Am I Who I Say I Am?: Shutting Up Impostor Syndrome
*Originally published July 12, 2019*
I recall an event during my Freshman year of college. It was my first Creative Writing workshop, which was the case for most of the people taking the class. I don’t quite remember what led up to this, but the professor was in conversation with one of the students in the class. After the student said something, the professor responded: “Well yeah, you’re a writer, aren’t you?”
The student didn’t respond, giving the professor a chance to look at all of us and pose the same statement. “That’s right, you are all writers. Say it with me: I am a writer”.
We were all very hesitant, giving each other nervous glances as we all mumbled the mantra. It sounds ridiculous; most of us in the course were majoring in English with writing (both creative and non) as our concentration. Shouldn’t it be a given that we saw ourselves as writers? Unfortunately, this was very much not the case. Before then, I had always called myself “someone who likes writing” or “an aspiring writer”, but I never just said, “I am a writer”.
When faced with these situations, we are more inclined to look at things we don’t have, all of the things that make us unqualified. This happened years ago, but I could say that I didn’t get to the comfort level of calling myself ‘a writer’ until maybe two years ago. We hear the buzzword “Creative” (the noun, as in ‘someone who creates content’); some of us embrace the title while some of us recoil at the thought of saying that with our own mouths.
I wanted to take some time to explore our reasoning for this. What makes us feel so inadequate that we cannot own up to our titles? Better yet, what makes us feel like we are ‘undeserving’ of said titles?
What is Impostor Syndrome?
In short, Impostor Syndrome refers to the psychological pattern in which a person doubts his or her own accomplishments, and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as ‘a fraud’. From this definition alone I can tell that this applies to me as well as a lot of my peers (who are also involved in the more creative space). Impostor Syndrome is relatively common, especially in young professionals who are viewed by their peers to be very accomplished. In fact an estimated, 70% of people will experience this phenomenon at some point in their lives. To understand why some of us have fallen privy to Impostor Syndrome, let’s stop to understand its different forms. This article from Muse breaks them down into these categories:
This person tends to set excessively high expectations for themselves and others. They experience major self-doubt and worry when they fail to reach a goal. In the work environment, they are more prone to being a control freak and micromanaging the people on their team. In other words, they equate flawless work as the only acceptable work.
What people who identify with this category have to realize is that perfectionism is not only unhealthy, it is actually unproductive. If we want to avoid burnout, we have to be sure to own and celebrate our achievements, for this is what helps to develop confidence in ourselves. An excellent read from John Maxwell, Failing Forward, highlights that failure is essential to growth and that we can learn to make mistakes in stride. The important thing for us to remember is that we cannot always wait until we are “ready”. The idea of being ‘ready’ for the next step isn’t real because no one is ever ready to embark in something new, especially in the creative space in which it’s likely that no one has done what you are about to do.
People who fall into the Superman or Superwoman Complex feel as if they don’t measure up next to “real deal” colleagues. They push themselves to work harder so that this supposed difference isn’t noticeable to their peers. It’s a false cover-up for their insecurities, but it’s also a dangerous overload that can affect their relationships as well as their own mental health. Sometimes we may mistake these people as ‘workaholics’; they feel as if any downtime is ‘wasteful’ and get stressed out. As a result, hobbies and passions that may not line up with their work end up falling to the wayside.
Superman and The Superwoman believe they have to “Do it All” in order to be valued by their peers or superiors.
From what I’ve seen in my personal experience, Black Americans are especially susceptible to this mindset. In our upbringing, there is a mantra of sorts: “Work twice as hard to get half of what [White people] have”. We have phrases like “Black Girl Magic” that celebrate the beauty, power, and —keyword– resilience of Black women. Barack and Michelle Obama have arguably the most prestigious academic credentials of any other U.S. President and First Lady. We hear about celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Taraji P. Henson finding great triumph through their adversity. It is very easy for us to associate Black people with strength and resilience, which is why I feel that the Superman complex is very common within our community. It’s a well-intended gesture, but it’s also very damaging. The Superman and Superwoman mentality makes way for Impostor Syndrome because we will never feel that we’re good enough without giving everything 120%. Playing Superman is essentially trying to excel at everything that you’re doing while dealing with the stress of making it all look ‘easy’.
The article goes on to explain that people who fall into this category aren’t addicted to work, they’re addicted to the validation that comes as an end result of their work. Despite numerous achievements, someone who is a ‘Superman’ isn’t going to feel as if he has truly earned his title. In this case, the person must train themselves to be less dependent on external validation. They have to be willing to take constructive criticism seriously but never take it personally.
The Natural Genius
These people judge their competence based on how easy something is for them to do, as well as what speed at which they can accomplish said task, rather than their efforts. The mentality is: “if I don’t catch on to this quickly, I have failed and deserve shame”.
They place high importance on getting something on the first try. This is typical because people like this have already become accustomed to excelling without much effort. They are able to get A’s on their tests without studying, they have a knack for most of their subjects, and they also may have been complimented a lot as a child for being ‘advanced’ or ‘gifted’. The downside of this is growing to be a person who is constantly afraid to challenge themselves because they want to avoid those feelings of inadequacy. What this group fails to realize is that if we don’t challenge ourselves, we continue to lock ourselves in our comfort zone. And if we lock ourselves into our comfort zone, we deny ourselves the opportunity to grow.
The ‘Genius’ believes that he/she is inadequate for not picking up on something as quickly as possible.
I relate very heavily to this category myself. When I was in 4th grade the subject of math started to become a challenge for me. In every other subject, I did satisfactorily or excellently without trying, but there was always something about math that had me stumped. I remember feeling extremely inadequate when I didn’t know the answer to a problem, especially when it seemed like my peers had little to no trouble understanding. Even when I did study and do my best, a lot of times I couldn’t bring myself up to much more than a C or a low B. These days I avoid anything above simple math like the plague. Because I never necessarily challenged or pushed myself much further, I never got a good grasp in my most difficult subject.
But there’s advice for people like me as well. We have to keep viewing ourselves as a ‘work in progress’. And, like Perfectionists, we have to understand that all success starts with some sort of failure (oftentimes multiple failures). Most people are not ‘geniuses’, and we can never really expect to become a genius or expert if we’re not willing to get out of our comfort zone and be willing to make the extra effort to learn.
These are the people who feel the most like ‘impostors’ when they are unable to accomplish a task by themselves. They believe accomplishments that required the help of someone else “aren’t real accomplishments”. They are likely to take ‘self-reliance’ a few steps too far. Rather than enjoying the feeling of being independent, they feel as if attempting to do everything alone is how they can prove their worth. The mindset is: “If I can’t do this on my own, then I’m not good enough”.
What the Soloist has to understand is that no one is truly “self-made”. Some of the most successful and wealthy people in the world have pointed to some sort of direction they’ve gotten, be it through a friend, mentor, deity, etc to which they credit part (if not all) of their success. Someone whose perspective I value very much once said this: “If I had the option to walk across a field of landmines by myself or walk behind someone who has already done it a dozen times, which one do you think I’m really going to choose?” In other words, being a Soloist can bring more harm than good.
We have to acknowledge that we need some sort of help to get anywhere. Oftentimes we are fed this narrative of “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps” and attacking goals, but everyone has had someone to look up to for inspiration or mentorship in order to get to where they needed to be. Keep in mind that your hero, whoever they may be, also has a hero.
Personally, I believe the Expert complex is the most common. These are the people who measure their competence by what or how much they know about a subject. They live in constant fear that they will be “exposed” for not knowing something, especially at their job. Someone with an Expert complex might not apply for a job unless they can check every box on the “Requirements” list. Have you ever applied to a job that asked you to list your skill sets? And in comes a drop-down box that wants you to check off either “Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced, or Expert”? Chances are someone with the Expert complex won’t even think about checking the ‘Expert’ tab. They’ll just settle for Intermediate or Advanced.
There are different ways to measure expertise but hardly is it ever necessary to be ‘an expert’ to be proficient at what you are doing.
What the Experts have to understand is that the idea of someone being an ‘Expert’ at something is very subjective and hardly ever objective. Most people believe that being an expert at something means that you are certified, have passed training, have a degree in that subject, etc. I’ll admit, when I first started applying for full-time jobs to pursue after finishing college, so many titles looked so intimidating that I didn’t even dare to apply for them. For some reason, I painted a scenario in my head that I would obtain a position and immediately be tested on the skill set that is ‘required’ of me. And the moment I didn’t know something, my superiors would gather around and shame me! How dare I apply to this position knowing that I don’t have Expert level skills in Microsoft Excel?! Then I would be fired, and every company with whom I’d interview would check my background and say: ‘Well, she had the nerve to be in a position that she was not at all qualified for. We don’t need her here’. And then I would live my days on the streets, the consequence of my tarnished professional reputation.
That entire scenario I described is absurd for a number of reasons. Not everyone’s measurement of expertise is the same, and most of the time we read way too much into ‘Requirements’. A friend of mine decided to kick her comfort zone by applying to 10 jobs in which she felt ‘unqualified’. Why? Because the worst that they can do is reject her application. What she was surprised to find is that she did receive callbacks for a few, and obtained an offer for one of the positions! It wasn’t about whether she knew every single thing there is for the job, it was about whether or not she could prove herself to be someone who can learn and be coachable enough to excel at that job.
Also, just so you know, no one has ever cast dishonor on me for not being an expert at Microsoft Excel.
We are Not Impostors
It is so easy for us to be so wrapped up in what we don’t know, the number of years of experience we don’t have, and the certifications we have not obtained. Impostor Syndrome is fairly common for young professionals and creatives, but just because it is common does not mean that we should just continue to live with it. Impostor Syndrome, as a whole, seeks to drain us of our confidence in our own talents and abilities. It tells us that we are putting on a facade and that there’s a huge disparity between where we actually are and where others think we are. It tells us that there’s always going to be someone who is more ‘qualified’ than us. In short, it convinces us that we aren’t good enough.
Impostor Syndrome fuels the false idea that our accomplishments are not enough and that we are always ‘behind’. While it is true that we are going to encounter people who have more knowledge and experience than we do in different areas of our lives, we can’t equate that with being ‘better’. Something that I hear a lot from successful people is this:
God doesn’t call on the qualified, He qualifies the called.
This is a simplified version of 1 Corinthians 1:27– “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”
From a secular perspective, what this means is that things will happen as they should. When you are truly called to do something, you will be able to do it. When you have been given a powerful vision, you’ll also obtain access to the resources needed to execute that vision.
All of this is to say that we are not impostors. You didn’t land the interview by luck. You didn’t get to serve on a panel at that conference just because ‘you know a guy’. You aren’t being asked to pour into students just because you’re an alumnus at that school. People want to collaborate with you on creative projects because they’ve seen your work and you impressed them. That person who adores you and wants to date you isn’t viewing you through rose-colored glasses. We need to keep reminding ourselves there is a reason why we hold the positions that we have that people view us the way they do, and that our accomplishments aren’t happening by chance.