“I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.”
— John Steinbeck
Maybe it’s a new job or even a new career. Perhaps it’s a promotion. It could be a spot in a graduate program or a leading role in a big show.
The details can vary, but the underlying thought remains: I don’t belong here and, worse, everyone will realize it any moment now and I’ll be shunned forever.
It’s called imposter syndrome and while it seems to affect all of us, we internalize it to the point that we believe it affects only us.
I experience it often. It’s chronic, and recently I was hit with a severe case. After a twenty-year career and several degrees, I was promoted several times into a highly-visible role.
My first thought? Well, this is a mistake. I thought of it not as the logical next step in my career path, nor as the natural byproduct of my years of hard work and extra studying, nor as the result of a visionary leader taking a chance on someone he believed could fulfill their potential, but rather that I had tricked them into thinking I was someone I wasn’t and could do things I couldn’t.
I didn’t even enjoy the moment. Rather than celebrating the new opportunity, I immediately began fretting about it, constantly thinking about what I could to do to not fail. How could I keep the charade going?
“The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh God, they’re on to me! I’m a fraud!’ . . . just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud.”
— Tina Fey
For me, it’s not just about my professional life.
Throughout our decade-and-a-half together, I’ve asked my wife numerous times why she likes me. What does she see in me? I did this with every prior relationship too. I can attest that women find it incredibly sexy when you interrogate them with the underlying goal being that they realize you’re a loser and they’re settling by being with you.
It’s everywhere. I often wonder why my friends are my friends, but whenever I ask them, they turn it around and ask me why I’m friends with them. Fair enough. There’s a reason we get along.
I do it with writing as well. I think I’m a decent writer and crave accolades, but as soon as I receive them, I’m immediately skeptical. Whenever someone is effusive in their praise, I question their tastes.
As Tina Fey alludes to, the flip side of imposter syndrome is extreme self-confidence to the point of arrogant delusion. But that delusion is the mind’s thin defense mechanism and it wears off quickly, sending you right back into the depths.
In his brilliant memoir Greenlights, Matthew McConaughey prescribes a different approach:
“When we mentally give a person, place, or point in time more credit than ourselves, we create a fictitious ceiling. A restriction over the expectations that we have over our own performance in that moment…Don’t create imaginary constraints. A leading role, a blue ribbon, a winning score, a great idea, the love of our life, euphoric bliss… Who are we to think we don’t deserve these fortunes when they’re in our grasp? Who are we to think we haven’t earned them?”
John Steinbeck won a Nobel Prize and is one of the greatest authors in American history. Tina Fey has won nine Emmys, three Golden Globes, and is one of the sharpest comedy minds in the world. Matthew McConaughey won an Academy Award and is a world-famous film lead.
If these individuals all struggle with this mental plague, what choice do the rest of us have? Why should we be any different?
McConaughey is right, of course. We are where we are for a reason. Maybe it was from hard work, but perhaps it was dumb luck. What’s the difference? Enjoy it. You’re already in the room, so why not make the most of it? Even if you are a faker (you’re not), lean into it. Do your best and ride it out as long as you can.
“Nobody is thinking you’re an imposter. They are busy thinking about themselves.”
— Ryan Holiday
While McConaughey’s self-affirming approach is both admirable and uplifting, I think Ryan Holiday actually gets the heart of the matter by ripping back the curtain and exposing the fact that all of us suffer from these thoughts. We can’t consider the possibility of someone else being a fraud because we’re so sure that we’re the fraud ourselves, but the people we fear are onto us are having the same fears that we’re onto them.
So when you’re sitting in that meeting or that class or that fancy dinner worried that you don’t belong take comfort in the fact that virtually everyone else is thinking the same thing.
You belong as much as anyone else.
Because if we’re all imposters then none of us are.
Christopher Pierznik is the worst-selling author of nine books. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Connect on Facebook or Twitter. Please feel free to get in touch at CPierznik99@gmail.com.