It's the reason you can't respond to a compliment without the customary self-deprecation.
Or share good news without downplaying your emotions.
It's the voice that says you don't belong. That you shouldn't take credit for your achievements because either A) you don't really deserve it, or B) it really isn't worth that much.
They call it imposter syndrome. And nearly everyone with a bit of success has experienced it.
“I’m an artist, but I do other things to pay the bills.”
“We’re in the magazine, but it’s not the cover.”
“The venue sold out, but it was a small room.”
“They only reached out to me because they couldn’t find anyone else.”
“I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m not even close to where I should be right now."
For me it’s insidious, creeping up when I least expect it - when things are going well. It’s at this time that I begin creating unnecessary problems to worry about, deeply rooted in fears of the future and fears of flying too close to the sun (see The Icarus Deception).
I don’t think this feeling ever goes away. But it’s a pretty miserable way to live. If you don’t think you’re worth the time now, how are you worth putting the time in tomorrow?
Wikipedia defines it as an ‘inability to internalize accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud.’ But truth is, the likelihood of you being exposed as a fraud is extremely low. Because nobody cares. Everyone else is too busy counting the inadequacies of their own lives to look that closely at yours.
But still, it’s hard to curb this thing. So here are five things I try to remember when imposter syndrome strikes:
- What’s the ‘Why?’ Why do I feel this way? How am I defining success? Is it on my terms or someone else’s? If so, why?
While I’m busy comparing myself to the person on the next highest rung of the bullshit ladder to fulfillment (which truly is a fraud), I’ve most likely forgotten that there’s someone else behind me doing the same thing. This perspective I have from the inside-out is uniquely flawed. Everyone else looking at me from the outside-in has a very tiny idea of (and frankly, a very tiny interest in) my insecurities. It’s important to identify this “not good enough” feeling not just as a story I’m telling myself, but as a story that I can change.
- You’ve Got to Give it Up. While it may come across as just a harmless excuse for humility, the consequences of feeling like an imposter are much greater. Especially when they become a block to the creative process. When you dull out the sharpest parts of yourself - the parts of you that are both hard-earned and God-given - what you’re really saying is, “No thanks, I’m good,” to the opportunities that will lead you to make an impact on the world. And that’s just selfish.
A few weeks ago I was feeling unsettled about speaking on my first panel. After all, who am I that people should care what I have to say about art and spirituality? I don’t have a degree in it. I haven’t even written an ebook. I listen back on that talk and still think I sound like an idiot. But regardless of how I feel there’s at least one person out there that’s thankful for it. So I’m working on being more generous in this way, even when it hurts.
You have to be willing to risk exposure if making a difference is on your bucket list. You wouldn’t be where you are now if you hadn’t already risked a little something, right? It’s a tough pill to swallow. One that says, “It’s not about me. It’s about my legacy.”
Learn to want what you already have. Some call this a gratitude practice, and you can do it on the daily in meditation and/or on paper. And while you’re at it, learn how to take a compliment from other human beings, too. It’s actually a gift to the person giving one, assuming they aren't just blowing smoke. Believe it when someone says something nice about you. All a simple “thank you” does is affirm their good taste. It’s easy to forget that it takes a little vulnerability to issue a compliment as well. So return the favor and be graceful with it.
Recognize that the “you” you've always wanted to be is now who you really are, at least in some ways, and that’s okay. Take responsibility for your role in your own success, even with all the help and serendipity you had along the way. Of course there’s always going to be the next level to reach, but if you don’t find enjoyment in leveling up, you won’t find much joy when you get there either.
Celebrate small wins. In the same way To Do lists can help frame tasks for the day, “Done" lists can help frame victories. Try it. I got out of bed today, dope. I paid my rent this month, awesome. I wrote a few shitty pages of lyrics, not bad. I’ll allow myself to feel like a G for today. It’s not about the size of the accomplishment but the habit of patting myself on the back that is most helpful when I’m feeling like a failure. Yeah, some people seem to pat themselves on the back too much. But most people don’t do it enough.
Bonus: Find other “imposters” to talk to. Your high-achieving friends and mentors have likely gone through the same patterns of negative self-talk. You are not alone. Loved ones are there to give you a reality check.
How do you cope with imposter syndrome? Feel free to reply with notes and let me know.
And if you're interested in learning more, check the links from the notable publications below:
Quartz: Is Imposter Syndrome a Sign of Greatness?
NY TImes: Learning to Deal with the Imposter Syndrome
Forbes: Afraid of Being ‘Found Out?’ How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome