OPINION – Were you to Google the term “Imposter Syndrome” you would most likely run across a quick definition: “Individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud.” I can relate. I have lived with the burden of this Imposter as far back as I can remember.
To be even more exact, upon impending success, the Imposter constantly whispers in my ear that I am a poser, always the worst person in the room, always fearful that I’ll be discovered as a fraud, always needing to work harder than everyone else because everyone else is smarter and more talented, always waiting for the other shoe to drop, careful to avoid celebrating success, uncomfortable taking compliments, never happy with my work, self-defacing, self-critical, self-sabotaging and self-deprecating, never content and always, always focused on my weaknesses, shortcomings and failures.
I know the Imposter so well I am writing a book about it. The syndrome is not without its ironies. For instance, the syndrome mostly affects very successful people. In fact, the more successful you become, the more the Imposter nags at you. Every success represents an added burden to achieve even more. The pressure can become paralyzing.
The Imposter is often confused with very natural and common emotions such as anxiety, nervousness, lack of confidence and even clinical traits such as depression and mental illness. You may have any or all of those characteristics and still not be saddled with the Imposter. Then again, you could have the Imposter along with any or all of those characteristics.
From my own experience with it, the Imposter is independent of all other feelings and emotions. It is that nagging voice in your head constantly reminding you that you do not deserve anything good in your life. If something good happens for you, the Imposter makes sure that you know it was probably just luck that made it happen. When things go wrong, the Imposter assures you that every failure is your own fault.
For me, the Imposter is in constant conflict with my authentic self – the gritty and resilient me, the strong-willed and stubborn me, the confident me, the fearless me, the intelligent and enlightened me, the usually-right me, the irritatingly candid me, the deeply spiritual and insightful me, the constructively introspective me and, of course, the successful me.
I first heard about the Imposter Syndrome when reading the book “Presence” by Harvard professor Amy Cuddy about a year ago. Imagine how my life might have been different over the past 60 years had I known about the Imposter sooner than last year? The research has been around since the late ’70s.
Rarely have I been present throughout my life. I am either regretting the past or worrying about the future instead of living in the moment. Not being present takes on many forms. It could mean how I have missed many fun family outings because I prioritized worries over relaxation. Inevitably my numerous public speaking engagements end up as case studies for the syndrome. I accept a speaking invitation, decide irrationally that I am in over my head, procrastinate preparing remarks because even the idea of the event gives me anxiety, cramming to prepare remarks within 24 hours of the event, distracting thoughts racing through my mind while delivering the remarks and, in the end, performing adequately to spectacularly. I receive praise but deflect it. If the praise becomes too much, I run for the closest exit. And, of course, I spend the ride home critiquing myself and never once allowing myself to celebrate a job well done.
The Imposter is irrational and can strike without notice. I have learned to conquer it as each episode strikes but sometimes I miss it and end up smack in the middle of it before I realize what has happened.
One author breaks the syndrome into five categories but I have found that the syndrome is not easily compartmentalized. For instance, as you might expect, many Imposters are perfectionists, some feel they must work harder than anyone else to make up for a perceived lack of natural gifts, some need to feel like they are the smartest person in the room precisely because the Imposter tells them they are the stupidest person in the room, some cannot work within teams because they need to prove that they are better than their colleagues, and some have to be know-it-alls for fear they will be discovered as idiots. I have experienced them all.
I have no clue how it all began for me. But I do know how it ends. I take each day at a time, learn to be grateful for everything I have, big and small, and, most of all, remind myself that I do deserve good things from life.
I’m Paul Mero. Thanks for listening.
Paul Mero is an opinion columnist for St. George News. The opinions stated in this article are his own and may not be representative of St. George News.