Something she said tonight resonated with me. When asked about her writing process, she tells, “I try not to read fiction while I am writing fiction” and then goes on to explain that this usually yields thoughts of self-doubt. Judy Blume, the epitome of success as a published author of more than thirty books, admits to feeling as though someone is taunting and whispering in her ear “you don’t know what you’re doing”. You may recognize the familiarity in her words, as I wrote about many of the exact same doubts here. Now, Judy Blume is no stranger to her insecurities[i]. Yet she openly admits to having feelings of inadequacy pertaining to her writing. Immediately, I think to myself, if Judy Blume isn’t immune to self-doubt, then there is no hope for me. Well, it turns out I am right, but only slightly.
See, I did us all women a favor and did a little research. It turns out there is a scientific name for this, it is called impostor syndrome. A quick internet search will yield a plethora of resources explaining the psychological phenomenon in which people, particularly high-achieving women, will chronically experience feelings of inadequacy whilst actually performing truly amazing things. Even in the face of concrete evidence, and sometimes because of said evidence, we will attribute it to being fake, lucky, or charming; but never will we actually admit we have achieved the very thing that is in front of us.
This made me think of my friends; the ones who were recently nominated and won accolades such as “Teacher of the Year” and felt unexplained turmoil in their stomachs with the sinking thought, what if my peers find out I am not really as smart or successful (or fill in the blank with any adjective or merit you feel unworthy of) as I seem? I think of those friends who have recently and unexpectedly become mothers or mothers for the second time and feel like they are doing it all wrong. I think of how they smile, as they load and unload their mini-vans to the passersby in a Wal-Mart parking lot, thinking that if they can maintain eye contact and a smile long enough, no one will doubt their abilities to raise their children. I think of the secrets we keep for fear they will trigger a chain of events in which we are no longer valued. I think of Judy Blume, actually doubting her ability to write. And I think of myself, spending unmentionable amount of time and money perfecting my “Miami blogger” look; thinking if I can look the part maybe no one will question me and still never really feeling confident. Are we really destined to doubt our every success?
Well, interestingly, research has attributed this impostor syndrome to giftedness. So, as it turns out, the more capable you are of achieving greatness, the more likely you are to question whether you really did achieve it. And although recent research shows men can also be affected, women tend to be the main victims of this phenomenon. As you may have already guessed, there is a correlation between the way you were raised and the chances of feeling like a fake at your every success. So if you were raised feeling highly criticized by parents who wanted to ensure your success, for example, chances are you are now projecting this tension on yourself in the form of feelings of self-doubt.
The worst part of having this syndrome is that most of us will actually avoid success in order to avoid feeling this way. I would venture to say that we may sabotage ourselves and our relationships because we have this innate fear of being discovered. Have you ever found yourself competing with or fighting with a friend or coworker you secretly admire? Could it be what you really wanted was, rather than to harm your coworker, to harm your chances of succeeding? Have you found yourself becoming distant from family at the brink of a big change in your life or recent achievement? Could it be you are afraid of your loved ones calling you out on your supposed false representation of intelligence, success, or achievement? And the question remains, if Judy Blume isn’t immune to impostor syndrome, is there any hope for the rest of us?
Well, the truth is we cannot change the way we were raised, the tension we create inside ourselves, nor the inability to accept our successes with objectivity on the first try. But we can change what are known as automatic negative thoughts, or ANTs. Have you ever heard the saying “fake it until you make it”? Well, now that you have, forget it! There is no faking it here. If you have made it to the point where you need to give yourself that pep talk, chances are you have made it. The previously discussed things that make you susceptible to this syndrome can actually become allies in your fight against self-doubt: your giftedness, your highly critical yet loving family, and the fact that you are a woman can all contribute to, rather than diminish, your successes.
Now, all that is left to do is congratulate yourself and bask in your glory. Have you been attributed merit at the workplace recently? Post it, share it, or buy yourself a coffee! Are you a mother raising children who are playful, inquisitive, and generally happy? Then inundate your friends’ news feeds with pictures of your children and buy the decals to match and affix on your mini-van! Have you recently achieved life and spiritual goals? Then check if off that list we talked about, and set some more for yourself. You are truly amazing, intelligent, capable, and beautiful. That is how you combat impostor syndrome, you own up to your successes with grace and maturity, and not run scared from it. If you can manage to shut off the voice telling you “you don’t know what you’re doing”, then you will definitely enjoy the part where you actually get to do it.
[i] She wrote frankly about the feelings of inferiority that come with being a pre-teen in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and she poured her fears out on the pages of Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great. Judy Blume is a self-proclaimed fearless writer, a critically acclaimed and renowned author, and at age 77 a radiantly beautiful woman.