Have you ever felt like you’re just pretending to be good at something, and sooner or later, everyone will find out you’re a fraud? That’s called imposter syndrome, and trust me, you’re not alone. Let’s dive into my journey through this pesky mindset, how it affects creative careers, and, most importantly, how to overcome it.
I used to be quite the chatterbox when I was younger. People would say, “You would be a great lawyer or journalist.” So, I went for it. I studied mass communication at university. Throughout it all, I grappled with a persistent feeling of detachment. I felt like I didn’t belong there. Yet, I couldn’t let these thoughts escape my lips – Nigerian parents aren’t ones to settle for anything less than the best. From a young age, I always knew what was expected of me. My path seemed to be paved for success without burning the midnight oil. My knack for using phonetics and speaking up in a crowd was my hallmark. Yet, I felt like a fraud with every intelligent move I made. A pretender. A constant sense of self-doubt accompanied my every accomplishment. The nagging thought of “Could I possibly be this good?”. It had to be fake.
I used to sing in my high school choir. In no time, I was made the school’s band leader. The exhilarating climb to the school’s band leader position filled me with pride and accomplishment. My talent earned me invitations to perform and speak at neighbouring schools’ events. In fact, there were moments when I’d find myself in the headmistress’ office, receiving praise and even treats as a token of admiration for my extraordinary abilities. My talent was celebrated, and I basked in the validation and recognition. I was thriving.
My happiness lasted for the better part of a year until 11th grade. A period of euphoria came crashing down in my 11th-grade year. The entire school anticipated my coronation as the chapel prefect. Confident, I believed it was in the bag. Then came the announcement – the position went to a boy. My devastation could not be quantified. The crushing disappointment of not receiving the role I believed was rightfully mine. My devastation could not be quantified. The feeling of being overlooked and underestimated cut deep. I felt like I expected too much of myself. I had deceived myself to the point where I thought I was better than everyone else. A cascade of self-doubt and questioning my worth set in. This blow left me questioning my endeavours to stand out and excel. The pursuit seemed futile. I was relegated to the role of an assistant chapel prefect, and in the following months, I embarked on a path of self-destruction. My dreams of distinction were shattered, replaced by a sense of insignificance. I got suspended before the session ran out, and my prefectship was revoked. I stopped singing and participating in activities and became a regular student. No expectations, nothing.
“An incessant fear of exposure and scrutiny haunted me,”
A cycle of self-criticism and overthinking plagued my every move. Never being able to blend in certain places because I felt undeserving of my seat in these places because I didn’t put in as much effort as everyone else. Not speaking too loudly so I wouldn’t be noticed and questioned about who I am and what I’ve done to deserve my position in the group. An incessant fear of exposure and scrutiny haunted me, making me shrink into the background.
Unknowingly, my self-esteem began to shrivel, and I talked less. I wore dark colours and never made any fashion statements because I felt like if I did, I would be scrutinised and called out for my falseness. My confidence dwindled, and I faded into the background, avoiding any attention that might reveal my perceived inadequacies. I navigated university without the feared public humiliation, yet the burden of self-doubt persisted. Yet, my days seemed endless, and my nights even longer.
The term “imposter syndrome” floated around in seminars and inspirational YouTube videos – buzzwords in the back of my mind. But it wasn’t until my third year at university that I confronted the term head-on. A lecturer shared an article on the topic, and as I read through the condemnatory definitions, an overwhelming anxiety gripped me. En route to class in a taxi, I realised that my relentless self-criticism had a name – a petrifying label.
Defining imposter syndrome
Shortly after I completed my BA in mass communication, I landed a job. Applying for the job resulted from one of those delusional but confident, “Let me try this” moments. You’d think that with enough confidence to apply for a job, a smooth ride would be in order, but no such luck. The first weeks were pure agony. Whenever I sat at the computer to write an article, the blinking cursor whispered, “liar, liar, liar.” The plain white screen didn’t help either. Its blankness was so overwhelming that I’d shut the computer down, fearing the process of stringing words together, and find solace in reading something else. Reflecting on that taxi ride while reading the article from my lecturer, the title of my ordeal came back to me: The Imposter Syndrome.
“Whenever I sat at the computer to write an article, the blinking cursor whispered, “liar, liar, liar.”
Naturally, like any other Gen Z’er, I promptly turned to YouTube to gather more information on this condition. I stumbled upon TED talks and numerous inspirational videos on tackling imposter syndrome. Eventually, I encountered a video discussing how even Maya Angelou, who had already published 11 books, battled feelings of fraudulence and anticipated exposure. This revelation hit me like a ton of bricks, prompting me to reevaluate my self-perception. If someone as distinguished as her could grapple with inadequacy and yet maintain excellence, surely I could do the same. These videos broadened my understanding of impostorism and its impact.
Imposter syndrome is among the most exhausting mental struggles a creative person can endure. You’re even more susceptible to its thorny jabs as a woman, particularly in male-dominated spaces. Imposter syndrome encompasses persistent feelings of inadequacy and incompetence, boiling down your achievements to mere luck or, in my case, the assumption that everyone else must be oblivious. It’s the conviction that you didn’t genuinely earn your current position without deceiving or tricking someone. Imposter syndrome has the power to bring you to your knees.
Identifying the imposter
As the name implies, Imposter syndrome revolves around a fabricated identity overshadowed by the constant fear of exposure. It’s akin to waiting for the other shoe to drop, an uncertainty that can profoundly affect individuals, particularly those in high-achieving roles. The battle with imposter syndrome has intensified in today’s landscape, where women increasingly make their mark in technical industries and creative spaces. In response to this struggle, I delved into research and stumbled upon a groundbreaking study by Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance, who coined the term “imposter syndrome.”
For five years, this study meticulously examined high-achieving women who, despite their accomplishments, carried an unwavering belief that their intelligence was a facade and anyone who regarded them as competent had been misled by sheer luck. A striking revelation emerged: for most women, these feelings stemmed from intricate family dynamics and the internalisation of societal gender role stereotypes. While imposter syndrome does affect men, research suggests it’s less frequent and intense than in women. The study even suggested that the roots of imposter syndrome could be traced back to early childhood, with indications of its traits manifesting in women as early as preschool.
Family and teachers play crucial roles in this process, enforcing traditional gender roles and inadvertently cultivating a sense of self-doubt in women. This narrative centres around the notion that men possess superior intellectual competence, thus driving women to overcompensate, overperform, and consistently doubt their capabilities to meet societal expectations.
Manifestations of Imposter Syndrome: Behaviors that Speak Volumes
Imposter syndrome presents itself in myriad ways, revealing the underlying struggle for self-validation. The study identified three prominent manifestations that many women experience:
- Diligence and Hard Work: The fear of falling short drives women to overcompensate in areas where they perceive potential failure. Even without clear indications of incompetence, this fear compels them to dedicate excessive effort and energy to ensure no gaps are left unfilled. Individuals in the study even voiced concerns that their perceived inadequacies might be exposed, showcasing the depth of their self-doubt.
- Flattery and Self-Undermining: Many women resort to downplaying their intelligence and suppressing their opinions. This stems from a sense of phoniness, leading them to credit their superiors for their own accomplishments. This subtle self-sabotage involves elevating others while diminishing their contributions, reflecting their inner struggle.
- Charm and Perceptiveness: To gain approval and validation, some women adopt behaviours rooted in charm, sexuality, appearance, and humour. This approach involves carefully observing superiors to predict their reactions and implementing strategies to appease them. This outward display of effort often masks the deeper feelings of doubt and the need for affirmation.
Interestingly, an article addressing the prevalence of imposter syndrome in women points to the overwhelming pressure to excel and achieve perfection as a primary trigger. The fear of being caught in a perceived state of inadequacy fuels the cycle of imposter syndrome among women, pushing them to an exhausting pursuit of perfection.
In contrast, men have historically been conditioned to believe in their innate competence, allowing them to confidently undertake tasks, often without harbouring the same levels of doubt that women experience. This stark contrast contributes to the higher prevalence of imposter syndrome among women.
In essence, the manifestations of imposter syndrome are not just a personal struggle; they are a response to societal pressures and expectations that shape the perceptions of one’s capabilities. Understanding these nuances helps shed light on the complexity of imposter syndrome and its disproportionate impact on women.
“…my feelings of self-doubt and anxiety over things that do not exist…”
Working through imposter syndrome
With my knowledge of the study I had read, I began to wonder, “Am I less because I believe a man is more? Do I believe I don’t belong here because I am a woman?” And then it hit me: the other things I am undoubtedly good at are gendered activities. The activities that are typically expected of me as a woman are the things that I know I am great at.
I realised that my feelings of self-doubt and anxiety over things that do not exist were totally against my feminist beliefs. Why did I feel the need to question my intellectual abilities? I have proven time and time again that I am smart. Why do I not trust my abilities? These questions helped me see that I was doing a disservice to myself, and over the next few weeks, I began to reprogram. There is an oversold idea that, as women, we must prove without a doubt that we are worthy of being in the positions we hold.
Working through imposter syndrome is no small feat, and no one can magically pull the self-doubt and self-antagony out of your head in a split second. However, the most recommended method of getting over imposter syndrome is to fake it till you make it. I agree. If you have “deceived” to the top, why must you stop now?
Discovering Dr. Joy Harden Bradford and Dr. Lisa Orbé Austin on Therapy for Black Girls, dissecting the intimate details of imposter syndrome and the difficulties of internalising your achievements, was vital to my awareness. Finding this podcast helped me navigate the intense feelings of inadequacy and falseness. I listened intently, over and over again, until I got it. If I’m the imposter, and no one else is doing the work and yet I still get merit for it, then I’m not the imposter. There is no imposter. Coming to terms with the fact that my opinion of myself is not the same opinion that the result of my work has shown was hard but necessary.
With seven strategies recommended by The American Psychological Association, I began to reconcile with the fact that I needed help and needed to work through my imposter syndrome, or I’d never get to work again.
- Learn the facts: By learning the facts surrounding your work, you can see what is true and what isn’t. Look at your work and scrutinise it with an unbiased mindset.
- Share your feelings: If you do not trust your facts, you should share them with someone you trust to get their opinion. Handling a burden as heavy as imposter syndrome can be too much. Make sure there are people in your circle you trust and can confide in.
- Celebrate your successes intentionally: While your mind is putting you down, go out of your way to celebrate the small things. Create time to give yourself a pat on the back and a well-thought-out gift.
- Let go of perfectionism and embrace imperfections: Perfectionism is a major trigger for imposter syndrome. Allow yourself not to get it immediately. Give yourself time to grow and learn.
- Be kind to yourself: Dealing with a foggy mind can be frustrating. Sometimes, we take out this frustration by saying mean things and thinking mean thoughts.
- Don’t hide your failures: It is vital not to hide your failures because they are stepping stones for your wins. Acknowledge them and learn from them.
- Take it one moment at a time: Do not make impulsive decisions out of fear and anxiety. Make the most of every moment, and take deep breaths.
I must confess, despite taking all these steps, doubts still linger, and there’s much self-work ahead for my mind. Nonetheless, there’s no imposter here—just me in my own quirky thoughts.
Notable women who have experienced imposter syndrome
Initially, I believed that my tussle with imposter syndrome was a singular struggle due to my own perceived inadequacies. However, a swift venture into the depths of a Google search quickly disabused me of this notion, unveiling an expansive tapestry of experiences far beyond my own. The results revealed an endless array of accomplished figures, encompassing business executives and creative luminaries, spanning the realms of acting, novel writing, poetry, and more.
Even after a decade of hosting Top Chef and earning prestigious nominations, Padma Lakshmi grappled with persistent doubts about the quality of her work. In an illuminating interview with Forbes, she candidly shared her journey, recounting a crucial realisation during her imposter syndrome struggle: she needed to shift from idealism to realism. This poignant revelation encapsulates the essence of the battle many face when confronting their own sense of inadequacy.
Maya Angelou, a literary icon with eleven published books to her name, openly shared her inner turmoil when facing the blank pages of her desk pad. Her words resonate deeply with those acquainted with imposter syndrome: “Each time I write a book, every time I confront that yellow deskpad, the challenge is so immense. Despite my achievements, I find myself thinking, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to uncover the truth now. I’ve deceived everyone, and they’re about to expose me.’” This raw insight into her creative journey exposes the unrelenting grip that imposter syndrome can have on even the most accomplished individuals.
“The imposter thoughts and discomfort that you experience are like the fly; they’re nothing to fear. You are more than capable of doing what you want to do, and even if you did make a mistake or fail, this wouldn’t unmask you. Mistakes and failure are a normal part of life, not a death sentence.”
– Dr Jessamy Hibberd
Shattering the Illusion of Isolation:
The landscape of shared experiences extends beyond our individual lives, echoing in the stories of countless extraordinary women. Among the notable figures who have openly acknowledged grappling with imposter syndrome are luminaries like Emma Watson, Lupita Nyong’o, Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga, Tracee Ellis Ross, Cara Delevingne, and Amy Schumer. These names, synonymous with talent and excellence, remind us that the sensation of being an impostor is not confined to any specific realm or level of accomplishment—it is a universal undercurrent in the journey of achievement.
Through my confrontation with imposter syndrome, I’ve unearthed a profound truth: I must reshape my self-perception to dismantle the fortress of self-doubt. After all, if I doubt my worth, how can I expect others to perceive it differently? This transformative process has been nurtured by the power of positive affirmations and self-kindness. By adopting affirmations and repeating them, I’ve witnessed personal growth and a gradual shift away from allowing my identity to be dictated by fleeting thoughts.
The potent message imposter syndrome carries is that it need not wield the power to stifle our potential. While it may attempt to restrict us, the primary contender in this struggle is none other than ourselves. So, inhale deeply, summon your inner fortitude, and embark on the battle for your mental well-being. It’s a duel—You versus the Imposter. And take my word for it, victory is well within your grasp.