“Impostor syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in face of information that indicates that the opposite is true. It is experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence.”
-CalTech Counseling Center
Writer and inspiration Wes Moore mentioned this concept of the Impostor Syndrome, at a recent leadership conference. For me the idea really resonated especially since it seemed to describe this weird, uncalled-for sense of detachment at my summer internship I’d been experiencing.
First and foremost, a disclaimer: I love my internship, and the people I’ve got to work with are some of the most kind and passionate individuals I have ever met. The organization is fantastic and I would not have wanted to be anywhere else during my internship. They gave me an amazing experience that truly changed me into a better human being than who I was when I graduated high school.
That disclaimer is not meant to sugar coat anything, but meant to highlight how Impostor Syndrome stems from within an individual, occurs even in circumstances where people are welcoming, and does not need to be linked to the environment a person is placed into. Different environments can have an impact on an individual, but can’t be applied as causation for every case of Impostor Syndrome.
I initially thought these feelings were just byproducts of insecurity and anxiety about being a first time intern at a large company, surrounded by high-achieving professionals. After all, I’ve been assured all my life that at one point or another everyone feels that they don’t fit in, or that they don’t deserve to be where they are. (Everyone without entitlement issues at least.) But what made me feel like I didn’t belong? Or that I didn’t deserve to be where I was? How did it become normal for people to feel this way?
In my case, it certainly wasn’t the people around me, thus ruling out environment. So all the fingers point back at me; why did I think I was so inadequate and incompetent even when no one at work (or school) ever affirmed that or made even the slightest suggestion towards that idea?
After researching the topic more in depth, I realized this sense of phoniness originates from the inability to internalize success. Somehow, my accomplishments became attributed to outside factors rather than internal capability. When given praise, I was taught to contribute my successes to luck or to divert attention away from myself. As a result, I no longer owned what was once mine to claim, which in contributes to a sense of unworthiness in spite of external encouragement and approval.
At the leadership summit, Dr. Ella Bell, a professor at Dartmouth College, gave advice on how to overcome the Impostor Syndrome. She admitted that she herself often faced the difficulty of feeling worthy, and said that we need to learn how to make ourselves a place at the table. Ultimately, to not need an invitation to the party.
It was touching to hear advice from an extremely accomplished woman who goes through similar predicaments but I couldn’t help but think about the times when my place has been set at the table, I’m invited into the discussion, and I still feel like I’m not supposed to be there. Then the whole time I’m there I feel like I’m faking it until I make it, and the fear of being found out as undeserving makes me second-guess my opinions.
So while I resonate with Dr. Bell’s suggestion to be proactive and take an initiative to be included, the issue of the Impostor Syndrome is a byproduct of societal expectations, which calls for a large scale change on the part of society. Everyone has the right to feel valid; everyone deserves to feel like they are enough, so why do we invalidate and pick out the flaws of individuals who are able to internalize success? Why do we push high-achieving people to believe that they need to attribute their victories to good luck to achieve a healthy sense of humility?
I was once given a list of the accomplishments of an anonymous person, and found myself impressed with their qualifications. When I realized that this anonymous person was essentially me, but written in a slightly different arrangement with date modifications, all of a sudden, the accomplishments I once found pretty good, weren’t anymore just because I learned they were my own. All of a sudden, they were “okay, I guess.”
At the end of the day, these internal battles are the hardest to face. After reading countless articles, I still don’t have a clear idea on how to win against a sense of invalidity. No matter how many times I’m told to look in a mirror and give myself a reality check on my ability, I can’t win until the day I don’t need to do any of those exercises, and still feel valid.
So for the remaining part of my internship, I aim to stop making myself feel like I’m not enough. I’m lucky to be in a supportive environment, but I realize that for the rest of my life, especially as I grow older, no one will hold my hand and tell me that I’m worthy of my successes. I have never expected that, and never will; so, it’s about time for me to learn to do it myself. The first step is internalizing success and learning how to own my work, so that sooner or later, I’ll be able to wear out the anchor that weighs me down.