Today I was reading a Brain Pickings article entitled Harvard Social Psychologist Amy Cuddy on Mastering the Antidote to Anxiety, Self-Consciousness, and Impostor Syndrome and the titular syndrome struck a note with me. I had never heard of it before, or at least it flew under my radar with the abundance of “syndromes” so commonly name dropped on the internet. However, in the description I recognized something that I do to myself near constantly. Wikipedia describes the thought process as an “inability to internalize… accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as ‘fraud'” in high-achieving individuals. Cuddy paints the picture that “[b]efore we even show up at the doorstep of an opportunity, we are teeming with dread and anxiety, borrowing trouble from a future that hasn’t yet unfolded.”
Now, to say “I suffer from this syndrome” is far too dramatic, but there is certainly something to the research in that I can actually describe and pinpoint a chronic problem in thought patterns, a huge benefit in the ongoing process of tackling my day-to-day anxiety. I’ve briefly (haha) talked about my generalized anxiety before, but what’s really important is that this is something that so many people deal with all the time, even at a far smaller scope than some of these articles describe. Many of them name celebrities and historical geniuses, but really we all have our successes and our achievements, and some of us cannot accept them.
I instinctively recoil at the idea of calling myself a “high-achieving individual,” but in absolute honesty, for the young person that I am, I have had a fair amount of success alongside the trials. I’ve always been a good worker, driven to academic achievement by Type A energy, obtaining extremely high grades throughout the entirety of my schooling. I’ve almost always had a job, and worked myself hard at my jobs. On a professional level, I have always received great teacher evaluations and feedback. I’ve managed to live in nice places, exactly where I wanted. I have strong and supportive long-term relationships.
I feel bad writing that stuff out. Every day, my brain tells me that I am not very intelligent, I don’t know anything really. I’m not a good writer or thinker. The jobs I’ve had are pathetic—I quit my somewhat decent teaching job to become a substitute teacher, the opposite order in which this should work. I am barraged constantly with the thought that I am not a good teacher, that I am a quack, a fake, and I’m shocked no one has called me out on my many professional failures. When people tell me I don’t look like a teacher (I’m short, young), I interpret this as them seeing through my facade. I think people don’t like me, that I’m annoying, intolerable. These constant doubts, anxieties, do affect me. I can’t recount the number of times I’ve faltered in a situation, lost my nerve because of them.
In short, I always feel like a faker—I am not successful, and it’s wrong for me to ever even think this. Others will know.
I’m self-aware enough to recognize my strengths and shortcomings, the reality of the situation (obviously I can always improve in every way), the false thoughts my brain comes up with. The problem is the internalization. No matter how sensible I can be when I am, say, writing, my constantly ticking mind is never at ease, spinning out criticism after criticism, insecurity after the next, and these do affect my life severely.
I dig holes. One thought leads to another, and before I know it, I’m miserable at the bottom of the hole chewing on my lip. I have a good morning the next day, but then fall into another hole.
So how do we internalize our success? Allow ourselves to own our successes, whatever type they may be?
The Brain Pickings article states: “At the heart of Cuddy’s research is the idea that the opposite of powerlessness, that ultimate fuel of impostor syndrome, isn’t power but what she terms presence — the ability to inhabit and trust the integrity of one’s own values, feelings, and capabilities.” A Forbes article on the problem says: “But just as we must take responsibility for our failures in life, we must also take responsibility for our successes. Minimizing them serves no-one.”
Whatever may help, the key to accomplish an overcoming of this impostor feeling must be practice and cultivation. Every time I think I am a fraud, I must also remember that in my own way, in my own life, I am a success. It’s not the same cookie cutter success that I see in others, or expected for myself, but success nonetheless.
If I can remember that, think that more often, then maybe I can become the type of person I want to be. I’m beginning to accept that simple agonizing phrase “fake it ’til you make it,” though there are far more layers to it, aren’t there?