Imposter syndrome, or the notion that we are less capable than what we truly are is a common phenomenon that affects everyone. In life, it is natural for us to feel a sense of inadequacy from time to time. The feeling reminds us that we need to work even harder and to be at our best to achieve success in life. Sometimes, it even serves as a powerful impetus to drive us forward. However, feelings of inadequacy should not undermine our confidence, or our sense of accomplishment in other areas of in life. It’s one thing to be humble, and another to constantly downplay your accomplishments, the latter raising a red flag. When we begin to doubt ourselves to the point that we undermine or underestimate our own abilities, this is usually a sign of imposter syndrome. Left unresolved, imposter syndrome can result in crippling self-doubts that deter us from achieving great success. In fact, it may even hinder us from realizing our full potential as human beings. The effects don’t stop there. Over prolonged periods, imposter syndrome can even cause depression, stress and burnout, all of which are detrimental to our daily functioning. Thankfully, imposter syndrome is not something to be feared, and many people who have experienced it have managed to overcome it with a little help. Here’s how.
Let go of perfection and get comfortable with failure
The obsession with perfection and the dread of failure is strongly linked to imposter syndrome. Perfectionism tells us that there is no room for error, and that we must be at our best at all times. Meanwhile, our fear of failure leads us to overcompensate and overperform to make up for our self-perceived shortcomings. However, when success is achieved, we downplay our accomplishments because we genuinely believe that we do not deserve it, which is not true at all. The first step to overcoming imposter syndrome is to let go of perfection and embrace failure, which teaches us the value of self-acceptance.
If everything fails, it is perfectly okay to throw your hands up in the air and say “So what?” So what if you failed? Rome was not built in a day, and humans did not achieve some of the greatest feats in history overnight. It’s only fair that we give ourselves the benefit of the doubt, and the self-compassion to feel human again. At the end of the day, if things start to get out of hand and feel overwhelming, it is perfectly fine to quit. Quitting is not a sign of failure, and failure is not a sign of defeat either. Instead, it is a sign that we are taking a step backwards to recuperate and to learn from our mistakes, which allows us to come back stronger to tackle the challenge at hand. If you can let go of perfectionism and embrace failure, you’ll learn to let go of the exceedingly high expectations that have been placed on ourselves, which enables us to accept success better when it happens to us or soften the blows of our self-defeating thoughts.
Embrace the stress
There are two types of stresses in life - the regular stress, and eustress. Regular stress triggers our fight-or-flight response, causes us to experience mild-moderate anxiety and may negatively impact our wellbeing in the long-term.
Eustress, on the other hand, is known as the “good stress.” Eustress drives us to present our best selves forward and allows us to tap into our full potential when the situation calls for it. Essentially, eustress brings out our best qualities. More importantly, it gets us excited about our undertakings and creates a sense of anticipation that we can eagerly look forward to keep our spirits high! A good example of eustress is undertaking a huge project at work that you are hugely passionate about. You are anxious about the outcome, but you enjoy the process and look forward to carrying it out because you enjoy seeing it come to life. Another example of eustress could include partaking in your favorite sports. You may feel overwhelmed by the competition posed by the opposition, yet you are equally excited about the match because you enjoy playing the sports and you crave for the sportsmanship.
Eustress is positively associated with self-growth and unlike regular stress, can be molded through our perception, meaning we can condition ourselves to see the good in stress and reap its benefits. If letting go of perfectionism or being comfortable with failure is not your thing, why not turn the situation around and look for the silver lining? It’s all about what you feed your mind and vice versa!
Always set realistic expectations
There’s letting go of exceedingly high expectations, then there’s setting realistic expectations. Both are different. One teaches you how to manage your emotions, the latter tells you not to bind yourself to any form of attachments, emotions and all. It goes without saying that expectation is the seed of disappointment, and this not only applies to the self, but the people around you and the relationships you have with them. When we set exceedingly high expectations for ourselves and others, the mind tends to idealize and fantasize about the best possible outcome, without leaving room to anticipate failure.
However, when we learn to not place a value on things, including our successes/failures and relationships, the mind will learn to take things at face value, that is to accept things for what it is. This also teaches us two important lessons - patience and being present. In the long run, learning to detach ourselves from our accomplishments or emotions prevents us from experiencing recurring stress and burnouts. The key takeaway here is to realize that you are no longer bound to the emotions you feel, the presence of success in your life or the lack thereof, thus you no longer assign a value to said accomplishment, and said accomplishment can no longer take away your worth as an individual as it no longer defines you as a person.
Fake it ‘til you make it
In June 2012, famed social psychologist Amy Cuddy gave a TEDtalk on non-verbal language, the imposter syndrome and power posing. The talk would later go on to be the most watched TEDtalk video of all times, capping at 21 million views at the time of this writing, and the video continues to remain relevant to this day. Cuddy talks about how the slightest tweak in our body languages could significantly change our lives and lead to big moments. Her studies have shown that big, powerful body languages can significantly increase your testosterone levels and decrease your cortisol, that is the hormones primarily responsible for regulating your confidence and anxiety levels. Nearing the end of her talk, she delivers a moving talk about her personal experience of imposter syndrome to the audience (broken into 3 parts), and this is what she had to say.
“I want to tell you a little story about being an imposter and feeling like I’m not supposed to be here. When I was 19, I was in a really bad car accident. I was thrown out of the car, rolled several times… And I woke up in a head injury rehab ward, and I had been withdrawn from college, and I learned that my IQ had dropped by two standard deviations, which was very traumatic. I knew my IQ because I had identified with being smart and I had been called gifted as a child. So I’m taken out of college and I keep trying to go back to college, and they tell me ‘You’re not going to finish college.’ Just, you know, there are other things for you to do, but that’s not gonna work out for you. So I really struggled with this, and I have to say, having your identity taken away from you, your core identity, and for me it was being smart, having that taken away from you, there’s nothing that leaves you feeling more powerless than that. So I felt entirely powerless, and I worked and worked and worked, and I got really lucky. Eventually I graduated from college, it took me four years longer than my peers.”
Cuddy then went on to talk about her success.
“... and I convinced someone, my angel advisor, Susan Fiske, to take me on, and so I ended up at Princeton, and I was like ‘I am not supposed to be here. I am an imposter.’ And the night before my first-year talk, and the first-year talk at Princeton is a 20-minute talk to 20 people, that’s it. I was so afraid of being found out the next day, that I called her and said ‘I’m quitting.’ And she was like ‘You are not quitting, because I took a gamble on you and you’re staying. You’re going to stay and this is what you’re gonna do - You’re gonna fake it. You’re gonna do every talk that you get asked to do. And you’re just gonna do it, and do it, and do it, even if you’re terrified and paralyzed, and having an out-of-body experience until you have this moment where you say “Oh my gosh, I’m doing it” like I have become this, I am actually doing this.’ So that’s what I do, five years in grad school, a few years in Northwestern… I moved to Harvard… I’m not really thinking about it anymore, but for a long time I had been thinking ‘Not supposed to be here, not supposed to be here.’... So the end of my first year at Harvard, a student who had not talked in class the entire semester, who I had said, ‘Look, you gotta participate or else you’re going to fail,’ came into my office. I really didn’t know her at all. She came in totally defeated and she said, ‘I’m not supposed to be here.’ And that was the moment for me. Because two things happened. One was that I realized oh my gosh, I don’t feel like that anymore, but she does and I get that feeling. And the second was she IS supposed to be here. Like she can fake it, she can become it. So I was like ‘Yes you are! You are supposed to be here! And tomorrow you’re going to fake it, you’re going to make yourself powerful and you know.”
Cuddy experienced an emotional moment that was followed by a round of applause from the floor. She ended her experience with the following.
“She comes back to me months later, and I had realized she not only faked it till she made it, she had actually faked it till she became it. So she had changed. So I wanna say to you, don’t fake it till you make it. Fake it till you become in. Do it enough until you actually become in and internalize.”
Cuddy later received a standing ovation and a few years later, her book Presence became a wide-hit among many readers from different walks of life.
Our point? Fake it till you make it, or as Cuddy says, become it. In Psychology, we call this habituation, or the act of doing something until it becomes second nature, until it no longer terrifies or paralyzes you. And that is the most relatable experience that everyone has had in life. We have done things that we were previously unfamiliar with that has now become second nature, like riding a bike or pursuing your degree or higher education. Habituation is a powerful tool to overcome your fears, and we stand alongside Amy Cuddy in telling you to fake it till you become it! If you feel that you are an imposter or that you’re not good enough, push through and continue doing it until you no longer feel fear. Push as if no one in the world is watching you, until you no longer realize that you’re pushing. That, is faking it till you make it.
A battle of the mind
The hardest thing you’ll ever do today is to overcome the self-limitations and self-doubts that you have imposed on yourself. Sometimes, it gets harder than usual to block out these self-defeating thoughts. Nonetheless, you should never give in to them. Think of that self-defeatist within you as a mirror, and that mirror takes in whatever you display and projects it back at you. Now envision yourself telling yourself positive affirmations to the mirror, and that mirror begins to return positive words too. That’s you defeat the self-defeatist in you. It is hard, but not impossible. It requires tough work, but it will be liberating once you have successfully overcome it. In Amy Cuddy’s words, “You’re going to fake it till you make it.”
Your body language may shape who you are | Amy Cuddy