I get sent questions from followers daily. Recently, I received one question that stood out to me. Here is the abridged version:
Ed, You made it out the hood. So did I. But I don’t feel like I belong here because of how I’m treated and how I view myself. There isn’t any advice on this. Can you help?
Now, for those of you who are new here, I was born and raised in some of the roughest areas of Pittsburgh.
I went to school in the ghetto until I was 14. I continued to live in hood until I was 18. Luckily, at 18, I had paid enough attention in school that I was able to get into college. So I went and I never looked back.
But just because I made it out of the projects doesn’t mean that I landed on my feet. I spent most of my twenties poor, with terrible habits, weak values, and a serious case of imposter syndrome.
I fell into an alcohol addiction which took years to kick. Slowly but surely, I worked through my issues and now, at 34, I finally feel like a competent adult.
In other words, I know what it’s like to feel like you don’t fit in.
What is imposter syndrome?
Let’s step back for a bit. What is imposter syndrome, anyway?
Imposter syndrome is a psychological state in which you doubt your accomplishments and live in fear of being exposed as a fraud.
It’s a feeling that you don’t deserve the things that you have. You feel like you don’t belong in the social groups that you’re a part of. You always play down your own accomplishments and attribute them to luck or external factors. You feel like you always need to be the best and you have a fear of failure. You struggle with accepting and internalizing compliments and praise from others.
It often affects high-performance individuals, but anyone can experience it regardless of social rank.
Why do we experience imposter syndrome?
First of all, let me start by saying that you are not alone.
Most people will experience imposter syndrome at one point or another in their life. In fact, researchers think that 70% of the general population has felt it at some point.
Impostorism usually starts when you enter a new situation or setting. It can happen when you’re in college, or when you start a new job. Some people experience imposter syndrome in relationships. It can also happen, as it did to both me and the reader who submitted the question, when you move from one socio-economic class to another.
But what causes it?
Unsurprisingly, psychologists have found that imposter syndrome often overlaps with feelings of anxiety, low self-esteem, and even depression. But it also seems to be its own thing. Research suggests there could be a few causes to impostorism:
Your parents. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Sydney in Australia found that imposter syndrome can be predicted by paternal overprotection and lack of paternal care. So, whether your dad was overprotective of you, or didn’t care about you at all, that might be why you feel like an imposter. Most of us who grew up in the hood can probably relate to the latter.
Your parents (yes, again). Our childhoods can really fuck us up. It turns out that college students whose parents put a lot of pressure on them to perform academically are also more likely to experience imposter syndrome. (Source)
Overall mental wellbeing. If you’ve had a history of anxiety or depression, this could be the reason why you feel like an imposter.
Personality.Perfectionists have a tendency to feel like imposters because they are overcritical of their own performance.
I thought people didn’t like me
An issue I’ve struggled with for a long time is accepting that people actually like me. To this day, I feel like people wouldn’t really mind if I disappeared.
Because of this, I’ve never tried to throw a party or organize any large social gathering by myself. Imposter syndrome would have me believe that no one really likes me or cares about my existence.
One of the things that contributed to my alcoholism was the oppressive feeling that I wasn’t good enough for people’s company. I thought people would only enjoy my company if I were drunk, or at least that the alcohol would numb my feeling of “not belonging”. This was the biggest thing I struggled with when I decided to become sober. (You can read about my path to sobriety here.)
Once I stopped drinking, I forced myself to interact with people. If I gave in to the voice in my head that told me I wasn’t likable, I would have ended up an anti-social hermit. I’d never try to meet up with my friends or family. Ironically, this would make them feel like I didn’t want to be around them.
So instead of retreating, I looked at the facts.
I reminded myself that I’d been friends with many of these people long before I ever started drinking.
There was no good reason for me to think that they did not want a sober version of myself around. I started focusing on the objective facts in front of me instead of construing unlikely worst-case scenarios based on my insecurities.
I started to see reality for what it actually was. I un-crossed the wires in my brain. More on this very shortly.
How should you deal with it?
Depending on how you’re wired, imposter syndrome can actually help you outperform your peers. Research indicates that women who experience imposter syndrome in college spend more time on academics and have higher GPAs. Guys, on the other hand, are more likely to give up. (Source).
If you have a very bad case of imposter syndrome, it can prevent you from going after new opportunities, and force you to hide beneath a layer of mediocrity because it feels safer than putting yourself out there.
And regardless of what it can do for your performance, I don’t think it’s good for your mental health to walk around feeling like a fraud all the time. That’s going to wear at you. Some of the research I looked at before writing this article suggested imposter syndrome may cause clinical depression.
There are other, healthier ways to get motivated. I wrote about my personal motivation secrets here: How to get motivated — a top performer’s secrets
Here are some scientifically proven ways to deal with imposter syndrome:
Realize that your wires are crossed
Remember that you’re not special
Keep a journal of your daily accomplishments, both small and big
Change your expectations
Seek out social support
Your wires are crossed: uncross them
I believe a big aspect of imposter syndrome is that it gets your wires crossed. To reprogram your brain, you need to uncross the wires.
There are two types of pain:
- The pain you experience when you put your hand on a hot stove
- The pain you experience after working out
When you put your hand on a hot stove, your brain interprets the pain you experience as a lesson not to ever put your hand there again. But when your body aches after a workout, your brain interprets that pain as a sign that you’re making progress and should keep at it in order to get stronger.
We all feel embarrassed when we make a mistake. Especially if it’s a public one. But the correct response to making a mistake, or experiencing failure, is to learn from our errors and try again. The pain we experience when making a mistake should tell us that we need to keep at it in order to get better.
Similarly, we all feel anxious when we start something new. But the feeling of anxiety simply tells us that we need to keep at it. The more you do that new thing, the less anxiety you will eventually feel.
When you suffer from imposter syndrome, your wires get crossed. Your brain thinks that these feelings of anxiety and embarrassment are telling you to never put your hand on the plate again. But actually, they’re trying to tell you the exact opposite.
So the next time your imposter syndrome flares up, remember that you need to reinterpret the signals in your brain. Uncross the wires.
You’re not special
Sometimes, you just gotta remember that you’re not special. Seven out of ten people feel or have felt the way you do. Some of the most accomplished people in the world have struggled with imposter syndrome. Chances are some of them are even your role models.
Here are just a few of the people who have dealt with imposter syndrome:
1) Howard Schultz, former CEO and chairman of Starbucks
Very few people, whether you’ve been in that job before or not, get into the seat and believe today that they are now qualified to be the CEO. They’re not going to tell you that, but it’s true.
2) Tom Hanks
No matter what we’ve done, there comes a point where you think, ‘How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?’
3) Ryan Reynolds
I went to a lot of events this year because of Deadpool, so you get into the tux and try and look like a grown-up. But to be honest, I still feel like a freckle-faced kid, faking it until I make it.
You know that these people aren’t frauds. They’re highly talented and accomplished individuals. Reminding yourself that you’re not special can help you deal with your impostorism because it makes you realize that what you are feeling is totally irrational.
If 70% of the population has had imposter syndrome and imposter syndrome was actually rational, that would mean 70% of the world consists of frauds. If that were the case, the world would crumble around us.
Keep a journal of your daily accomplishments
Imposter syndrome is an internal experience, not an external reality. One of the best ways to deal with it is to force yourself to objectively assess your situation. I suggest keeping a running journal of all your daily accomplishments, both small and big. Also, include any praise and accolades that you receive.
When you are faced with the objective facts of your performance every day, they become harder to ignore. Eventually, you are going to start internalizing your accomplishments. The things you focus on become your reality.
Change your expectations
Nothing ever starts out perfect. The girls you see on Instagram all photoshop their photos to have bigger asses and smaller waists. The books you read all went through half a dozen editors, proofreaders, typesetters, and several rounds of revision before hitting the bookshelves.
In fact, the blog post that you’re reading right now started out as an email newsletter without any research. Then I submitted it to my editor for review and he helped me make it 10x better.
The novelist Anne Lamott apparently titles every new work “Shitty First Draft”.
The bottom line is: Everything starts out shitty. If the things you create don’t start out shitty too, there might be something wrong with you. If you are a perfectionist, one way to cope with imposter syndrome is to change your expectations. Give yourself room to fail before you get things right.
So do like the tech bros in Silicon Valley and focus on creating something that meets the minimum criteria of “good enough”. “Good enough”, in this case, should be taken to mean “pretty shitty”. Once you have that, you can start improving on it.
Seek out social support
At the end of the day, everything’s a lot easier when you’re not going it alone. Try to find a place where you can share your experiences and get feedback. Whether it’s a mentor, a romantic partner, or a group of peers.
In fact, this is one of few scientifically verified strategies to cope with imposter syndrome: when you feel like you have a lot of social support, you find more productive ways to deal with your impostorism. (Source)
If you take anything away from this post, I want it to be this:
Never forget that your imposter syndrome is not an accurate reflection of reality. It is an internal experience that only exists in your mind. If it’s causing you stress or anxiety, the best way to cure yourself is to develop strategies that shift your focus to external reality.
If you manage to do that long enough, that nagging voice inside your head telling you that you don’t belong will eventually disappear.
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