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I AM EDITOR: Imposter Syndrome

When Your Intrusive Thoughts Are Kinda 'Sus

Published onAug 14, 2023
I AM EDITOR: Imposter Syndrome
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Caitlyn E.M. Trautwein, Congress of Neurological Surgeons

“But what if I fail?”

I’m sure many of you have had that thought when on the brink of trying something new, or taking on a new challenge. And I’m sure many of you have had the follow-up concern, maybe not in so many words, of:

“What if showing confidence misrepresents my skills and they find out the truth – that I can’t do it?”

I would hazard that, at some point, most of us have experienced the dreaded Imposter Syndrome. If you have, read on. If you haven’t, read on anyway.

Imposter Syndrome is defined as feeling like a fake, in any area of your life, despite past successes or proven competency. Maybe you are gregarious and generally well-liked, but you fear that people wouldn’t like you if they only knew the real you. Maybe you are an overachiever who tends to succeed when you put your mind to things, but you fear change and new responsibilities, because what if you mess it up? And maybe, like most people with Imposter Syndrome, you think everyone else has it so much better put together than you do.

You may find it encouraging to know, then, that Imposter Syndrome is a simple, internal, psychological experience, and it has little bearing on reality. Talk to your colleagues or teammates and you will find Imposter Syndrome rife among them, especially those who are neurodiverse. It’s no surprise then that people with Imposter Syndrome often experience anxiety, depression, self-doubt, restlessness, nervousness, and negative self-talk. In fact, it is estimated that up to 70% of people will feel like an imposter at some point in their lives. Perfectionists often find themselves deep in the weeds of Imposter Syndrome because the disease of perfectionism can never be satisfied. There is always someone better, or some better way to do things, and you’ve messed it up once again.

Imposter Syndrome presents itself in different ways – five types, in fact, according to Dr. Valerie Young, co-founder of the Imposter Syndrome Institute (yes, there is an institute dedicated to this human experience!). Check out this article at VeryWellMind to go into detail, but summarized here they are: The Perfectionist, The Expert, The Natural Genius, The Soloist, and the Superperson. Each has a different twist on the Imposter Syndrome feeling, and you may find yourself falling into one of these categories, or exhibiting a mix of them.

Whichever type of Imposter Syndrome you find yourself experiencing, it is a negative weight on the backs of all who experience it. Personally, I find Imposter Syndrome makes me anxious about change – what if I pick the wrong path? What if I regret my decision? What if I set myself up to fail and am worse off than if I’d just stayed where I was comfortable? These fears often make it hard to take on new challenges, or they make it easy for me to stay in an unacceptable place (socially, professionally, it doesn’t matter) just because it is familiar and “safe.” The negative self-talk that accompanies it (my twin and I call these invasive thoughts greebles) tear me down, leave me feeling worthless, and contribute to my feelings of anxiety and low self-esteem.

The Harvard Business Review published an article reporting the results of a survey that explored the claim that women tend not to apply to jobs unless they are 100% qualified (as opposed to men who will apply if they only have 60% of the qualifications), and the results showed not only fear of failure but also a strict adherence to every tic box on the job application as reasons for not applying for a job. In my own Imposter Syndrome experience, I’ve often worried that if I haven’t done something in the past, maybe I couldn’t do it in the future. My actual practical experience has shown just the opposite. I came from book publishing to peer-reviewed journals, and while there are some overlaps (the word publishing is one) the differences are greater. But not only was I hired in the first place, I have thrived and found a deep love for this facet of the publishing world. I may not have had experience with Editorial Manager, impact factors, and double-blind review before, but I was able to thrive because I am a competent human being. Imposter Syndrome would have tried to rob me of that opportunity and the following experiences.

The widespread nature of Imposter Syndrome means that the person you feel is so much more put together than you are has probably experienced the same fears and concerns you have. You don’t have to feel this way, and you don’t have to experience this alone, despite the fact that Imposter Syndrome tries to isolate you by putting a constructed barrier of competency around everyone else but you. When in reality, that oh-so-competent person probably has a stack of to-dos at home on which they’re procrastinating, or maybe they have to give themselves a pep talk in the morning to show that brave, confident, professional face that you admire. Whether or not that is the case, the only way to get past Imposter Syndrome is to start fighting those greebles I mentioned earlier. Take that negative self-talk and start asking it questions. Why should any failures of my past (perceived or real) take more weight than my successes? Why do I think I can’t do something, even when I’ve proven that I can learn new skills and take on new challenges? Why do I think that others will reject me if I don’t keep up a façade?

These are hard questions, and they don’t have any single answer – for me the answer changes depending on the day, my digestion, and whether or not Mercury is in retrograde. But if we don’t try to understand our feelings, we can’t find the foundation (often ridiculous, sometimes deep and real, but bringing us to the wrong conclusion) of our insecurities and fears. And we can start building ourselves up, instead of tearing ourselves down.

Recently I’ve taken up Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) in the form of Longsword. It’s the first sport I’ve taken part in since middle school, and it’s the first martial art I’ve ever tried. I love it, deeply, but the learning curve is steep, and I’ve recently been finding the Imposter Syndrome greebles trying to worm their way into this aspect of my life as well. What if I never get better? What if I am untalented no matter how hard I try? Socially, this is the first time I’ve made a new group of friends en masse since high school. What if they’re just being nice to me out of politeness? What if I’m butting in? These types of thoughts are unhelpful and do nothing to actually lead me to success in either region. I know where they come from, though. Performance-wise, I’m a high achiever, and I like to do whatever I’m doing to the best of my ability. Sometimes my ability doesn’t keep up with my expectations for myself. Socially, I’ve had a history of being shy, introverted, and plagued by low self-esteem. Knowing these things helps me navigate the waters of my Imposter Syndrome, even if they don’t make it go away. But lately my mantra in many things of my life has been this:

ALL I CAN DO IS NOT GIVE UP

I have little control over my “talent” other than working as hard as I know I can and showing up again and again. I have little control over whether people like me or not, but my history shows a crew of deep friendships that have lasted years and distance. Instead of focusing on the past, or on momentary failures, I try to keep looking to the next day, the next opportunity to try again. As my twin one time told me, “The time will pass anyway,” so I might as well spend it trying again and again, as opposed to giving up.

Don’t give up. If Imposter Syndrome tells you that you can’t do something, ask it why not? Don’t give up. If Imposter Syndrome tries to keep you from succeeding, tell it to step aside. And don’t give up. You’re not alone in this. Reach out to other colleagues you trust, or family members, or friends, and I guarantee you’ll find someone who can share your experience, and build you up.

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