At least once a week, I look around — at my apartment, or my office, or at my boyfriend or my friends — and I think, "how did any of this happen?"
And by "any of this," I mean: How did I end up with such a good gig? How did I convince the people at the newspaper in the 11th-largest city in the United States to hire me? How did the people who own my apartment complex decide to rent a nice, 800-square-foot space to this pretend grown-up? How did I dupe dozens of really nice people into wanting to hang out with me?
I don't know if I've ever once looked around at my surroundings and thought, "You know what? I've worked hard in my life. I deserve for good things to happen to me, because my hard work has paid off." It's really hard for me to feel proud of myself, because I always think there's more I could have done. For example, when I'm done writing an article for work, I'll make continuous edits until the last possible second — then, when somebody compliments it, I'll say something like, "Well, I wish I would have worded this differently." I always find something wrong with it. I always pick it apart. And I have always been that way.
I've been thinking about this a lot lately after finding out that Viola Davis — Oscar-award winning actress and all-around badass — suffers from impostor syndrome. She told ABC News after the Oscars that she feels like she's going to wake up one morning and everyone's figured out that she's a hack.
Y'all, if Queen Viola Davis is a hack, then what does that make the rest of us?
This is why impostor syndrome is total bullshit — but it's also totally normal. More than 70 percent of people report feeling like an impostor at some point in their career.
I think for me it started when I didn't get into the University of Texas, my dream school. They turned me down and waitlisted a few months before I graduated from high school, and I was heartbroken. I hadn't worked hard enough, and I wasn't good enough. It was that simple. Then, one day in May, I got an email from the university: I got in. It wasn't to my first-choice major, and I'd have to work hard to change majors and get into the journalism program, but I was in. I cried. My family cried. I'm tearing up right now just thinking about it.
But from that day on, I felt like I didn't deserve to be there. I felt I wasn't smart enough to manage the work load that a top public university would require. When I performed well in my journalism classes, I thought I was somehow tricking my professors. When I landed internships and part-time jobs, I thought I'd somehow talked my way into something I didn't deserve. But when I got C's on my geology or statistics exams, that felt appropriate and deserved (hey, turns out I'm just not good at geology or statistics).
I eventually made it out of there and I graduated a semester early, with honors — in fact, I had a 4.0 my final semester. Somehow I still have nightmares to this day, more than three years later, that they'll call me up and tell me that they screwed up, and I actually never had the credits to graduate.
Every job I've ever gotten has come with a few days (sometimes weeks or months) of disbelief. After all, job applications are just curated versions of ourselves we choose to present to the world, right? We show our potential employers the best possible versions of ourselves we can create: The hard workers, the talented writers and thinkers, the organized and mature adults. We smile through job interviews, say all the right things and land the job. It's not because we deserve it — it's because we're good at faking it. Or at least I feel that way.
Some experts suggest impostor syndrome may have its roots in childhood. For example, getting too many participating trophies or undeserved praise as a kid can make us really screwed up as adults when we don't get that type of recognition. Or, on the flip side, too little praise as a kid can screw us up, too. I don't think either of those are at the root of my impostor syndrome. I think it's simply because I've never wanted to come off as cocky. And for some reason, my brain has a hard time making the distinction between being proud and being an asshole.
The past month or so, I've been feeling really good at work. I've been there for about five months now and I'm really hitting a stride — I'm working on projects I'm proud of, I'm writing a lot and I have good relationships with my coworkers and bosses, who frequently praise my work. But those feelings of fraud still remain. Every time I publish a story I've written, I think about the various ways somebody could pick it apart, even if there's virtually nothing wrong with it. It's a thought pattern that becomes dangerous and exhausting, and my anxiety really likes to take it and run with it. In short, I'm sick of it and I'm ready to give it up.
I've made a lot of progress wrangling my demons since I started going to therapy three months ago, so this is the next thing I'm taking on. I've come up with a few things to tell myself when the "I'm a hack" feelings start creeping up. Maybe they'll help you, too, if you're experiencing self-doubt: You deserve to be here. You were chosen to be here because you are good at what you do. These people care about you and would not lie to you. When somebody praises you, say "thank you" instead of making excuses or telling them why they're wrong.
Or, you know, as Viola would say:
Wondering if you're suffering from impostor syndrome? Here are some links that may help:
- 9 Telltale Signs You Have Impostor Syndrome | Inc
- Here's how to overcome impostor syndrome
- How to get over impostor syndrome
- The Impostor Phenomenon | International Journal of Behavioral Science