Imposter Syndrome – What it is and How to cope with it

Have you ever felt like you don’t belong or that you’re not good enough? Welcome to Imposter Syndrome. 

To be clear, Imposter Syndrome is a state of mind. It makes you feel like you’re not worthy, can bring on self-doubt, diminish motivation, and can also contribute to low self-esteem.

As a doctoral student, Imposter Syndrome was something I felt Every. Single. Day. It uncovered itself on day one of induction week and brought on feelings of fraudulence at being the youngest person to be enrolled on the programme that year. After chatting with fellow new researchers in the senior common room in the preceding weeks, I soon realised I wasn’t the only one, and it presented itself in different ways unique to each person’s story. Just because I was young and [in my eyes] inexperienced compared to the rest, didn’t mean that others weren’t feeling too old to start a Ph.D., or worried about how it might impact their parental roles. The meaning behind my sharing a snippet of my story is to emphasise that talking about imposter syndrome is the first step in learning to cope with it. 

Imposter Syndrome affects people from all walks of life and it is unavoidable because it is natural to feel doubtful from time to time. If you feel like you’re the only one, during a visit to a North London school in 2018, the former First Lady, Michelle Obama was asked how she felt about being viewed as a ‘symbol of hope’, and her response was this – 

“I still have a little [bit of] imposter syndrome, it never goes away, that you’re actually listening to me.”

So, instead of hoping to banish Imposter Syndrome completely, learn to accept it as a part of you and instead, use it as a stepping stone in your journey. 

WHAT 

One important stepping stone towards dealing with Imposter Syndrome is to identify what exactly is causing your lack of confidence, and then decide what you would do if you weren’t crippled by your fear. Next, tell a friend or family member, say it out loud, put it on paper, and get it done. The worst that will happen is that it won’t go as smoothly as it did in your head, but you will feel relieved that you did it and will be able to use any mishaps to improve next time. 

HOW 

Comparison is the thief of joy. Compare your achievements with your past self and realise how far you’ve come, rather than with those of other people. Imposter Syndrome-related anxiety is all about worrying about what may or may not happen. 

When that self-doubt starts to creep back in despite all your efforts to ignore it, you might try targeted calming activities designed to relieve stress such as mindfulness, meditation, or a simple walk at the end of the day can go a long way towards relieving your mind of those overwhelming thoughts. Sometimes a step away from the firing line to do something for you can be all it takes to get back on track.

REACH OUT 

As humans, we often find it difficult to seek guidance and can end up pressuring ourselves to the point of burnout. Allow yourself to open up to someone, whether that’s a colleague, friend, whoever it may be. Someone you respect and trust. 

If you work in a team and are struggling to reach out to those superior to you, try to understand that this actually slows everyone in your team down. Your response to the challenges you face can negatively impact others’ progress. People with more experience than yourself are also more often than not, able to relate to how you feel. They’ve been in your shoes, have had Imposter Syndrome themselves, and probably still have it with those they feel inferior to. 

SHARE 

Not only should you have that single person you can go to at any given time, but you might also try sharing your experience with others. Perhaps via social media or a blog post? You have the expertise to share it because you’ve felt it. Not only will this help you to realise how knowledgeable you really are, but it is also likely to promote feelings of empowerment because you’re helping someone else simply by sharing your personal experience. Normalising feelings of unworthiness helps to take the shame away from them. 

The overarching aim behind each of these techniques is that they are targeted at getting you to change your mindset. Instead of dwelling on a failure and letting it eat away at your self-esteem, visualise you reaching that end goal. You won’t win everything, so picture yourself receiving that degree certificate, or getting the promotion you’ve been working towards. Recognise the problem, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and continue the grind towards your goal. 

Again, periods of doubt are healthy and normal. What can be harmful about Imposter Syndrome is its ability to take over your every move, and that is what we need to be focusing on. Dr. Valerie Young, an Imposter Syndrome expert said, people “can still have an imposter moment, but not an imposter life.” 

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