If you've ever felt like a fraud, you're not alone. Imposter syndrome is common in even the most critically acclaimed stars. Meryl Streep has been nominated for a record 21 Oscars, but she told Ken Burns in a 2002 interview for USA Weekend that “I don't know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?”
The same goes for Tom Hanks, Lady Gaga, Robert Pattinson, Amy Schumer, and Serena Williams. All of them have expressed thoughts of self-doubt, of feeling like they're tricking everyone into believing they're capable and that, some day, everyone will find out they're not.
There are days when I know that 3 o'clock tomorrow afternoon I am going to have to deliver some degree of emotional goods, and if I can't do it, that means I'm going to have to fake it. If I fake it, that means they might catch me at faking it, and if they catch me at faking it, well, then it's just doomsday.
Imposter syndrome is a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even after you've achieved some level of success. The fear, insecurity, and self-doubt that come from feeling like an imposter damages your confidence and can damage your career growth too.
If you consistently think the following...
- I'm a fraud.
- I've been lucky.
- I don't belong here.
- What I did wasn't really important.
- That wasn't a big deal.
...then there's a good chance you're struggling with imposter syndrome. Here's how you can identify it and how you can keep it under control.
You set the bar very high for yourself. Higher than you do for others, even, because you have the feeling that you need to work harder than others to hide the fact that you're a fraud.
While it's good that you have high standards and work hard, this can easily turn into crippling perfectionism. Crippling, because perfectionism is a major roadblock to productivity if you keep on chipping away at something instead of just releasing it.
Perfectionism is just fear in really good shoes
For example: you're working on an open-source project, but you're a perfectionist and you're reluctant to release the first version of your project, because it's not quite there yet. You end up growing frustrated with the project, losing momentum, and never releasing anything at all.
The problem is that the perfectionist in you is comparing this project to some perfect outcome that's impossible and unrealistic.
Perfectionism is a form of impatience. Only imperfect practice will improve your skills. Nothing can ever be perfect from the start. Your inner perfectionist is holding you back, so you need to twist the dial in favor of producing things over trying to make something perfect.
It's often high achievers who struggle with imposter syndrome. That's why it's worth keeping track of your achievements, just to remind yourself that you're not the fraud you think you are.
These can be tangible achievements, like the medals you won running trail, or they can be more intangible achievements, like a list of positive things people have said about you.
If you're a freelance developer, keep a list of all the good things your clients have said about you and your work. This can also come in handy when you're looking for a client testimonial and you want a list of people who have said good things about you in the past.
Most importantly, lists like these will remind you that you are not without competence, that you have achieved things in your life. Even the worst self-critic will have to admit that it can't all have been luck.
Imposter syndrome can hurt your career because it nudges you toward saying no to opportunities. You think you can't possibly do a good job for that role, because you've been winging it all along from the beginning of your career.
But taking on challenging work is one of the best ways to grow and become more competent. Well-known UK billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson would put it this way:
If someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you are not sure you can do it, say yes. Then learn how to do it later.
Do you want to live a life where you always say no to opportunities? You don't. Every time an opportunity presents itself, examine it critically, but lean in favor of saying yes instead of no.
Imposter syndrome is more prevalent and more damaging than we tend to believe. It damages your confidence and can hurt your career growth.
Combat these feelings of inadequacy by letting go of your perfectionism, keeping track of your achievements, and saying yes to opportunities instead of being skeptical. After all, everyone is winging it to a degree. That shouldn't hold you back from becoming a better person and leading a better life.