Why I've felt like an 'impostor' my entire life

I can still remember slumping over the counter in the kitchen in the house where I grew up, tears pooling in my eyes, as my dad tried to explain something from my elementary-school science book.

It was late at night on the eve of a science test. I can’t recall the concept he was trying to explain, only that I just did not get it.

It was the eleventh hour, I was running out of time, and I wasn’t understanding it. There was no way I was going to pass that test. I was going to get a zero. The zero would bring down my average and I’d get a terrible grade on my report card, which would bring down my overall average. That would make it harder to get into a private high school, which would, in turn, make it tougher to get into a good college. The spiral continued on from there.

My dad’s voice was level as he tried every which-way to get me to understand, but there was an edge of frustration that I could sense even as a kid. Today, I understand that that frustration came from the fact that he knew I wasn’t going to fail my test, because as many times as I insisted that I would, I never did.

He was right.

I was always an excellent student, and my grades reflected it. In middle school, I was voted most likely to succeed. After standardised tests in seventh grade, my teacher asked if I felt like I would be more challenged if I skipped ahead to eighth grade (I declined). I attended a competitive private high school, where I took the most challenging classes and was always in the top 10% of my class.

But despite the positive reinforcement from my parents and teachers — not to mention my report card — I continued to beat myself up about each important assignment that passed across my small desk.

For some inscrutable reason, I could never look at my work and think it was good. This issue was particularly acute when it came to writing, where everyone claimed my gifts lay. I won a local essay contest. I was asked to read a personal essay in front of my class because of the descriptive imagery it employed.

But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I just was not the smart, talented person people seemed to think I was. Instead, I was somehow “pulling off” my good grades, a fraud slipping undetected into the realm of the intelligent.

Once I got to college and started studying the social sciences, I learned that this affliction has a name — impostor syndrome!

It describes people who feel like frauds and don’t believe they deserve the success they have achieved.

According to Valerie Young, author of “The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It,” it’s a surprisingly common affliction. Tina Fey, Sonia Sotomayor, and even Sheryl Sandberg have copped publicly to having these feelings.

Young told me that the pattern I experienced in my adolescence isn’t a rare one, especially for young women. “It’s a cycle of anxiety leading up to every new endeavour,” she said. “Each time, you’re convinced that this is going to be ‘the big one,’ the time when you’re finally going to fail. Then you knock it out of the park again, and the cycle starts all over.”

I told Young how risky it felt to reveal these feelings — as if my friends and colleagues might adopt the same doubts I have.

“It’s actually a sign of emotional intelligence to admit that you have these impostor feelings,” she said. “One study said that 70% of high achievers had these feelings at one time or another.”

The first step in dealing with the impostor syndrome, says Young, is recognising when those feelings are being triggered. Becoming aware of it can help you keep it under control, she says.

Unfortunately, I can’t say giving these feelings a name did much to assuage them — at least not at first. My enrollment at one of the best journalism schools in the country did not change my deepest feelings. Senior year, when the outgoing editor-in-chief at the student magazine where I worked named me as her successor, I thought she was kidding.

The doubts followed me into my first job, at a publication I read and loved for years before I worked there. I met praise with silent doubt, certain that I didn’t actually match up to who they thought I was.

I’m happy to say that over time, I gained confidence in what I was doing. Working as an editorial assistant, with what seems like thousands of small and varied responsibilities, helped me reach this enlightenment. It taught me that you can’t be good at everything, and that you should play to your strengths.

It’s an ongoing battle, however. Even listing my accomplishments here makes me cringe at the thought of sounding conceited, humblebraggy, or like a jerk. Of course, these fears only provide a case-in-point for the article.

Why should I be concerned about mentioning the things I worked hard to achieve? I know I shouldn’t be, but I still can’t help it. Hopefully admitting these impostor feelings will only help me — and possibly others who are reading — overcome them.

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