Do You Have Impostor Syndrome?
Last week, I had a piece published in the New Yorker. Aside from getting my first job and meeting Nora Ephron’s editor (he said I had a “very similar spirit” to her), seeing my name in the New Yorker was, easily, the happiest moment of my life.
But it wasn’t until the second or third draft of this post that I actually wrote all of that—“I had a piece published in the New Yorker“— out; I didn’t “do a thing” or “have something weird happen to me,” as I wrote in previous versions of the sentence. People would ask how it happened, and I’d shrug and say, “I just got very lucky.” Nope!!! I worked hard. I wrote a piece that I’m really proud of, and I should own it. I should be proud of it. I should SAY it. Why was I so hesitant to do that?
Here’s a confession: for my first few weeks here, I thought Haley was insane. (I still do, but now mostly for unrelated reasons.) After the excitement had died down, I realized that this— editing the Hairpin— was a job I was ill-equipped to do. A bunch of jokes on Twitter and a handful of good articles does not a writer make! I told myself. I would sit at my laptop, crippled by writing, convinced that anything I wrote about was stupid, that people would find out I’m actually just a one-trick (albeit incredibly attractive) pony and that I didn’t actually have anything to contribute. No one wants to hear what I have to say. I would be unceremoniously fired and forced to work somewhere where I’d have to use my hands. I am also bad at using my hands, so I would be fired from that job, too. I was terrified.
Here’s a diagnosis: I was suffering from Impostor Syndrome, a nuisance that befalls many high-achieving women, wherein they chalk up their success to:
“…luck, to being in the right place at the right time, to factors other than ability. […] They live in fear that eventually some significant person will discover that they are, indeed, intellectual impostors.”
Here’s where we invoke Beyoncè. We all know the portion of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk by heart by now: We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller / We say to girls, “You can have ambition / But not too much / You should aim to be successful / But not too successful / Otherwise you will threaten the man.” It’s true. Women are much more likely to feel this way, because we’re taught to be modest and self-deprecating, to downplay our achievements for fear of looking arrogant or ungrateful, sipping pickle juice while our male counterparts are being praised for being bossed up.
I can’t be the only person who feels this way! I thought. Dear God, please don’t let me be the only person who feels this way. So I asked my friends and colleagues.
If Impostor Syndrome was an ex, it would be the ex who sends the texts I answer even though I quit sleeping with them a long time ago. Impostor Syndrome used to be something I would wallow in for days, weeks, or months. Now, I experience it in fleeting moments. I had to accept that when I’m in a group of people I think of as above me, better than me, or smarter than me, I’m still in the damn room. There’s nothing to do now but rise to the occasion. I must have done something right to end up there. I should probably be doing more of whatever that is.
Ashley Ford, writer at Buzzfeed
I don’t really have Impostor Syndrome! I get insecure sometimes, like everyone else, and I always want to be better and do more, but I also really believe in that fantastic Conan O’Brien advice, “If you work really hard, and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.”
I do feel like I work hard and am generally… kind? (Is that embarrassing to say?) I’m pretty comfortable owning the little bundle of career achievements I can lay claim to. I imagine it is especially easy to feel this way because my “achievements” exist on a pretty small scale; if I didn’t feel like I deserved, at a base-level, to make a living in a field I’ve been working hard/bein’ kind in for three years, that would be a pretty sad state of affairs.
I know it can be hard to look at your own work in a realistic way (especially as women because we’re trained to downplay our achievements), but sometimes the most important thing you can do for yourself/your work is to take stock of what you’ve achieved so far and be really fucking proud.
Monica Heisey, freelance writer
Here’s something that basically no-one knows about me: I took exactly one course in Human Rights and one course in South African Politics in graduate school. Granted, I did write my PhD dissertation on human rights in South Africa, but I only had formal training in terms of one course in each field.
When I was hired as a young assistant professor in a political science department, I was asked what sorts of courses I could teach. I replied that I could teach courses in human rights and in South African politics. Not surprisingly, I spent most of the early days (really, years) of my career being terrified that I would be revealed as a fraud.
Perhaps more surprisingly, as I enter my twentieth year at the college, even though I have spent years and years reading and writing in the field, and have received numerous teaching awards, very few days go by that I don’t stand in front of a classroom feeling certain that the students in front of me are going to think that I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. It is that fear that keeps me on my toes and that keeps me vigilant in my teaching.
Tristan Borer, professor
I used to have impostor syndrome because I thought it was more “attractive” or palatable to be self-deprecating and frumpy. I was one of those Liz Lemon feminists who thought I had to look and behave a certain way to be “taken seriously.” Impostor Syndrome fit in there because self-esteem and confidence to me seemed like vanity. I couldn’t very well believe I was funny and smart and capable while being funny and smart and capable, could I? Especially as women, we’re constantly forced to doubt ourselves in our careers and love lives and everything in between. Was I really this competent or was I simply fooling everyone? I had to be getting away with something under everyone’s noses, right? But you know what? Nah. Fuck that noise. I’m as good as I think I am, maybe better. I’ve started now when people (men) say somewhat surprised, “You’re funny!” or “Oh wow, you took care of that?” I reply: “Yes. I am very funny.” or “Yes. I am super smart.” Because fuck it, I am.
Gaby Dunn, writer/actress
Like a lot of ~*~creative types~*~ I bounce pretty readily between armor-like confidence that juuuust maybe dips a toe into arrogance, and the conviction that I’m dumb and bad and have no idea what I’m doing. The things that shake me up are usually straightforward, like a source being mean or an editor I respect shredding my draft. When that happens I get a very stiff drink and sit down with friends who will say nice things about me until I remember that I do, in fact, deserve to be writing cool stuff for cool places, and am not a nightmare failure who should quit right this minute.
Barring that, I try to catch myself having the impostor thoughts and literally talk myself down, often out loud in the mirror, like, “Listen up bitch. You’re great and deserve what you have. Now get out there and kick ass.” *end of sports-movie-music plays as I exit the bathroom*
Cat Ferguson, journalist
I am constantly waiting to be tapped on the shoulder at work and asked “Um, what are you doing here?” I’ve always felt that way when it came to work-related stuff because as much as women are denied things in the workplace (you know, like equal pay), I’m slightly more anxious about being given a “break” because I’m a woman. I’ve spent the first few weeks at new jobs wondering if I truly deserve the position or if I’m helping the company fill some sort of diversity quota.
The worst part is that this imposter feeling spills over into me being sure of myself. I don’t want to seem “too sure” of myself, because women who do that are labeled as arrogant, but I also don’t want to seem like I have no idea what I’m doing, because I *do* mostly know what I’m doing. I try to lean towards being confident without over-promising and under-delivering.
Veronica de Souza, social media editor at Digg
The short answer is yes. I’m hesitant to publicly identify with it because I don’t see myself as a ‘high achieving woman.’ It’s either the syndrome preventing me from identifying with that title or reality keeping me in check. I design and produce a small clothing line under my namesake label, do freelance design and production for a few local labels, and teach sewing and leather work. I’m 24 and I’ve felt this way since university (probably age 18/19?). It ebbs and flows. I try to convey a more Independent Woman Pt. 1 vibe to others and reserve my feelings of fraudulence for when I’m alone, at 4am, the time for questioning my life choices.
I’ve started trying to record nice, validating things that happen to me in my journal, and recording positive reactions to my work so that I can reference them later on. I also have a mildly masturbatory tendency to screengrab any overtly complimentary texts/emails/comments I get from clients. Don’t worry clients, I don’t do anything gross with the screengrabs.
Devlyn van Loon, fashion designer
When I was in my 20s, I had a vocal coach for a brief time. He was working with some of the biggest stars of the era who lived in our city, stars who had gold records on their walls, when gold records still meant something. One of them even had a platinum record or two. We talked about my singing, and occasionally about life in general, and one day I told him how I felt like a fraud much of the time. There I was, going about my business, absolutely faking it, and someone was going to find me out. How could I get on stage? How could I keep writing? How could I do anything in public, be any kind of expert or person in charge, when all it would take was one reasonable person who would stand up and say, “This girl doesn’t have an ounce of talent or a hint of a clue.”
He looked at me and said, “Each one of those singers I work with, so many of them have days when they doubt themselves. They think they can’t sing, they think they’re going to fail, they think they don’t have any talent. Some days they don’t even want to sing, they’re so freaked out. But then they get up on stage and no one would ever know. They sing through it.” It took me a while to figure out that a gold or platinum record didn’t necessarily mean these stars could really sing, but it did mean they knew how to create something. They knew how to do the work. And that was the point. Imposter Syndrome happens to people who achieve major success and public adoration, and it happens to people who don’t. Having someone give me support and reassurance—or hundreds (or I guess millions) of someones—helps and feels good, but that’s not the answer. The answer is deeper and, of course, it’s inside me. The only way to control it is to go back to the work. Keep singing, keep writing, keep talking, keep researching, keep doing whatever it is until I’m not counting my steps, until I find my rhythm again.
Leah Reich, writer
After thinking about it all week, I’m pretty sure I don’t feel like an impostor. This mostly surprised me because I am a big fan of “making it about me,” so Impostor Syndrome would be ripe for that. It’s not the case this time though. Having spent a good long time knowing what I want to do with my life, and getting a pretty awesome dose of support from parents, teachers, and friends, I think I have a healthy understanding of my abilities these days. What I do have issue with is feeling an overwhelming sense of “Whoa, I can’t believe they’re letting me do this!” You know how you dream up what something is going to be like before it ever happens? I do that a lot, and sometimes, those scenarios come true. In those cases, I genuinely can’t believe I’m getting do whatever the thing is (be in a board meeting, interview a celebrity, interview for a dream job).
Perhaps the Impostor Syndrome will come later in life, when I’ve reached more milestones or am in charge of bigger things. For the time being, there is just so much more I want to do, experience, and achieve. Honestly, my current issue is remembering to believe in myself so I can then convince other people to continue “letting me” make my dreams come true.
Delia Paunescu, social media at New York Post
I spent my first few years of writing on the internet for a mostly male audience at Deadspin. I found a lot of reasons to doubt myself in the first 8 months or so. There were obvious moments, like when I was reporting a story in a gym full of men and got asked “what a girl like you is doing here,” but I found those instances easier to brush off. It bothered me more when I’d get a stat wrong, or interpret a play differently from someone else, or dare to express an opinion from a female perspective, or WHATEVER. Then I’d get emails and tweets telling me how I was wrong (fair), or that I was wrong because I was a woman (unfair).
At some point I guess I got a little shook because I remember getting a drink with my editor, the hoodie’d genius Tommy Craggs, and telling him that I was starting to feel like I was “faking it.” The “it” meant everything writerly: I’d gotten convinced by a bunch of anonymous cowards on the internet that I was, at least in part, playing at my knowledge, my authority, my ability, that I had every reason to quit sportswriting and the internet and find another career. Craggs, instead of attempting to convince me that I was deserving and talented, told me to shut the fuck up, because “everyone is faking it sometimes.” It was a simple, hard reminder, but it served as a real moment of clarity for me that I come back to every now and then when I doubt myself or where I am in my career and at my age: no one knows everything. Everybody sweats sometimes.
Emma Carmichael, editor-in-chief of Jezebel
I probably have the inverse of Imposter Syndrome — which is to say that if my brain is the one receiving credit, I have no trouble being like, “Mmm, yes. Thank you,” and going about my day. There’s no guilt or, “Who? Me?” when I reach a milestone at work or someone compliments my writing or laughs at a joke, because as far as my self esteem is concerned, those are the givens. Those are my Good Traits and the things that should be Hot Fire All Day Every Day, so if someone says, “Good job,” it feels like I’ve met par. I’m performing at my baseline for success. Jay-Z’s “On to the Next One” is never not coursing through my cells.
That said, because I think of my brain as a goddamn chainsaw, I have a harder time accepting any kind of positive feedback about my physical appearance. I remember one time in particular, a friend of mine and I were at a party and he tried to compliment my eyes. He was very innocently remarking on those two particular organs in my face and saying that their color and shape was very cool—I think the direct quote was, “Your eyes look cool. You look very cool tonight.” And I remember taking him to task for it, not because I don’t agree that I have cool eyeballs, but because it feels dumb and wrong to take credit for what happened between my dad’s DNA and my mom’s DNA when they boned that one time in 1988. I have no control over my eyeball color or the way the skin hangs on the sockets that house them, so complimenting me on those things is misplaced attention. It’s like saying, “Nice sky,” and expecting me to feel flattered. Nah, bruh. Tell me about my smart ideas and good choices some more.
Christine Friar, social producer at The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon
I am a never-ending spool of anxiety. I constantly feel like someone will notice I’m a fraud. I undermine myself. I assume I will fail at things before I even try. I still don’t know how to take a compliment. Some days I am too depressed to function. This is the lovely little burden that emerges when you’re dealing with both depression and imposter syndrome. A special little burden that comes everywhere with you and likes to throw tantrums at very inopportune times and demands the kind of nourishment that never allows you to grow. This burden thinks it’s my full time job but I have a real job! And a real life, and real friends, and a whole host of other things I want and have to be present for!
The unlearning is hard but I’m working on it. I can recognize things intellectually that I haven’t fully internalized. There are still many self-destructive thoughts I’ve had as a grown ass woman that have made me wonder “what part of the feminist journey is this?!?” It’s taxing and annoying but slowly I get better at some things and worse at others and I keep going. I lie to myself all the time because “fake it until you make it” is so real. I listen to Kanye’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” and Beyoncé’s “Grown Woman” every day before work. I surround myself with good people. I hustle but I remind myself to breathe. Sometimes I re-watch this iconic interview with Omarasa and remember that, while I’ve had to be exceptional to get here, there are so many carefree people simply swimming in a sea of mediocrity. I’m not going to lie, remembering the sea of privileged ass mediocre people who are where I want to be does help. A lot. Mostly, I just keep going. Imposter Syndrome is real but SO ARE YOU. Keep going.
Heben Nigatu, writer at Buzzfeed
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I started thinking I wasn’t good enough to be a scientist, but what I do know is that I have questioned my ability to be in this field many times over. Even when I had the very real voices of colleagues I admire and respect telling me that I am capable, hard-working and that “yes, you are a good scientist,” I let the tiny whisper of my own voice inside my head that says “they are wrong, you can’t do this” be the one that I heard and believed. That somehow, I was walking around fooling everyone into thinking that I could be a real scientist and any minute I was going to be discovered for the fraud that I was. A few years ago, I was with my boss after an advisory committee meeting discussing the next steps for my project when the words “I just don’t think I’m good enough for this” tumbled out of my mouth and I felt incredibly exposed. He told me that while it was ok to have these feelings, what wasn’t ok was to allow them to control how I actually felt about myself, to let them define my self worth and that I needed to create a new conversation within myself when I felt my thoughts going towards one of self-doubt.
To be honest, I felt like I didn’t deserve my PhD and it took me awhile to even acknowledge my own self as a doctor, a title I had earned after 6+ years of doing research. I’m getting better at trusting myself and my abilities to do the kind of work I want to do. I finally switched my Gmail signature to read Sabriya Stukes, PhD. There are definitely still times when I can feel “the Impostor Syndrome” creep in but I’ve slowly learned how to deal with it. Every time I feel that self-doubt rising I allow myself the space to recognize it for what it is: a choice, a choice between believing a destructive voice inside my head, or choosing to quiet it with a much louder voice that says “you are going to fucking slay it,” do a Beyoncé hair flip and face the next challenge.
Sabina Stuykes, PhD at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine
I have wrestled with feelings of unworthiness for years, due largely in part to the fact that I have been given some amazing opportunities and I have never felt good enough for them (despite the universe affirming otherwise). What I’ve learned, if anything at all, is that the sooner you can come to realize that everyone on some level is playing a part, in essence, faking it, the sooner you will come to know that the whole game of life is only relatively real. What I mean to say is, even you are not who you think you are. The concept of you is fluid, determined largely by your own perceptions and a combination of fears and desires (and yes, I’m probably getting a little Buddhist/New-Agey on you). If you can change your own perception about who you are, you can close the gap between who you are and who others think you are. Realistically, this will probably take years to actually achieve.
I have yet to fully eradicate this low level anxiety, but so far one of my coping methods is writing. It’s the only time where I have no regard for my body or how it looks. It allows me to transcend into a zen state of top buns and sweatshirts. It makes me feel at home.
Nada Alic, creative strategist
I had a little bit of Impostor Syndrome when I first started my job at BuzzFeed because I had a fancy new title and a lot of responsibilities and was managing people for the first time, some of whom were older and more experienced than I was. I was worried about whether they thought I was a good enough manager, and I worried that they had thoughts like: “What is SHE doing in that job?” and that they would realize I was just winging it. But I realized that *my* boss was just winging it too, except that he framed it as “hey, we’re making this up as we go along, and we’re going to make mistakes, and that’s fine, we just need to learn from our mistakes,” and then I realized that what I was really afraid of was failure. Once I had been at my job long enough to have had a couple of failures, and to have survived them, I no longer felt like an impostor.
Doree Shafrir, Executive Editor, Culture at Buzzfeed
I deserve all my success, and you can tell I still see an impostor in the mirror, because I keep wanting to qualify that declaration with an aw-shucks “I think.” I’m a twentysomething journalist who wishes she was a cool Lois Lane who always has a quippy one-liner and makes deadlines before Smallvilles. I’m no Lois Lane, I rehearse conversations in my head and if I fuck them up, I replay them until the tape gets worn out. And I’m not cool—I’m so nakedly earnest I embarrass myself all the time with how I’m filled with so much greedy want. I still blush at all the editors who’ve withstood my fumbled pitches. I want to be recognized, and the impostor comes when I feel like no one would want to see this desperate me. My impostor appeared with the first mask I learned from Spanish: lo que el que dirán. What will they think of us. It guides all my doubt. I can never let my face relax. There will always be a door, a man, a job where I’ll need to prove that I’m enough, and the only way to combat all this baggage is to be kind to myself. One time, I got so buttoned up at a Big Media job that I wore these pointed flats that left me limping. Bleeding ankles were the last straw. The next week, I forced myself to go to the desk of every person I wanted to replace, and I had painfully earnest conversations with editors who never asked my name before. By the end of that summer, I was wearing my flip flops, the Floridian fuck-you. I loved hearing the indecent smack of flop hitting the tile. It was my battle hymn. At work, I still didn’t let my face relax, but I would march along the glassed walls of my editor-in-chief. Smack smack smack. I deserve all my success.
Monica Torres, graduate student
One Big Question is a monthly series. Because I’m really nosy, I’ll pose a question to a bunch of our contributors and collect their responses. I figured a few of you might be really nosy too; together, we can find out everything about everyone. Got a question you’d like me to ask? Email me.