Imposter Syndrome: How to Stop the Self Sabotage

Recognise the poisonous echoes in your mind, understand that it is normal, and do yourself a favour: flush it out. Learn how to deal with this psychological phenomenon and own your success.

By | April 14, 2021

The Lying Evil Twin

You feel inadequate despite evident success. You can’t seem to internalise your accomplishment even when you’re clearly successful in your field. Perhaps because you’ve been telling yourself for too long that you are not good enough? That voice echoing in your head is a message you once heard, maybe even a miscommunication, but you’ve heard it and now you can’t get it out of your mind. You’ve accepted it to be true. Despite all the compliments and recognition, you think “maybe I just got lucky?”.

Does this sound familiar?

 

What lies beneath the veil? Photograph: Steinar Engeland/Unsplash

This is how imposter syndrome makes you feel. This is a topic close to my heart. There are too many moments where I doubt my abilities and question my qualifications even when I’m told I’m doing well and my successes are rewarded. It’s even worse when I get a pay rise. I start thinking “They’re definitely going to replace me with someone cheaper now”. I walk out of meetings thinking “Did I do that properly? Did I sound alright?”. Sometimes I question my thoughts too much that I end up swallowing my words and stay silent. Heck, I even second guess when it comes to friends and family!

Being around narcissists makes it worse. Unfortunately, our society can be quite bitter. Even from childhood, I’ve heard comments such as “Who do you think you are, setting such a high bar for yourself?”. Even when it’s not directed at me, it still rings in my ears and lingers in my mind, “What if that’s what people think about me?”

Cultural issues, especially being a minority, may contribute to feelings of inadequacy.  Photograph: Calicadoo/Unsplash

“Culture, gender, even families can hold us back,” said Deborah Henry, while moderating a talk between Michelle Obama and Julia Roberts at the 2019 inaugural Obama Foundation Leaders: APAC event held in KL. In their conversation, Mrs Obama described imposter syndrome as a problem, “particularly for minorities. Because you’ve been told you’re not good enough. That when you’re in a room, you feel, ‘how did I get here?’ Women feel it often times because society says, ‘You shouldn’t be doing that.’ You feel like an imposter in your own life. Especially if you’ve achieved success or you’re in rooms that you’re ‘not supposed to be in’ because society has told you that. You feel like maybe somebody is going to discover that I shouldn’t be here.”

According to Gill Corkindale on the Harvard Business Review, “‘Imposters’ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.”

Mrs Obama, who champions empowerment, particularly among women and youth, and herself has suffered from the psychological issue, told Vogue Australia, “For so long, women and girls have been told we don’t belong in the classroom, boardroom, or any room where big decisions are being made. So when we do manage to get into the room, we are still second-guessing ourselves, unsure if we really deserve our seat at the table. We doubt our own judgment, our own abilities, and our own reasons for being where we are. Even when we know better, it can still lead to us playing it small and not standing in our full power.”

 

Negative self-talk is what creates doubt. Photograph: Jan Antonin/Unsplash

Life coach Wendy Wong tells MYND, “In our current world, changes occur much more rapidly compared to the past generations. We have the need to reinvent ourselves to fit into this new world more so than that expected of us. We are our harshest critic during these times.” There are not necessarily more cases of imposter syndrome in modern times though. Wong says, “We are certainly more aware of it when we feel it within ourselves—through the many psychologists and thought leaders”. We can now label the identified feeling.

Even stars feel like they’re falling

Those who suffer are usually highly successful, high achieving people. Thus, Corkindale writes, “imposter syndrome doesn’t equate with low self-esteem or a lack of self-confidence. In fact, some researchers have linked it with perfectionism, especially in women and among academics.”

In the inaugural Obama Foundation Leaders event, Roberts pointed out that our hero is still human no matter how easy they make life seem, especially on social media where you’re completely disconnected from reality. The first National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, the inspiring writer Maya Angelou, award-winning actress Meryl Streep, astronaut Neil Armstrong, and even iconic genius Albert Einstein, have talked about facing imposter syndrome.  It turns out that they are humans too, and unfortunately humans tend to focus on the negative and let ourselves be our worst critic.

Even first ladies and the famous experience limitations at times. Photograph: Alex Nemo Hanse/Unsplash

In her memoir Becoming, Mrs Obama writes “I had to overcome the question ‘Am I good enough?’ It’s dogged me for most of my life. Many women and young girls walk around with that question in their minds. I felt like I had something to prove because of the colour of my skin and the shape of my body, but I had to get out of my own way.”

Mrs Obama questions Gorman about imposter syndrome in ‘The Renaissance is Black’ interview with Time Magazine. Gorman comments “Speaking in public as a Black girl is already daunting enough, just coming onstage with my dark skin and my hair and my race—that in itself is inviting a type of people that have not often been welcomed or celebrated in the public sphere. Beyond that, as someone with a speech impediment, that imposter syndrome has always been exacerbated because there’s the concern, Is the content of what I’m saying good enough? And then the additional fear, Is the way I’m saying is good enough?”

How much does it really matter if someone you know is judging you or your choices?

Most of us who struggle with imposter syndrome worry a lot about what others think of us. To counter her own imposter syndrome, Mrs Obama reminds herself that the people at the “powerful tables” aren’t always smart, while Gorman repeats the lyrics to the Moana song, “Song of the Ancestors” before she gets on stage, as a coping mechanism. Unfortunately, nobody is going to tell you that you belong. Only you can tell yourself that. You can’t count on somebody else to give you self-confidence. Mrs Obama advises, “You can’t sit there wondering if you belong, because you’ll waste your time. Don’t hold your voice back.”

Keeping a journal helps with the self-reflection process. Photograph: Hello I Am Nick/Unsplash

Coach Wong presents us with some tips to stop us sabotaging our own success. “Examine our beliefs,” she counsels. “When we feel imposter syndrome lurking and making us feel inadequate, take that as an opportunity to slow down to examine what is going on. Sometimes one can meditate and reflect.  Others need to reflect via journal, or verbalising the feeling to a professional coach or therapist.”

There is no shame in seeking help as it’ll only provide you with a reality check—either constructive learning from failures or help in visualising your success. “By surfacing the belief to our consciousness, we then have the opportunity to address and reframe our beliefs more positively,” Wong advises.

Another thought is to be kind to yourself, imposter syndrome is “a very natural experience of being human,” Wong points out. “The moment these negative thoughts and feelings arise, welcome it as part of the process of growing.” Remember, as humans, it is normal not to know everything. Knowledge growth is a progressive process that builds up throughout our lives and careers. Sure, we may make mistakes occasionally, but don’t forget to reward yourself when you get things right.

Recognise and embrace your success, you will feel liberated. Photograph: Kevin Fitzgerald/Unsplash

“Imposter syndrome arises when we think about what we believe our external world expects of us. These beliefs are deeply ingrained in our subconscious. The external world plays a huge part in creating the belief in the beholder,” Wong reminds us.

Remember that most people experience moments of doubt, and what you think other people are thinking about you is only happening in your head. Not theirs. In that business meeting, chances are, your colleagues are busy thinking about their own goals in their career. Even so, Trish Taylor writes in Yes! You Are Good Enough: End Imposter Syndrome, “We shouldn’t concern ourselves with a stranger’s negativity.”  It doesn’t matter what people think. At the end of the day, nothing should stop you from fulfilling your potential and living your life to its fullest.

Leila Fitton

Leila Fitton

With an MA in Critical Media and Cultural Studies from SOAS, Leila Fitton’s passion lies in culture, theatre, and the media. She's worked on international productions, notably Crazy Rich Asians, Marco Polo, The Garden of Evening Mists, and The Singapore Grip; as well as Harper’s BAZAAR Malaysia as Features Editor. She's an avid traveller of an anthropological nature, covering off-the-grid places including the Spice Islands to the highlands of West Papua, Kenya to Peru.