The Imposter Syndrome
When I received a phone call from HR to congratulate me on securing a place on the front office spring internship for this European investment bank (roughly 4 years ago), I must admit, I thought the lady was having a laugh. Seriously, I thought this was one big mistake and the following day she would call me and say there was a mix-up. Sure, I applied to the programme (due to encouragement from a friend), but did I think I would get on to it? Hell no! My thought process at the time was that only the incredibly smart people got those opportunities, the people that studied subjects like Maths and Science, not “vocational” subjects like International Business. Despite all my academic and extra-curricular achievements, I just didn’t understand why they chose me. Even once I started the internship, I felt a little uneasy. Listening to some of my peers talk passionately about bonds and stocks, knowing the ins and outs of everything happening within the world of finance, whilst I just awkwardly laughed (praying they wouldn’t ask for my opinion) made me question why I was on the programme. Did I really deserve to be there?
That question seemed to stick with me when I managed to secure other internships. People would congratulate me, ask me how I did it, and instead of welcoming the praise with open arms, I was quick to deflect it and brush it off with comments like “seriously I did nothing”. The truth was, I felt like a fraud. I didn’t think I was as smart as the people that secured the internships or those that didn’t, but so desperately wanted it.
What I didn’t know until very recently is that there is a name for having those kinds of feelings – Imposter Syndrome, and it’s actually something that many people (especially women) tend to experience. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes gave it this name in 1978. They described it as a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” While these people “are highly motivated to achieve,” they also “live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds.” Yup, they hit the nail on the head.
Here are some of the common feelings and thoughts I can admit to feeling:
- Being scared to fail – When someone has given me an opportunity, in my mind I’ve assumed that they believe I know it all, which means I've already put great amounts of pressure on myself to not fail and make mistakes, because then it will show that I’m not as 100% competent as they thought I was and they’ll “find out that” I’m a “fraud”.
- Luck – whenever I’ve been asked “Ren, how did you secure that role?”, “Ren, teach me”, as mentioned before, I will never put it down to my abilities or hard work but more likely being lucky. If I start saying that it’s because I have this talent or that I’m naturally gifted, and then I wasn’t to secure more opportunities, the fear is that people will start questioning if I’m “the real deal”
- “It’s no biggie” – I’ve always downplayed my achievements and successes, never wanting to put it out there or accept any compliments.
The Imposter syndrome is based on the idea that when we are good at something / achieve success in a particular area, for some reason we tend to dismiss its value. Why? Most of us believe that if something comes naturally to us, others won’t regard it equally as highly, hence we create this flawed image of our successes before they can.
Tips conquering Imposter Syndrome:
- Reframing failure: Nobody aspires to fail but if we do, we need to see it as a Lesson and not an “L”. What can we learn from this that will reduce the chances of it happening again?
- Flip your mental script: Not knowing everything 100% doesn’t mean that you should overlook your successes and achievements, they are worthless or someone is going to “find you out.” The best way to change this mindset is to be open from the beginning with regards to what you don’t know. That way it won’t feel like you’re “hiding something” and this massive weight is lifted off your shoulders.
- Celebrate small wins: When you get things rights, no matter how small or trivial they may seem, give yourself a pat on the back, and accept the compliments. Be kind to yourself, you did that!!
- The success is all yours: No more attributing your achievements to luck or anything else. You worked hard, you perfected your craft, you did your research, it was all YOU. Own it.
- Language: How you discuss your achievements is how they’ll be viewed so stop using words like “only”, “merely”, “simply” to describe them.
As I write this post, I’m secretly reminding myself to take my own advice, because I still struggle sometimes. However, I remind myself of the below and you should too:
YOU deprived yourself of sleep so you could study and achieve the best grades for that role
YOU participated in a range of extra- curricular activities to build your skill set
YOU submitted that application form and achieved everything on your CV and Cover Letter
YOU attended the interview, assessment center and SMASHED it.
And it’s YOUR name at the top of that email/letter congratulating YOU on receiving an offer.
They chose you. For being you. For all the things you know and don’t know. Don’t you EVER forget that!