A couple of days ago the statistically inevitable happened. Things went wrong (they have to do that sometimes). I cannot go into details at the moment but those who know me, or read the penultimate post, know what that means. By the narrowest margin imaginable, things went ever so slightly (but no less annoyingly) wrong. Not with a bang but a whimper.
I went through the usual motions: denial, sadness, anger, and here things differ from Kübler-Ross’s standard model of loss, impostor syndrome. Apparently that’s a thing. For those of you who don’t know what that is, PhD Confessional, sums it up pretty well:
Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. (Source: PhD Confessional quoted by Beth Singler)
Many people who are succesful in their chosen fields suffer from impostor syndrome, even at the best of times. But when things do go wrong, as they inevitably do, from time to time, impostor syndrome becomes a crippling disease. While success is interpreted as a freak accident, the odd failure proves what you knew all along: you are an impostor. It doesn’t matter that you are succesful nine out of ten times; the tenth time reveals who you really are; everything else is just coincidence and misunderstanding. It takes a bit of time and a lot of experience – experience of things going wrong, that is – to realize that this is an illusion, something slightly off in your brain. Like someone suffering from anorexia might see an obese person in the mirror, while they really are about to starve, someone suffering from impostor syndrome will see a worthless loser, where everyone else sees a hard-working overachiever.
So how do you deal with impostor syndrome? Well for one thing, ask the “what if” question. What if you really are an impostor? Well apparently, you are quite good at being an impostor. After all, you fool people most of the time. So you have a talent or skill that will serve you well throughout life. Personally, I like a good con-man film. I admire people who can pretend to be something they are not (like Catch me if you can or White Collar, these dudes are seriously cool). I’m not saying that you are an impostor (you probably are no more so than everybody else) but only that even if you were, you’d still be kind of awesome. So relax.
The other way I personally deal with the world crunching, identity-destructing sense of failure is to tell people about it who are not failures. This is incredibly hard and somewhat counterintuitive but hear me out. There is that nagging feeling inside of you that you are an impostor, you just had an experience that confirms your suspicion. The natural reaction is to flee anyone who is not an impostor. If you do accidentally bump in to a “real” succesful person, you mumble, pretend everything is ok. You’re petrified to be caught out. This is normal. But if you do come out of the impostor closet and proclaim your loserishness to the world, the most incredible thing will happen. In 9 out of 10 cases, the amazing, succesful person in front of you will say “oh, something similar happened to me some time ago”. Because you reveal your failure and yourself to be an impostor, they will reveal to you how much of an impostor they really are. And instead of being the only impostor in a world of over-achievers you get to realize that you are exactly like all these amazing, wonderful, smart, normal, flawed, fortunate, unfortunate people. Telling people about your inadequacies is incredibly hard and scary but it is mostly worth it since they are much less likely to judge you for it than you are yourself.