Monday, November 2, 2015

Impostor Syndrome, Or How Feelings of Inadequacy Rained on my Parade

I always wanted to be extraordinary. Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to grow up and change the world. I had big dreams and I wanted to be the best at every single one of them. There was a time when I was convinced, at the age of 5, that when I grew up I would be a professional soccer player, figure skater, ballerina, gymnast and lifeguard, all at the same time. Like, I’d simultaneously be holding down 5 (vastly) different jobs, and be the best at every single one of them. And I had no doubt in my mind- I was definitely capable of this. In fact, had you told me that it wasn’t possible, my 5 year old sassy self would’ve scoffed at you, right in your face. Because of course I could. I didn’t care what you thought was possible because your limitations meant nothing to me. In the words of Ron Swanson, I knew what I was about. And I was going to be a professional soccer player/figure skater/ballerina/gymnast/lifeguard and nobody could stop me. I was awesome and I knew it. I was capable of anything.

But life gets tricky (tricky-tricky-tricky-tricky! …I hope you heard RUN-DMC in your head or that made absolutely NO sense!) As you grow up, things happen and believing in yourself sometimes (or all the time) isn’t that easy. At least it's not for me. Next thing you know it you’re in your mid-to-late twenties and you’d gone back to school and now you’re just struggling to survive. You’ve been in school for FOR-EV-ER; you worked full time and went to school at night, which finally got you to a University years later and now you are neck deep in classes (and still working to pay the bills) and all of a sudden it hits you, like a brick in your face, this awful self-doubt that you can’t do it, that your dreams are too big and you, ordinary you, cannot possibly make them happen. You start thinking you’ve gone through all this stress, anxiety, depression, hard work, no social life, and tiiiime and nothing is going to ever come of it because you are just little ol’ you. You look around and think you couldn’t possibly measure up, that there’s no way in heck you, of all people, YOU could do it. You’ve dreamed too big and now, when push comes to shove, you realize you’ll never make it.

Imposter syndrome; “feelings of inadequacy that persist even in the face of information that indicates that the opposite is true”. I know I'm not the only one who has gone through this. It sent me into a panic during my first Psychology seminar; I was listening to people who have their PhD’s talk about their careers and getting into Grad programs and about how competitive it is; how you have to do SOMETHING to set yourself apart from ALL THE OTHERS, not to mention you better have a stellar GPA, graduate Magna Cum Laude and oh yes, you better have off-the-charts GRE test scores to boot. Yes, I listened as people I had hoped to one day call my peers told me every single reason why doing what I wanted to do was nearly impossible. And you know what, I believed them. I went from the girl who knew exactly what and where she was going to a popsicle on a hot day, melted in panic because the odds were clearly stacked too high against me. 
Which is stupid because I'm a smart cookie and I've done really well in school. But for some reason, my brain ignores all of the positives and only sees the negatives.

It wasn’t the first time I had battled these feelings. I have gone through periods of self doubt, depression, as well as general performance anxiety on the regular. But I can tell you, sitting there with those horrible voices and feelings flooding through my system, was some of the worst feelings I have ever had. I've experienced people doubting me, but it never impacted me as much as me doubting me. That had such a deep concentrated affect; it left me in a nauseous, head-spinning-whirlwind. Later, as I’ve talked to friends and classmates, what I’ve come to realize is that many people have these experiences, BUT WE SHOULDN'T. We are entirely unfair to ourselves.

Impostor syndrome is “experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence. It is basically feeling that you are not really a successful competent and smart [person], that you are only imposing as such”. Looking into this further, I found a lot of really great information through CalTech University. Of course this doesn’t just happen for students, it can happen to anyone, and is “associated with highly achieving, highly successful people”. A sad truth is that it occurs at a higher frequency in woman more than men. But why? Why are SO many of us plagued with such deep underlining self-doubt? 

Impostor feelings are related to the inability to accept and internalize success, and when a person is successful, it does not relieve those feelings of inadequacy or change how they feel about themselves. CalTech University's counseling website says that two main problems persist: the fear of success and the pressure not to fail. People who suffer from impostor feelings tend to over internalize failure and may actually fear success because in brings these two conflicting thoughts to the surface.  “There can be a huge amount of pressure currently not to fail to avoid being “found out”. This leads to not being able to enjoy/internalize success”.

But just because you have these feelings, doesn’t mean they will always be there. In fact, CalTech gives several things you can do on your own to cope with these feelings as well as take steps to prevent them:

1. Have support- make sure you have someone to talk to when you have these feelings that will listen and be understanding as well as remind you of your qualities and successes.

2. Identify the impostor feelings- become self aware so that when you have these thoughts or feelings, you notice them, can take a step back, and evaluate where they are coming from and why you are having them. “Awareness is the first step to change and it is not obvious since many times we are not aware of our automatic thoughts”. [Automatic thoughts are defined as underlying, unquestioned thoughts which affect your perception of events, situations or yourself. Example: “I am not smart enough”]

3. Give yourself a Reality check- when you notice these automatic thoughts happening, question them and try to replace them with more positive thoughts. Understand the difference between these thoughts/feelings and reality. This takes time, you really need to know yourself and think about how you think and feel. When these situations do arise, change the thought to “I may feel ____ but it doesn’t mean that I really am”.

So for those of you who’ve felt like a fake, who’ve believed sooner or later that someone might "find out how little you actually know" or "how ‘barely adequate’ you are", for those that have continually attributed your success to luck because clearly it “wasn’t your own abilities that got you where you are”, or to those that continually downplay your success, you are not alone. But you need to know that when those feelings creep up on you, they are NOT true.  In Greek mythology, there’s an inscription on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, which says "gnōthi sauton" or “know thyself”. Perhaps this is the greatest tool one can posses; to know yourself, to really know yourself, might be the highest source of power there is. So when those thoughts and feelings of self-doubt flood into your brain, you can kindly kick them in the behind and let the door hit 'em on their way out. Because YOU ARE AWESOME. Don't ever think any different.