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Heavy Meddle: No Matter How Much I Achieve I Feel Like An Imposter

From the outside, her life looks like a dream; inside it feels like a nightmare. (Molly Belle/Unsplash)
From the outside, her life looks like a dream; inside it feels like a nightmare. (Molly Belle/Unsplash)
This article is more than 4 years old.

Welcome Meddleheads, to the advice column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions. You can use this form, or send them via email. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

...

Dear Steve,

I am a young woman in my late 20s. I went to a respectable university, where I graduated summa cum laude. I am about to complete my master’s degree from another prestigious institution, and I carry a 4.0 grade point average. I have done all my graduate course work while working a full-time (plus) professional job. I’m in a healthy, stable relationship with a great person, and we have plans to marry and start a family in the coming years. I am lucky, by all accounts successful, and should be flying high.

I live in a state of latent fear that one of these days, I’m going to be found out -- exposed as the fraud I truly am.

But all is not as it seems. I struggle with cripplingly low self-esteem. Self-doubt and self-consciousness rule my every interaction — professional, academic and otherwise. I feel ill equipped to manage the responsibilities of my job. At work, I am embarrassed to open my mouth in meetings and I am stricken by paralyzing anxiety whenever I have to give a presentation. When a question occurs to me in class, and I know my grade is dependent upon participation, before I even summon the strength to raise my hand, my heart starts beating out of my chest. Even having a casual water-cooler conversation with someone I perceive as smarter than me puts me on edge. Here’s a glimpse at a common internal dialogue: What did I just say? Did I use the right grammar? What does that raised eyebrow mean? Oh god, he/she must think I’m an idiot.

I live in a state of latent fear that one of these days, I’m going to be found out — exposed as the fraud I truly am. I’ve read about Imposter Syndrome, and I think that might be what I’m dealing with here. But how to combat it? How to quiet the voices in my head telling me that I am stupid and unworthy?

Sincerely,
A Reluctant Imposter

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Dear Reluctant Imposter,

Yup, that’s Imposter Syndrome all right. For those not familiar with the term, it was coined in 1978 by a pair of psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, to describe folks who “believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” Thus, they live in terror of being “exposed as frauds.”

A more recent study indicates that Imposter Syndrome is particularly prevalent and intense among high-achieving women. The researchers attribute these feelings of insecurity to “early family dynamics and later introjection of societal sex-role stereotyping.” So it might be worth considering the messages you received about ambition from your family of origin, as well as the ingrained patriarchal values that dog so much of American culture.

The researchers in the study cited above suggest therapy — in particular group therapy with other women. Why? Because it’s important for you to understand, first and foremost, that you are not alone. The fact is that millions of women (and for that matter men) are leading a parallel existence, in which they are succeeding wildly by all external measures, but experiencing the same persistent voices of self-doubt.

Self-forgiveness and self-esteem sound great on paper. But they’re hard to develop within us.

I would also suggest that you talk to your partner, if you haven’t already, and tell him or her about all of these doubts. They need to know the truth, if for no other reason than they deserve the opportunity to help you bear the burden of these painful feelings, and to help you find a way to manage them.

I use that word, “manage,” advisedly. Because by most indications, the feelings that constitute Imposter Syndrome don’t just disappear. They are a part of your personality that took shape over years, and may have a fair amount to do with why you’ve achieved so much. Doubt, after all, is a powerful engine. So you need to be pro-active but also patient. Self-forgiveness and self-esteem sound great on paper. But they’re hard to develop within us.

Take it from a fellow imposter.

Steve

Author's note: I hope other fellow imposters read this column, and will now do Reluctant Imposter the great kindness of telling your own story. Use the comments section below. And please do send a letter to Heavy Meddle, too. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. I may not have a helpful response, but the act of writing the letter itself might provide some clarity. — S.A.

Heavy Meddle with Steve Almond is Cognoscenti's advice column. Read more here.

Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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