a moment of impostor syndrome, just think of the words of our esteemed Minnesota Senator Franken – “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”

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