Some years ago, I got a call from a younger friend and sister. She needed to talk and felt I would be able to help her, so we set a date and as she sat across from me talking about what was troubling her, I sat there marveling. You see my friend is beautiful both inside and outside, accomplished and celebrated. She has everything working for her both in her profession and in her personal life. She had accomplished so many firsts at a relatively young age but she felt like a fraud, that she was not worthy of all the encomiums and that surely, people would see through her and know she wasn’t all that they held her up to be.
I reassured her that what she felt was common, we all go through our periods of feeling inadequate for whatever we have achieved or the tasks before us. The years have gone by and I see her blooming, reveling in what is happening to her, coming into her own, acknowledging the encomiums, and rightly stating that it’s a combination of grace, skills, discipline and hard work.
The term “Imposter syndrome” was coined by two psychologists Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the 70s after their study on high achieving women who felt inadequate for the positions that they occupied in the workplace and had trouble attributing their success to their efforts because they felt that they had fooled everyone into thinking they were brighter than they actually were.
Although the initial study was based on female high- fliers, it is a syndrome felt by both men and women and transcends every aspect of our lives and work. It’s the feeling of being inadequate and it is characterized with episodes of self doubt, fear of being found out as not being enough for the position occupied, downplaying of one’s contributions and non-acknowledgement of one’s role, time and effort in the success of whatever venture one is involved in.
It is felt by the young couple who suddenly find themselves as parents not having a clue as to how to bring up a child but coming across as very knowledgeable about parenting matters. By executives who have worked their way to the top but suddenly feel inadequate especially when they think of the several greats who had occupied the seat they now occupy. By the child who suddenly finds himself/herself as the head of the family wearing the shoes of a great and illustrious dead parent.
Interestingly, it is said to be felt mostly by high achievers, perfectionists and people in leadership positions of any kind. It is the thinking that we are not as smart, successful and all together as people think. The fear that if they knew the real us, they wouldn’t be so quick to celebrate us. The self defeating belief that we do not have what it takes to sustain our successes.
I don’t know about you but I have also struggled with imposter syndrome especially with my writings. Many may not know but I never, in my wildest dreams saw myself as a writer. I have always loved reading and marveled at how people could string words together that would make them so vivid to me – when I read, I imagine the words and see the characters in my mind’s eye, so you can imagine my amazement when I started writing in November, 2018 just to share my thoughts and people tell me I am a good writer and that I do for them what reading other peoples works does to me.
I am all the more baffled when they speak of writing a book because being an author to me means being in the league of wordsmiths like Chinua Achebe, Chimamada Adichie, Toni Kan, Jeffery Archer, Angela Hunt and the likes and I feel I haven’t earned the stripes to be a writer, not to talk of being an author. When people ask me what I do, I was always reluctant to describe myself as a writer because I felt unworthy of that appellation but lately I have began to refer to myself as a writer as l:
- Acknowledge the fact that I do have some talent though my style may not be like those of the authors I greatly admire. I had to tell myself the same thing I told my friend years ago that people were not telling lies. The facts spoke for themselves and I was doing something worthy of commendation notwithstanding how I felt.
- Applaud my efforts. When I go back to my writings, I am always very surprised at the way I write, the expressions I use and it fills me with some measure of pride to know I have the ability to write things that resonate with a lot of people.
- Believe the feedback. It is true that people tend to flatter a lot but many people have paid me genuine compliments that I know are in no way a means of flattery, so when those self deprecating thoughts come up I focus on the impact my writings have made on people and it helps me straighten my titling crown aright.
- Stop comparing. At first I was disturbed that my writings didn’t have complicated and verbose sentences but as I grew in my writings and became more comfortable in communicating my thoughts I realized that my writings reflect my person and will be unique to me and that there could be only one Wole Soyinka, one Chinua Achebe and one Tara Aisida.
Imposter syndrome also pops up in our relationships especially where we have people who look up to us as role models. As a parent, I have struggled with imposter syndrome when my children feel I know it all or have the answers to all of life’s problems and also as a role model to many young parents who looked up to me as an authority on parenting because I served in the executive committee of the school of parenting ( a department in my local church which taught parents how to bring up godly, positive and responsible children ). Although I spoke eloquently about parenting and had many stories and examples to teach from, many of them had no idea that I had feelings of inadequacy in bringing up my children and that for many years I winged it more often than not, by sheer luck.
The downside of imposter syndrome is self sabotage, when one refuses opportunities just because we feel we are not good enough, constant anxiety in our bid to ensure we are not exposed for the fraud that we think we are, overworking to prove we are as good as they say we are and the inability to enjoy our successes.
It’s a new year filled with new beginnings in several areas of our lives, If you have feelings of self doubt and being inadequate in your roles it means you do have some measure of success no matter how small, my advice is that you revel in it, believe in yourself and in your abilities, drown the negative thoughts, acknowledge your self worth. Lastly, look at what you’ve accomplished and be grateful.