During my Master in Astronomy I had a great office mate whom I could discuss daily struggles with. One day I told him how I always feel like a fraud, that I feel I have cheated my way up as I had been lucky very often. He said that this feeling actually has a name and almost everybody at the institute has it: the Impostor Syndrome.
“The impostor syndrome is the feeling that you don’t fit into the situation or role that you are in because you think that you miss the necessary competences. Rationally, you know that this is not the case, but you feel like an impostor. You are afraid of being found out.”Vreneli Stadelmaier, founder of SheConsult and author of the book “Crush this insecurity”
According to Vreneli, highly educated people are especially affected, with 75% of female suffering from impostor syndrome and nearly 50% of male recognising some aspects of the syndrome.
I felt comforted knowing I wasn’t alone. Being able to name my seemingly irrational feelings was also very comforting. Because of the stress connected to finishing my Master I didn’t look further into this issue. I didn’t understand why I felt like an impostor and what I could do about it. Maybe I thought that once I finished my education, where one is literally tested all the time, the impostor syndrome won’t affect me much anymore.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. After graduation I started my first real job as a researcher. I had finally reached the stage in my life where I was working on something, because I truly enjoyed it and not just on something I needed for my CV. While I was expecting to enjoy my new job fully, the impostor syndrome affected me more than ever before. In the past, I would have dealt with the feeling of inadequacy and incompetence by procrastinating, which, according to Vreneli, is one of the strategies we use to avoid “being found out to be a fraud”. During my university years I postponed preparing for exams to the point where the pure adrenaline rush helped me overcome my impostor fear and made me believe that I can actually shine. Back then I was okay with this behaviour because my only goal was to pass, ideally with a great mark, but not to enjoy studying as such. I never asked myself “What do I want?” or “What would I do about this problem?” I never learned how to trust myself and my judgement. I only cared about the judgement of the grader or the employer.
As soon as I started working, that attitude changed. I truly wanted to enjoy reading the literature and writing down my own results. However, because of the impostor syndrome, I still procrastinated as much as I could until right before a deadline. This made me feel miserable because I felt useless and I didn’t feel as if I was creating anything at all, even though I really wanted to. During my education I was so used to think in terms of “what do I need to do to get a good grade” that it was hard for me to make decisions on what I really wanted or thought was best in that situation. One year into my first job I found Vreneli’s book which made me realise how much the impostor syndrome was still affecting me and that I needed to do something to become more confident.
I also figured out where my impostor feeling was coming from. Between 2006 and 2009, I spent four summers in a row working at Siemens for an internship program. I absolutely hated going there. Every morning on my way to work I felt so miserable that I nearly cried. I couldn’t enjoy my evenings because I was scared of the next day. I couldn’t explain why until I read Vreneli’s book. My expectations of myself and the expectations that I thought my supervisor had of me were so high that I was terrified I could fail them. This fear made me freeze and, according to my standards, I could hardly get any work done. Whenever my supervisors told me what great results I had achieved, I got very confused. I couldn’t assume they lied to me, but if they didn’t, the only other option was that I was so good at pretending and covering up my “laziness” that nobody noticed. Today, I understand what had happened: my expectations of myself were way too high, my supervisor’s very low and I performed somewhere in the middle.
That’s when my impostor syndrome kicked in.
When I told my dad and the dad of my first boyfriend how miserable I felt, they both commented: “Now you know how it is to do real work”. Their remark made my fear of being inadequate even worse. I wish they had questioned why a diligent person like me dreaded going to work so much. At the age of 15 after all I wasn’t able to express my emotions as well. I wish they had approached me with more curiosity about my dread than projecting their feelings about what “real work” should look like onto me.
My mom didn’t help much either. At school I used to know everything by heart and whenever I complained that there was too much to study for a test, she would say that at university it will only become harder – I’d have to study whole books. Needless to say, I assumed she meant I’d also have to know each one of those books by heart and I was scared shitless. When I passed an exam with flying colours at university without knowing whole books by heart, I assumed I must have been cheating or that I had just been lucky I was asked only what I knew.
As I excelled in everything I was doing during my education and because of my generally positive appearance in meetings and presentations, people assumed I must be very self-confident. Their assumption confused me, because of my impostor fear, compounding the feeling that I had been cheating in life. But the truth is that I believed I wasn’t allowed to fail. The constant fear that I could fail at some point or that people could find out that I was not that amazing, fuelled my impostor syndrome and decreased my self-confidence. I still feel like that sometimes.
Vreneli points out how failure is part of the game of life, quoting Arianna Huffington: “We need to accept that we won’t always make the right decisions, that we’ll screw up royally sometimes – understanding that failure is not the opposite of success, it’s part of success.” While on a rational level I understand this, I am still working on overcoming the impostor syndrome, and I am still confused about other people’s expectations about me. However, I have concluded that I want to do what I think is best. If other people appreciate what I do, great. If I fail, well, it’s just part of the game of life.
While the concept of impostor syndrome is mostly used to describe this specific insecurity in a work context, I have heard from some friends that they also experience the fear to be found out in (romantic) relationships. They fear that suddenly their friends/ partners would see their human sides that make them fail and do stupid things some times and that this would drive them away. I found that surprising since those friends generally #Saywhatis and don’t keep up appearances and yet they fear that eventually people will turn their backs on them.
In what situations do you feel like an impostor? Is it at work? In relationships? How do you cope with the feeling of being a fraud? Please share your thoughts in the comments below or contact us!
Written by Julia Heuritsch | Last edited: 13th June 2022