Imagine this: You’re completely immersed in your work, sweat gathering on your brow, your mind jumping from one thought to the next every few seconds. In a cloud of stress and confusion, you look up at those working around you and snap out of it. Suddenly painfully aware of being entirely in over your head, you ask yourself, “How did I get here?”
If this scene, albeit dramatized, sounds at all familiar, you may be among the 70 percent of people who have at one point suffered from impostor syndrome, as reported by the International Journal of Behavioral Science. Impostor syndrome is a real psychological condition, characterized by feelings of ineptitude and a conviction that you only got where you are through luck and chance rather than hard work and skill.
While impostor syndrome was originally brought forth as a women’s issue by psychologist Audrey Evelyn, who saw it as a recurrent condition in women working in male-dominated fields, it has gained recognition as a universal issue that affects people from all walks of life.
Living in a constant state of panic is exhausting. With impostor syndrome in particular, there’s a constant worry that you’ll be found out, and that everyone you’ve somehow tricked will realize you’re a fraud. You end up working twice as hard for no reason but can’t fully acknowledge the subsequent success. When entering the workforce, impostor syndrome can be particularly detrimental, as you’re likely to undersell yourself, cheating yourself out of opportunities that you deserve.
That being said, the very impulses that work against you are also driving forces, making you a high-achieving and motivated individual. According to Valerie Young’s “The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, there are many types of impostor syndrome, and although they all foster feelings of ineptitude, there are ways to reframe the thoughts to work in your favor, rather than against you.
You may be the kind of person who cannot rest until every aspect of a project is absolutely polished. If you couple tendencies to micromanage, nitpick your work and hold yourself to impossible standards, you’re likely a perfectionist. The perfectionist feels the need for everything to be 100 percent perfect 100 percent of the time.
Perfectionism is inherently tied to impostor syndrome because as soon as the slightest thing goes wrong, individuals who fit this box are ridden with feelings of incompetence. They tend to instantly jump into catastrophic thinking, envisioning all the ways their shortcoming will negatively impact the rest of their work.
While perfectionism may make you an incredibly thorough worker, it also makes success impossible to enjoy, putting you at a higher risk for burnout. In order to maximize positive effects, you must take specific, calculated steps. Most importantly, convince yourself to start projects even if you don’t feel totally ready. If you want to get anything done, you have to understand that there is never an ideal moment that will make everything fall into the right place.
Additionally, growing comfortable with less-controlled actions will help you accept failure, the second step to breaking out of your ways. Understanding that mistakes and failure are a natural and unavoidable aspects of doing anything will take some of the pressure off, and allowing yourself to enjoy accomplishments regardless of their small blemishes will result in a healthier approach to tasks.
Perhaps you feel like you need to know about every aspect of a project before undertaking it. Especially for those who have been called knowledgeable in the past, being an expert in something is what triggers their impostor syndrome. The expert’s worse fear is not knowing something and being exposed as a fraud as a result, leading them into a cycle of never knowing enough and often turning down important opportunities.
The best way to move away from the cycle is simpler than it seems: Embrace uncertainty. Understanding that no one really knows what they’re doing — even though it may not look like it — is one of the most freeing things you can do. There’s no shame in wanting to be knowledgeable in your field. In fact, it puts you at an advantage.
After all, the need for knowledge will take you far in your specialty, but you’re better off investigating the essentials of a topic rather than the full spectrum. Otherwise, you’ll end up wasting time worrying when you could be doing.
If never asking for help is your M.O., you’re probably a soloist. A soloist feels pressure to do everything by themselves out of fear, brought on by impostor syndrome, that admitting they can’t do something will mark them as incompetent or expose them as fakes to their peers.
It is particularly detrimental to be a soloist, as it forces you to bear the mental impact of a task alone, causing heightened anxiety and putting you at a risk for burnout, a state in which you can’t complete your goals at all. It’s good to be independent, but your ability to work alone should not determine your worth. Instead of viewing help as a personal failure, reframe it as a way to create connections with others. Working together on a problem can build camaraderie and trust among coworkers. In reaching out, you’re not only helping yourself but making your drive and determination available to those around you.
The Superman phenomenon is not a characteristic that leads to impostor syndrome so much as the result of it. The Superman or Superwoman is so overwhelmed by the idea that they are surrounded by individuals superior to them that they overcompensate by trying to work harder than everybody else. They run on outside validation and caffeine, and never dare congratulate themselves for a job well-done. Such an impulse often comes at the cost of physical and mental health, as those suffering from the trait will make everything secondary to their work, i.e. workaholics.
There is no shame in working hard, but work itself should never supersede your well-being. You can disarm Superman syndrome by shifting your priorities away from the approval of others and instead make a greater effort to find approval within yourself. When you know you’ve done something well, mentally acknowledge it. Additionally, try to find fulfillment in endeavors outside of work that allow you to split your laser focus. Finding an outlet where you don’t feel the crippling need to succeed is a great way to relax and enjoy your life.
In a society that emphasizes achievement as the end all be all, it’s often hard to disconnect. While it may seem paradoxical, at times the most productive thing you can do is to take on less. It saves energy, preserves your mental state and allows you to be the badass you were meant to be.