“I don’t belong here.” “They just think I have got it, but I have no clue.” “I hope they never catch on that I’m just pretending.” “My success is a fluke.”
If any of these thoughts seem familiar to you, you could be one of the many across the world who are challenged by Imposter Syndrome. Defined as feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success, around 33% of young people have it, and 70% of us are likely to experience it at some point in our lives.
Imposter Syndrome was defined by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in the 1970s, who noted three key characteristics:
- Thinking that people have an exaggerated view of your abilities – “I don’t know why they think I am an expert.”
- The fear of being exposed as a fraud – “Any minute now, they’ll see that I’m clueless.”
- The continuous tendency to downplay your achievements – “It’s just luck that I got it right.”
These feelings are closely connected to threshold-crossing – situations where you move from one role to another, one career path to another, or one workplace to another.
Slaying this almost ubiquitous beast is often a lifelong exercise, but fortunately, we have an accumulated wealth of age-old wisdom from philosophers, artists, spiritual figures, politicians, coaches and therapists to turn to. Let’s explore some of it here:
From the Archaic period
“Oh good, invite them in.”
- Gautama Buddha, 6th century BC
The creator of Behavior Gap and The Sketch Guy columnist in The New York Times, Carl Richards, shares this secret to battle Imposter Syndrome: He follows the path of Gautama Buddha. When the antagonist Mara was trying to breach through while the Buddha was teaching, Buddha asked his attendants to not stop her but simply invite them in. In other words, facing what scares you with compassion can be the beginning of a friendship. Carl Richards explains that after years, in his own words (or sketch), he has turned fear into fuel.
From the Classical Era
“Enter their minds, and you’ll find the judges you’re so afraid of – and how judiciously they judge themselves.”
– Marcus Aurelius, 2nd century AD
In his childhood, Roman emperor (and Stoic philosopher) Marcus Aurelius was never an heir to the throne. Emperor Antoninus Pius adopted him into the ruling family so that he could succeed him. So, just like any of us who has experienced a threshold crossing (such as a global relocation, a promotion, or a role change), Marcus Aurelius might have experienced Imposter Syndrome too, and these words from his Meditations help us understand how to face the fear of being judged harshly by others. If you enter the inner psyche of those who you think are judging you, you will find that they are busy judging themselves. Their battles are with themselves, not you, just as your battles are within you, not with them. Tackle the fears within you of being an imposter, and you are free to be your best self.
From the Medieval Age
“An interpreted world is not a home. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening, to use our own voice, to see our own light.”
- Hildegard of Bingen, 11th/12th century AD
This profound and oft quoted line by German philosopher, writer, and mystic suggests that building a life and a career on your own terms, while frightening, is better than having to follow others’ interpretations of a conventional life path or career. For instance, career shifts might be uncommon at the age of 40, and that may make you feel like you are a fraud for trying, but if you let yourself be diminished by conventions, wouldn’t you miss out on fulfilling your goals and living your best life? Another instance might be a woman who has come back into the workplace after a gap, but feels out of place, worries that she is winging it and wonders if she should study more before rejoining the workforce (even though she might already be highly qualified). The sway of the Imposter Syndrome can be battled if she trusts herself, believes in the mark that she wants to leave on the world and pushes ahead with confidence.
From the Modern Period
“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
- Anaïs Nin, 20th century CE
This line by the famed diarist and feminist figure is what executive coach Helen Cowan turns to deal with Imposter Syndrome. When she sees clients on the brink of new roles or successes but debilitated by their own limiting beliefs, she helps them understand that these beliefs in no way reflect the reality of the new opportunity. Then, they are able to shift their mindset and develop a bedrock of confidence from which they can forge a more successful and less anxiety-inducing path for themselves.
Helen points out that while the inner critic might still be with you, understanding that this inner voice is not a reflection of reality helps you choose to accept the presence of this voice while choosing not to listen to it – circling back to the very first piece of advice we had here, “Invite them in.”
Read part two of this article next to get more tips, this time from more contemporary voices in the 21st century.