If you’re still not sure, pay attention to your chronic anxiety levels. The difference between being grateful for a lucky (or divinely granted) break and feeling like you are a fake who can be exposed at any moment is an important one.
Beyond that, does it really matter? We think you deserve to feel competent and ambitious wherever you are.
Imposter feelings come from a lot of different places. Often childhood experiences (successful siblings, parents who withhold praise or who praise indiscriminately) lead people to set very high expectations for themselves. Those expectations can create an “unsustainable internal competence rulebook”, says Dr. Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women. “The problem is we all have moments of brilliance, but if we don’t perform to that level consistently we’re very, very hard on ourselves.”
Interestingly, social messages also contribute to the IP. “We may think [we’re successful] only because we’re lucky, but studies have found that other people do too,” says Dr. Young. This is especially true for women. “People are more likely to attribute a man’s success to ability and a woman’s to luck.”
And women buy into those messages all too often.
Be aware, too, of behaviors that contribute to imposter feelings. “At any time in my life I’ve been involved in four or five things,” says Jen, “so I always had that to fall back on as the reason for not performing up to my standard.” Dr. Young identifies these as self-sabotaging behaviors, like missing meetings, being late to interviews or using alcohol as a way of protecting oneself from judgment.
How to Fight It
1. Identify the roots of your feelings.
If you feel, for example, like you presented yourself to an employer by telling her what she wanted to hear rather than your true feelings, then maybe underneath you may feel like she wouldn’t like the “real” you. Or perhaps you feel you only got good grades because your professors liked you, when in reality you worked very hard.
Identify these thoughts and challenge them. It often helps to visualize conversations with the people you think you’re fooling. Visualize telling them about your concerns and imagine their actual responses. Or test out your fears in real life. If you’re concerned that your “real” self will be rejected, try showing that side of yourself and see how others react.
2. Use your support network.
Call a close friend or family member who knows your potential to help you talk through the imposter feelings. “[I talk to] people who have seen me at my worst already because I figure it can’t get much worse,” says Jen.
3. Test your knowledge.
If you can identify a specific area in which you think you need the most improvement, hire a tutor or take a class. You’ll either learn and improve, or you’ll realize how much you already know.
4. Make lists.
Remind yourself of things you’ve done to get you where you are. Own your success and know the reasons for it, says Dr. Young.
“The reality is” she says “that to a certain degree your success and everyone else’s is partially luck. But what I try to get people to understand is that it’s what you do with luck that matters. Yes, successful people are in fact luckier, but it’s because they create their own luck. They put themselves in situations where good things tend to happen. So yes, you might have been lucky that you bumped into this casting person, but you stepped up to the plate when they said ‘call me’.”
5. Fight perfectionism.
We don’t mean settle for less than your best work, but learn to accept the fact that not everything will turn out perfectly all the time. Besides, if you were perfect today, what would tomorrow be for?
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