‘I was at the right place at the right time’
‘I blagged my way through it’
‘I got recommended’
‘I was just lucky to get that job’
‘I don’t know what I’m doing’
‘I don’t deserve this’
For years these thoughts developed and became a demon inside me. A demon I was secretly carrying around, afraid that if I said it out loud, it might actually be true. It started eating me up from inside, and the doubt became bigger than myself. Was I actually a fraud?
It was only a year ago that I realised this demon had a name and was as common as eating cereal for breakfast.
Ironically, this all started with extreme self-confidence as a graphic design student at Kingston University. Afraid of failing, I did everything I could to prevent this from happening. I got straight As in the first year and had internships every summer. I won awards, and my jobs were published on blogs and in books.
Three months before graduation I broke my right elbow. Since I could not design, I collected all my unfinished work and knocked down doors in the hope of an internship, with a cast stretching from my shoulder to my wrist. The interviews always started with an awkward left-hand shake and an apology ‘It will heal by the time I start’. I got the positions I applied for, but to me all my internships were just because of luck, the voice in my head said ‘They feel sorry for you.’
During my early years, the jobs I got, no matter how hard the process or the level of my competence, were all excused with ‘I knew someone there’, ‘She did me a favour’, ‘It wasn’t really an important position’, ‘I’m sure someone turned the job down before they chose me’.
At 25 years of age, I hit a critical point in my career. I had worked with some of the greatest brands and people in the industry. I had enough experience, I knew what I could achieve, but I wanted more. However, the voice in my head kept bombarding me with ‘You can’t make it in London’, ‘You will always be a small fish in a big pond’, ‘You will never be as good as them’––The only way to break through was to move back home to Norway.
I continued building my career becoming a creative director, board member, and manager. I was coordinating processes, creating strategies, briefing the creatives, and securing deals. Whilst the demon inside me grew bigger, screaming ‘You forced them to do this’, ‘You tricked them’, ‘They don’t realise, you are a fake’, ‘You are lying!’.
It was during a dinner with old friends where I quietly confessed this secret, which I’d been carrying for years, to a friend. Mid-sentence, before I spilled my guts, she interrupts me, ‘We all feel the same!’ I couldn’t believe her. How was it possible that all these talented, clever and hardworking people could doubt themselves?
So, how many years of experience, clients, projects, and responsibilities does one need to go through to realise one is good enough? That one has deserved one’s position? And yes, maybe I was at the right place at the right time, but I saw all those opportunities, and I wasn’t afraid to take them. That’s being brave, not lucky! I have, several times, been out of my depth, but I never drowned. That’s because I can swim. I know my job and I’m good at it!
The ‘Imposter syndrome’ is not a disease or disorder, but a concept describing individuals who are unable to internalise their accomplishments and persistently fear being exposed as a ‘fraud’. Another framework for understanding the impostor syndrome is to re-name it ‘impostor experience’. In the words of clinical psychologists Pauline R. Clance, who coined the term with Suzanne A. Imes in 1978 ‘If I could do it all over again, I would call it the impostor experience, because it’s not a syndrome or a complex or a mental illness, it’s something almost everyone experiences.’
Seventy per cent of all women and men, regardless of age and profession, experience this at some point or another. John Steinbeck wrote in his diary back in 1938 ‘I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people’.
Lately, the question has been raised as to whether the impostor syndrome is a sign of ‘greatness’.
And it does not require an extensive Google search to find those, call them ‘stars’, who experience the same––Sheryl Sandberg, Tom Hanks, most likely Barack Obama, and perhaps least likely Trump.
Which leaves me wondering—what do the remaining 30% feel?
To overcome this, we need to turn it into something positive. On some level, I do believe that the imposter syndrome is a positive self-development mechanism that drives us to work harder, improve ourselves, strive to get better and, not the least, always want to learn more.
The worst thing you can do is to fight this; put up a front where you fight to show that you know and can everything. That basically is lying. A wise person taught me that the people asking the most questions are the smartest ones in the room. And as perhaps the smartest man in history, Albert Einstein once said, ‘When you stop learning, you start dying’.