I’m a fraud.
I have seven rough drafts I haven’t published—because they’re not perfect. I’ve made a dozen small design changes to my website in the last few months—because I can’t figure out my “message.” People say “nice work,” but inside I wonder what they see that I don’t.
This isn’t the first time I’ve dealt with this internal conflict. And I think other people have felt this same way at some point. We feel like we don’t deserve something. That we’re not qualified because we don’t have the credentials or the resume. Who are we to be in this position? What did we do to deserve these great things? Who are we to say this or do that?
There’s a name for this: imposter syndrome.
What is imposter syndrome?
Definition (from my greatest source of knowledge, Wikipedia):
Imposter syndrome is a concept describing individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.
In my extensive clinical research (I.e. Googling), I found other names for this phenomenon: imposter complex, fraud syndrome, “afraid of success” syndrome, and even “high-achiever” syndrome. It sounds like people are trying to diagnose themselves.
But these names are misleading. This isn’t a disease or mental condition. Instead, imposter syndrome is something people experience. It describes the feelings we sometimes struggle with when things are going a little too well. When we can’t rationalize our achievements, awards, promotions, or praises. We wonder how we got where we are. We question what we did to deserve this.
And worst of all, we worry we’re going to be found out.
Great. Another ominous-sounding, disease-related word. Instead of symptoms, let’s call these “signs.” They stand off to the side and warn us about what’s just down the road. We can ignore them if we want, but that’s usually not beneficial. These are a few of the signs that we’re struggling with Imposter Syndrome:
- Perfectionism: We think our work isn’t perfect, and we don’t want to present, submit, publish, or ship until it meets our (impossible) standards. We can’t accept the fact that sometimes “good enough” is—well, good enough. And if we do work that isn’t perfect, then we’re gonna get called out.
- Downplaying Achievements and Praise: People tell us we did a good job, liked our presentation, and our article was inspiring. But instead of enjoying the praise, we point out the bad parts no one else noticed. We say things like, “I wasn’t happy with how this turned out” or “I kind of rushed that.” Because God-forbid we just accept the fact we did good work.
- Workaholism: I don’t think that’s even a real word, but we all know what it is. We work too much at the expense of our family, health, and sanity. We feel like we have to overcompensate for the fact that we don’t know what we’re doing. And if we work enough—if we’re the first one in the office and last to leave—people will pay attention to that and miss the fact that we have no idea what we’re doing.
- Fear or Anxiety: We feel unqualified. We worry we’ll fail. We question why people have more faith in us than we have in ourselves. We’re scared of being mocked, criticized, or humiliated.
My wife “diagnosed” me with Imposter Syndrome several years ago. I got a new job at a better company making a lot more money, and I couldn’t come to grips with it. How could they not see I was unqualified and had no idea what I was doing?
A year and a half later, I quit that job to create the type of life I really wanted—a life of autonomy and flexibility. I was given the chance to live life on my own terms. Things couldn’t be better.
And what happened? My disease came out of remission—again. I even wrote an entire post about accepting compliments and fighting perfectionism.
But I still didn’t connect the dots. I didn’t see what was really happening.
How to Deal With It
The downside of this not being a disease is that there is no cure. There’s no pill or physical therapy, and we can’t (legally) get rid of the people who believe in us. We can only work with the things we can control, which are our thoughts and actions.
To counter perfectionism, I have to make myself stop editing and press “publish.” I have to set deadlines for myself and stick to them. I have to turn in my work whether it’s polished or not. Otherwise, I’ll spend hours (or days) convincing myself it’s not good enough. But for most of the work we do, it’s the message that matters. The artist is the only person that notices the small imperfections in her masterpiece.
Make Gratitude a Habit
Accepting praise graciously is hard. We want to be modest and humble. But when someone says we did a good job, they’re going out of their way to make sure we know that. It’s intentional. And even though we don’t think we’re qualified for a job or an award, someone else does—usually many someone elses.”
I just have to make myself say, “thanks.” No “yeah, buts” and no thinking about it. Just say it until it becomes a habit—a natural reflex.
I’m still working on this.
Set Work Boundaries
This one may be the hardest to deal with. There’s always more work to do—more emails to answer and more projects to work on. But that never goes away. It’s going to be that way whether or not we work one more hour. It’ll be there in the morning waiting for us.
We can’t control all of our deadlines. They’re set by customers or clients or bosses, and we have to meet them. But there’s a lot that we can control. We can cut out distractions (I don’t have to name these). We can be more selective of the clients we work with and the projects we take on. And we can be intentional about shutting off at a certain time.
What’s the worst thing that can happen?
This is really what it’s all about. It’s a mindset.
If we stop obsessing about being perfect and focus on doing just a little more work, we may actually get better at it. It’s like practice—we do something over and over, and we improve (except for golf). At worst, we may have to redo something or try again. But that’s okay. We’ll probably do it better the second time.
If we practice being appreciative and thankful for praise, then we may start to feel it on the inside, as well. Instead of looking for reasons to doubt ourselves, we can train ourselves to trust other peoples’ opinions. And if their opinions are negative instead of positive, we can either press “delete” or try again.
If we set boundaries in our work life, it helps us feel more balanced (it’s no secret the younger workforce cares more about this than salary). And if our job becomes too much to handle, we can do something about it. We can find a new job or learn new skills. The worst thing that can happen is we get fired from a crappy job that doesn’t value our personal lives. But maybe that’s a blessing.
Imposter Syndrome isn’t a bad thing. We have these feelings because we’re doing good work and are being rewarded for it. We just have to practice how we respond with our thoughts and actions.
That’s what I think, at least. But I’m not a psychologist, and I’m not an expert. In fact, I have no credentials. I still battle with the doubting voices in my head. Who am I to write about this stuff?
For once, I don’t care.