Despite the heavily air-conditioned room, I could feel the perspiration starting to form on my forehead. If I could slow down time and block out all other sounds, as they sometimes showed in the movies, I am sure that I would have heard my heart beat loudly in the cavity of my chest. My fingers trembled slightly as they announced the results. Around me, the entire table erupted into a loud cacophony of howls, whistles, claps and congratulatory messages.
I know, I should have been happy. Ecstatic even, but I just couldn’t get myself to be so. As I walked onto the dias to collect the award, I heard him clear his throat - that chubby little devil of self-doubt sitting on my shoulder, ever ready to slyly push those morsels of insecurity into my mind. I could almost hear him whisper: ‘Are you sure you deserve this?'
This is not a piece of fiction. It is, in fact, a very real snippet of a scene that transpired during the WIN’15 Blogging awards held by BlogAdda. Of course, most people who were around me may not have noticed my nervousness at all, because I often do a pretty good job of hiding it. But that does not dismiss the fact that I was extremely anxious. And the uneasiness arose from the fact that I could possibly win an award for my blogging. And that somewhere deep down, there was this nagging voice asking me if I really deserved the recognition.
‘But you are quite successful at what you do’.
This is something that I often hear from friends and well-wishers. Most times, I just smile and dismiss it saying, ‘Oh, I’ve just been lucky’ or ‘it’s been pretty good fortune so far’. No, it’s not modesty. Every time someone says something about my achievements, there is something internally pushing it back as an ‘accidental’ or ‘fortunate’ set of events. In other words, I have trouble taking or accepting credit for something that I actually did achieve.
That’s what Imposter Syndrome is all about - an intellectual fraudulence of sorts, where you feel that whatever you have achieved has been quite ‘accidental’ and that you perhaps haven’t earned it.
If I’m honest, I suspect that I have been plagued by this condition for as long as I can remember. For instance, I graduated in the top percentile of my class for both my Bachelors and Masters degrees. I even had several promotions and recognition over the course of my almost-decade-long professional corporate career. However, when I had to apply for a new role, I found myself asking, ‘Who is going to hire me? What if I’ve just been fortuitous so far? What if they discover that I don’t actually know what I’m talking about or that I have absolutely no skill set to talk about?’
For years, I’ve kept all these doubts, insecurities and imposter-like feelings bottled up inside. Not even my wife had a clue about it. After all, I was still very ‘fortunate’ to have found work that I seemed to be good at, and there was no need to ‘rock the boat’, as one would say.
It wasn’t until I started writing and blogging, that I started to experience stronger, and sometimes uglier sides, of this imposter phenomenon. Honestly, I suppose anyone in any field could technically experience this syndrome. But I suspect that it is slightly more prevalent in fields where your results aren’t exactly ‘physically tangible’ and where your work is subject to critique by a larger number of people.
I have often re-read pieces of fiction that I have written and been very well-received, and asked myself, ‘Did I really write that?’ Or more importantly, 'will I ever be able to write like or better than that?'
Sometimes when I see my awards for blogging sitting in the showcase, I feel like I am in the middle of an amazing dream, and that at some point, someone will wake me up and say that it was all a big mistake and that all of the recognition belongs to someone one else.
I have often been crippled by the thought that normal people like me could not possibly be worthy of great things or such success. I have lived in the perpetual fear that someday, someone will discover how incapable and ‘talentless’ I really am, and be exposed for the fraud that I sometimes think I am.
I have sometimes felt like an actor who plays the role of a writer or a blogger in real life, and that if I was ever put on the spot and asked to write something, I would fail miserably and once again be ridiculed for being unable to do so.
But over the past few months, I have come to realise something. That one of the base reasons behind my (and most others’) imposter syndrome is the rather skewed definition that we have of success and successful people. While often some of these stem from heavy criticism that we may have faced as a child, I believe most of us have suffered from imposter syndrome in various degrees or levels. So, I suppose it is safe to say that it manifests from a combination of self-doubt, anxiety, the unending urge to seek perfection in everything we do and extremely harsh criticism of your own work. In some way, it is like a form of self-inflicted punishment.
The problem, ever so often, is that we have drilled it into our heads that we don’t deserve it or deserve to be somewhere. It is sort of like your best frenemy sitting on your shoulder and constantly asking you if you’re good enough or if you deserve it.
And as much as I hate to admit it, our culture has successfully planted these strange ideas in our mind that success means ‘so and so’. Even as children, we are constantly being compared against, told where we are presently and where we could potentially be. And, social media does its best to fuel this syndrome by parading a constant stream of success stories, lists that feature ‘successful’ people who are half your age but with bank balances more than what you could envision in your lifetime, and of course, the magic mantra to be the best version of yourselves, only if you buy the book or the course authored by some of these highly successful people.
Author Maya Angelou once said: "I have written eleven books, but each time I think, 'uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.' “
So, yes, almost everyone experiences this at least once in their lifetime. Unless of course, you are a serial narcissist or have set an extremely low bar for your own achievements. The reason? Because I believe imposter syndrome is also set up by our inherent fear of failure or not being good at something. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The way forward is not about how you can ‘escape’ imposter syndrome, but how you can use it to help you take the actions that will help you achieve your goals or aspirations.
But as I’ve discovered over the course of this journey of mine - A big part of overcoming imposter syndrome is coming to terms with two facts:
One) That there are others around you who feel the same way; and Two) That it is not necessary for you to attain perfection in everything in order to be worthy of the success that you’ve achieved or a recognition given to you. In other words, the acceptance that it is okay not to have all the answers.
Look at Maya Angelou for instance; the literary world would surely have been less ‘inspired and enriched’ had she decided to let her fear of being ‘exposed’ get the better of her. I suppose now is a good time as any to ‘restart’ work on those pending manuscripts of mine.
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As much as you own your failures and come to terms with it, it is important to own your successes too.