Odds are, at any given moment you have multiple voices in your head. One might praise you, reassure you that “you’ve got this”. Another might mimic your mother “don’t slouch!”. Another might sprinkle in some panic to spice up your day “did I turn the stove off??”. Sometimes there is a voice, an unwelcome and unpleasant one. One that tells you that you don’t belong in this room. The voice that tells you that you somehow tricked those around you to allow you into this space. It tells you that you are not qualified or worthy to have been given the praise or to have the so-called accomplishments you hold.
I call this little voice the impostor syndrome gremlin. It likes to poke its head out of the bushes to sow the seeds of self doubt and scuttle away into the shadows once it has effectively furrowed your brow. It is what makes you feel like a fraud in your job, study, or life at large and leaves with you the fear that you’ll be found out.
It appears that most of us have an ingrained propensity to doubt our capacity almost to the point of self sabotage. There is nothing more discouraging to one’s motivation than to feel that your efforts will ultimately be futile as you lack the inherent worth or ability for success. Whether this self doubt is learned -often due to a societal standing or externally imposed limiting beliefs- or innate -perhaps aggravated by an anxious predisposition- impostor syndrome is an inhibitor at best if not an entirely stunting force.
I asked my friends via an Instagram story what their gremlin tells them. Responses ranged from the professional sphere such as people not believing they were good enough to ask for a raise, that they were not qualified to apply for a certain job, or that they didn’t actually possess any talent in their creative endeavor. To their sense of character: “I am not actually a good person, I’m just great at faking it.” “I am not smart, my masters is just super easy so my grades are good” “I’m not half as interesting or funny as people think I am.” This particular person was worried they were going to run out of anecdotes one day and be exposed as a fraud.
One overarching theme stretched across almost all responses. They were irrational. Please don’t get me wrong, dear reader. I don’t intend to be dismissive of anyone's worries. But I do think there is a virtue to being able to identify the absurdity of some of our own cognition. I view it as a method of disarming certain anxieties. Like that one scene in Harry Potter where they learn to say riddikulus in the face of a boggart -a shapeshifting being that takes the form of your worst fears-. A person worrying about their morals is most probably not all that bad. Someone studying at a masters level is nitpicking their intellect when they are at one of the highest levels of education. And I would like to remind the person who is worried they aren’t interesting enough; if people you find interesting have chosen to have you in their lives you are probably rather interesting to them too, anecdotes or not.
Of course these rationales don’t always shoo the gremlin away. It's a persistent little pest. My gremlin asks me: “Who are you to be writing a mental health newsletter? You’re as mad as a bag of cats!” to which I respond: “That I am gremlin! It’s called lived experience!” Sometimes this works, other times not so much. I suppose the trick, in my humble-bag-of-cats opinion, is to be as stubborn as the gremlin. Remind yourself of how you got where you are and that you are as entitled as anyone else to be there. Or imagine everyone in their underwear. I heard that works.
Though perhaps an uncomfortable truth, it would be naive and dismissive to not acknowledge that where you are from has a substantial sway on where you go. Many spaces -the big screen, the CEO position, the oval office-, are exclusionary to marginalized communities to varying degrees. For example, in a study of 750 participants, approximately 75% of women in executive positions in the US reported experiencing impostor syndrome. Once you fight your way into these spaces, it is difficult to shake the feeling that you may not belong. The existence of obstacles that have inhibited people with similar backgrounds as you should not lead you to the conclusion that you are not worthy of your success. Though this particular flavor of cognitive bias is a tough one to scrap, you have not tricked your way into your life. You have earned a spot just like everyone else.
However, I would be entirely missing the point of my own article if I were to reduce impostor syndrome to a byproduct of marginalization. While what I've just outlined can often increase the predisposition to have these thoughts in certain groups, the gremlin is not picky. Anyone can be graced with a visit. One of the Instagram responses was by a person who worried they would not have their success if it weren't for their privilege. Bar the exception of the odd narcissist, self doubt and deprecation seem to be semi-universal traits. Even though a healthy dose of constructive self criticism can be beneficial, this is one of those internal dynamics that is easily overdone. It is a quick and easy way to become calloused and disillusioned, a highway to self directed apathy.
We have a tendency of holding ourselves to the highest of standards and believing we are a fraud if we don’t meet it. You may not be the smartest, the most creative, or funniest person. This doesn’t diminish your value or worth. The existence of people better at certain things than us is merely an indicator that there is space to grow. It is up to us to choose our mindset. The gremlin also has a younger cousin. Let's call it the Growth Gnome. It’s the healthy version of the same cognition -The Gnome will return in a future issue, stay tuned!- The Gnome is what helps you be constructively critical and to use your shortcomings as an opportunity to develop and better yourself. You get to decide which cousin you have a closer relationship with.