Have you heard the term “imposter syndrome” thrown around? The first time I heard it my skin crawled a bit because I had a feeling that I may have it. But then I felt a bit better when I discovered that most people have imposter syndrome, at least in the beginning of their careers, and during those first few big breaks. In fact, if you never suffer from any degree of the syndrome, you may be a bit of a, um, narcissist. Just a little bit. Any moderately modest human being doesn’t just think, “Yup, makes sense” when something huge and great happens. Knowing just how many other people out there wanted it, just what the odds were, and just what you’re up against is bound to make you have some thoughts of, “Really? Me? Are you sure?” And that’s imposter syndrome.
Even some of the most successful people have it, well into their careers—decades after there is no question as to whether or not they are geniuses, and as to whether or not they’ve earned their accolades. A very well-known director I know, whom I shall not name, has told me that, to this day, after putting out several block buster films, he still sits in his office and thinks that, at any time, somebody—some committee—will bust in, take down all of his awards, and tell him, “We made a mistake. These weren’t for you.”
So, if someone that big can feel that way, it’s only natural that a mere civilian like me, and perhaps you, may feel that way, too, when your career picks up. It’s okay to allow that feeling to stay for a while, but don’t let it stay forever. You do deserve what you get, and you should project that. It’s a part of future success. Do you have imposter syndrome? Here are some signs.
You downplay your accomplishments
When someone tells you they saw your work, heard about your accomplishment, or found out you’re killing the game, you become very sheepish. You don’t want to admit that they’re right—that you’re doing well. You fear that you’ll have some big downfall, and then you’ll feel stupid for having accepted the praise. So you downplay your accomplishments, and won’t even take the compliment.
You triple check the legitimacy
If someone calls to book you, interview you, give you an award, or do something very exciting for your career, you check and double check and triple check the legitimacy. You’re looking up the person’s name. They seem legitimate. You’re crosschecking sources, and asking colleagues if they know this person or this company. You’ve proven five times over it’s legit but you won’t accept it.
You triple check this isn’t a mistake
You also ask again and again if they’re sure they have the right person. You repeat your first and last name, spelling it for them. You repeat information back to them—information they just told you. Are they absolutely sure that they want to give this accolade/recognition/job/opportunity to you and are they sure they know who you are?
You give reasons you may not be ready
When someone actively wants to give you a great opportunity, you sabotage yourself by listing off the reasons you may not yet be ready. This person has all the information she needs—she knows you’re ready—and you, for some reason, get in your own way and start to tell her the reasons you are in fact not qualified.
You joke to others that it’s a mistake
You always joke to others that, when you get something good, it’s all a big mistake. It’s a misunderstanding. Somebody will come knocking and take it back. You say things like, “Well, there must have been absolutely no other applicants because for some reason I got selected for this thing.”
You can’t fully enjoy it
You made it. You did the thing. You got to the next level. A door was opened for you and you walked through it. But you…can’t fully settle into the reality of it. You find yourself still hustling away as if this big thing hasn’t yet happened. You always need to be hustling, but you’re repeating steps that you no longer need to take now that you’ve gotten where you are.
So you won’t fully celebrate
Since you can’t accept that it’s happening, you won’t allow yourself to fully celebrate. Your partner wants to take you out for a celebratory dinner, but you’ve already started microwaving your frozen dinner. What? How are you acting like this isn’t a big deal? Why won’t you let people celebrate you?
You confirm and confirm
You get an email or notification that you got the thing you wanted. You obsessively look at it, over and over again. You’re checking for errors. You’re checking that perhaps it was sent to the wrong person or it’s not from the real person you think it’s from. You keep thinking maybe it was all a dream, or that you hallucinated it.
You hesitate to tell others
You don’t tell others when something good happens to you. You feel like that will jinx it. You feel that that would make you cocky, somehow, and the world would then conspire to punish you, and take everything away from you. You’ve been very privately making strides in your career, for fear that if people know about it, it’ll all come crashing down. And while bragging is a newbie mistake, perhaps you’ve earned bragging rights.
You’re still planning like it isn’t happening
You are still living as if these great things haven’t happened to you. You’ve been offered this incredible opportunity—you’re doing it—that will so clearly change things for you. But you’re still applying to jobs you don’t like, “Just in case.” You’re still making plans and accommodations as if this good thing hasn’t happened.
You fear others will question it
Another reason you don’t want others to know about your victory is that you fear they’ll question it. You think they’ll immediately question your qualifications. You think they’ll believe you bribed someone or slept with someone for it. You don’t believe others can be happy for you, since you don’t think you deserve it.
You scrutinize your work
You look over the work you submitted—the book that’s getting published or the song that’s getting picked up for that commercial—over and over again. You scrutinize it. You tear it apart. You find everything wrong with it. You feel there is no way they could actually want this.
You scramble to prepare…after the fact
You’re told that your work has been accepted. You’re moving on up. But then you start practicing and preparing as if you’re a total beginner. You feel that suddenly you’ve completely forgotten how to do the thing you’re actually an expert at.
Unknown numbers make you very nervous
If you get a call from an unknown number, your first thought is, “That’s it. They’re taking it all back. The head of some obscure committee is calling to tell me it’s all been a big misunderstanding and I didn’t actually win that thing or achieve that thing.” You tremble at the thought of listening to the voicemail.
You take every sign as a bad sign
Whatever it is—someone takes a bit too long to respond to your email, someone puts an ellipsis at the end of their text, someone can’t give you an answer right away—you take every sign as a bad sign. You think, “Well, that’s it. It’s because it’s over. They haven’t emailed back yet because they don’t know how to tell me it was all a mistake and I actually don’t get the thing I wanted.”