How do I deal with imposter syndrome?

A student wrote to me with this question:

How do I deal with imposter syndrome? I’ve been doing pretty well in many aspects of my life recently (this wasn’t the case in the past). I just feel that I’m actually not worthy of all this or soon I’ll just stop being successful. I know i’m putting in more effort now which could be why I’m doing well but at the same time I’m just feeling very insecure nowadays.

I think this experience is very common, and it’s something we will encounter every time we step into a new role or responsibility. I feel that way each time I take on a new task, and my Teaching Assistants (TAs) can attest that they feel that way too when they first became TAs.

There are two issues I do wish to address:

(1) Firstly, when we’re new to something, we don’t identify ourselves as one of “them,” as one of the pros who have been around for longer and who seem to do better than us. It’s good to model yourself after them, but they’re really not the right benchmarks for us to compare with. I say this because you don’t have the same level of experience as they do. So if you keep benchmarking yourself against them, you will always feel that you’re not good enough, and it becomes harder for you to see yourself as one of “them,” thereby prolonging the feeling that you are an imposter.

What’s more important is to learn to settle into your role and take credit for all your successes, big and small, and especially the small ones. Aim to be excellent in the tasks and responsibilities given to you. As you do this well, your team mates or colleagues will begin to rely on you more. This will make you feel more integrated into the team, and you’ll soon feel like you have become one of them.

(2) Of course, everything I said above can be undermined if you have a low self-esteem or are unnecessarily harsh on yourself. Truly, we are our worst enemies. We work so hard to get so far, and once we’ve made it, we start to tell ourselves we are not good enough. That’s really not a nice thing to do to yourself.

I want to share with you an advice a friend shared with me the other day: “You are your own friend. So, don’t say things to yourself that you would never say to your friends.”

We can be really mean to ourselves and say very discouraging and even hateful things. That’s not healthy, and it’s important that we learn to be kind and patient with ourselves in the same way that we are kind and patient to our friends. Once we do this, we can begin to appreciate the good that we’ve achieved by our own effort.

So tell yourself what I say to you: Well done! I’m proud of you. Keep up what you’re doing. I’m sure you’ll continue to do well. :)

Author: Jonathan Y. H. Sim

Jonathan Sim is an Instructor with the Department of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. He is passionate about teaching and he continues to research fun and innovative ways of engaging students to learn effectively. He has been teaching general education modules to a diverse range of undergraduate students and adult learners at the University.

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