Imposter Syndrome: What Made Maya Angelou Feel Like a Fraud

Do you feel like a fraud? Do you feel that you would be exposed soon? Do you feel that you simply inherited your qualities and accomplishments, and got everything easy by just being lucky —that you might not really deserve the success you enjoy right now?

A friend of mine, Reshma, recently became the new tech head in a startup. She is a humble person, one who likes to read and learn. You’ll often see her reading a book or an article when she is not busy coding. She doesn’t have a CS degree, but has worked hard to learn everything she could, as fast as she could, to reach where she is now. Leading a team of smart coders in a booming startup at such a young age surely calls for a lot of responsibility and pressure — not an easy job in any way.

Recently she confided to me that she is under a lot of stress. What if her teammates find out that she is not competent to be their boss? How will she evaluate them when all of them might already be thinking that she is not fit for her role? What gives her the authority or the right to judge others’ performance, or review their codes? Is she even fit to give them feedback? Do they even care about her feedback?

I tried to give her the usual pep talk a friend would give. What she was experiencing is very common. I’ve seen others go through more or less a similar anxious feeling. Another friend of mine got a chance to do a nice remote gig for a startup in Denmark. It was a small team of 11 and he was going to become the only designer. He ultimately didn’t take up the job because he felt he wasn’t competent— even after being selected after 6 rigorous rounds of interviews.

Have you ever had similar feelings? If you happen to be good at stocks, people might often come to you for investment advice. But deep down you might feel that you just got lucky with the money. The market was good, and you fortunately picked the right stocks. Maybe you watched the right YouTube videos, or read the right books, or took the right person’s advice. Not only stock pickers, in fact a lot of high value CEOs of successful companies feel the same. They feel that they were simply in the right place at the right time, and hence can’t take much credit for the success they enjoy.

What if I told you even Harry Potter felt something like that? He confesses at one point that he is not special —he always had help from Dumbledore and his friends, and he simply got lucky most of the time.

If you are looking for an example of a real life famous person instead of a fictional character, Maya Angelou once said, “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”

This feeling of anxiety is famously known as The Imposter Syndrome.

The Imposter Syndrome is the very same internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be. It is accompanied by the anxiety that others will eventually find out that you’re not as smart, creative, clever, or capable as they think you are.

These are exactly the same motions my friend Reshma is going through. She feels she will be humiliated, shamed and ultimately deemed to be incompetent, thus confirming her inner fear of being unsuitable for this challenging job into which she has been promoted, and for which she has actually worked so hard.

It is so common that in fact, according to a review article published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science, an estimated 70% of people experience these impostor feelings at some point in their lives. Impostor syndrome affects all kinds of people from all aspects of life: women, men, students, managers, actors, and entrepreneurs.

Imposter Syndrome was first identified in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. They had published a research paper which had initially theorised that women were uniquely affected by this.

But later research has shown that both men and women experience imposter feelings, and Pauline Rose Clance later published another paper acknowledging the fact that imposter syndrome is not limited to women. Imposter syndrome can apply to anybody who isn’t able to come to terms or internalise their own successes.

If you are still not sure whether you are suffering from the imposter syndrome or not, then please go ahead and download this impostor syndrome test sheet and find it out for yourself how acutely are you suffering from it.

Download Impostor Syndrome Test Sheet

One of the major causes of suffering from imposter syndrome is high expectation from yourself which puts you under pressure. And if you have a deep seated need to live up to the high expectations of others, that puts you under extra pressure.

This generally affects people with growth mindset — people who are constantly looking for ways to make themselves better in all aspects. This affects them especially when they are placed in a leadership role. “What if my teammates don’t like me? What if they don’t respect me, or think that my hair is not right, and that I’m not charismatic enough? What if they don’t laugh at my jokes?”

If you have similar feelings, most likely you feel under constant pressure to perform. You think your colleagues, your friends, your parents, and your whole company is expecting you to be at your best all the damn time.

A similar reason to feel like an imposter is a need to feel that at any point in your personal life, or in any situation in business or at work you should know everything there is to know. CEOs feel under constant pressure to know what’s good for the business, and take the right decisions on behalf of everybody.

If you were smart as a kid, most likely you knew all the right answers in school. But the world was much smaller for you as a kid, and it was fairly easier to know all the stuff — you just had to read your books, and do you homework. But as a grown-up, it’s generally not possible. There are just too many unknown unknowns for you.

Smart people also face another issue — dealing with ‘struggle’. There’s a concept that if you are smart you don’t have to struggle as hard as others. You might think that if you ask for help, it makes you weak and incompetent. If you fail at something, it makes you a loser.

People have so far gotten the impression that things come naturally to you, and you don’t have to struggle much for anything. Now that you are in a leadership position, if people get even the slightest hint that you are struggling, they would think that you are not suitable for that position.

Another emotion that causes anxiety is the need to ‘blend in’. The need to blend in with your former success, or blend in with a new environment, and do whatever you can to convey to others that you aren’t an outsider. It is a corollary to the desire to appear to be ‘natural’.

I’ve got first hand knowledge about this. I get very anxious whenever I travel to new places. In a new place, my failure to blend in with the rest of the people makes me feel like an outsider. It usually makes me feel that everybody is constantly thinking, “What the hell is he doing here? He doesn’t belong here.”

This can become tough if you are an introvert. You are far too sensitive to peoples subtle movements and reactions. Your increased social anxiety is the direct result of imposter syndrome.

And god forbid, if you are a ‘perfectionist’, all hell breaks loose. You experience the combined agony of all that I’ve discussed till now. It is not a surprise that a majority of people experiencing imposter syndrome often tend towards perfectionism. Unhealthy perfectionism leads to unrealistic expectations that can’t be met, and it leads to a constant fear of failure.

All artists, creators, and maestros want to be perfectionists and a majority of them are endure the torment of feeling like a fake and a fraud all the time.

So, how do you deal with imposter syndrome? For starters, you should understand that simply feeling incompetent, and actually being incompetent are two completely different things.

You have to know your strengths, your weaknesses, and asses yourself objectively. Being able to accurately assess your skills and performance can make the difference between learning from a failure or avoiding future challenges entirely. Don’t judge yourself by the outcomes of your decisions. Focus on your efforts and reward yourself for constantly learning new things.

Observe your thoughts. Do they help you, or do they hinder you? Identify the thoughts that hinder you and give you the feeling of being like an imposter, and find ways how to deal with them. Think about what you should do so that they go away.

After you get a promotion, rather than feeling like an imposter embrace the fact that your teammates might actually have more knowledge than you do. Ask them to give a presentation on a certain topic, or have a general discussion with you to exchange knowledge. This will help break the ice, as well as the tension.

While travelling to a new place, embrace the fact that you are an outsider, but at the same time acknowledge the fact that you do have a lot of curiosity to learn about this new place. Ask people about directions, ask them about good places to eat, or try to learn a bit of local history from them. This will genuinely help you enjoy the experience.

Try to sink in the fact that you don’t have to know each and everything —nobody is expecting it. My friend Reshma was suffering from this specific problem. “What if they find out that they know more than I do?” But that is bound to happen. There would be some minuscule thing somewhere lurking that you might not be aware of, and it’s fine. No one is expected to know everything. What people expect is that you remain honest in your efforts for growth. Growth matters more. Also, knowledge is never static —it compounds. If you really think somebody knows more than you, try having discussions to learn from each other.

You’ll always have doubts about yourself, your abilities, and your qualities. But don’t let these doubts control you. You might goof up once in a while, and every now and then somebody else would have a better idea than you — but you can’t let that deter you.

Learn the art of moving on. Being extremely fearful of failure and criticism, constantly worried about making mistakes and disappointing people, or tending to brood over past mistakes are signs of unhealthy perfectionism. Focus on your efforts rather than outcomes.

This is the same advice I gave to Reshma. “Learn to move on! You’ll get many opportunities to shine. Focus honestly on your efforts, remain curious, and appreciate your co-workers.”

Most importantly, don’t forget to celebrate small wins. Even if you goof up, you’ll not fail all the time. The reason that you are here means something. You might think that it is mostly luck that has got you here, but it surely can’t be all luck and no effort from your end. You have to have some tricks up your sleeve. Use them, and when you win, reward yourself.

One bright side of suffering from the imposter syndrome is that you are most likely not suffering from the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which can be far worse. It’s better to doubt your smartness, than being cocksure about it. It would also be good to point out that most successful people suffer from the imposter syndrome. You’ve to actually earn it. If you are having doubts about your achievements, you must have surely achieved something. That’s no mean feat.

The last and the most effective strategy is to talk to somebody. Find a trusted accomplice, or a friend, or a partner who would listen to you. Talk about what you feel, why you think you are having these feelings, when did you start to feel so, etc. A good conversation would help you understand your predicament better. An outsider can also see your position better than you, and help you see things from a different perspective. You are among the trees. Let an outsider give you an overview of the forest as well.

Neil Gaiman is the author of the famous comic book series The Sandman. He also wrote American Gods which has now been turned into a TV series. He has won numerous awards, including the Hugo, Nebula, and Bram Stoker awards, as well as the Newbery and Carnegie medals. He is the first author to win both the Newbery and the Carnegie medals for the same work.

Gaiman once wrote about meeting a legendary man, who said he felt out of place among a gathering of great artists and scientists.

“Some years ago, I was lucky enough invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And I felt that at any moment they would realise that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things.”

“On my second or third night there, I was standing at the back of the hall, while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, ‘I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.‘”

“And I said, ‘Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.’”

“And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.”

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