Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.
Many folks deal with imposter syndrome on a daily basis, unsure of how to stop doubting themselves. I struggled with this for much of my life, trying to reconcile Asian/Christian culture, humility and achievement, until I was finally able to figure out how to overcome it last year. It’s not about some magical formula to stop yourself from doubting (this never works for anything — it makes you think about it more), it’s about replacing/reframing those thoughts with thoughts of how you can use these gifts to help others. The focus becomes less on self and more on others, and understanding that achievements are objective, as opposed to subjective.
In Chinese culture, you’re taught to deny compliments and downplay praise. Combine that with the fact that your parents never praise you for anything and always want you to do better, you get a strong sense of never being good enough and you’re never taught healthier ways of dealing with the praise. Part of the problem of always denying compliments is that eventually you start to believe the lies due to repetition. That said, there are some benefits to downplaying praise — you’re less likely to be arrogant and full of yourself, but in American society, leaning closer to the arrogant side is generally an advantage (it’s not arrogance itself that’s effective, it’s the confidence and willingness to put yourself out there). This is a part of why Asians get the reputation for being meek and mild: some Asian cultural values are in opposition to the American way.
“In Chinese culture, you’re taught to deny compliments and downplay praise”
In Christian culture, which was layered on top of the Chinese part of me starting around high school, you’re taught to be humble, but people rarely have the correct definition of humility — especially if you’re attending a church that’s mostly Chinese, because the culture sometimes bleeds into theology. Often times the interpretation is “think less of yourself,” but it’s actually “think of yourself less.” People mix up humility with invisibility — it’s not your state of being or outside appearance that makes you humble, it’s your mindset to consider others before yourself, not because you have no value, but because the top 2 commandments are love God and love others.
Early Attempts to Eliminate Imposter Syndrome
So as you can see, my environment growing up put me on the track for imposter syndrome from the start. Speaking of track, it was there that I started my battle against imposter syndrome. One of the lessons I learned early on in high school was that if I wanted to win in the 100m dash, I needed to be super confident, focused and relaxed, otherwise I would tighten up and lose the race. Sometimes I would try to hype myself up by listening to certain types of rap music, as many athletes do. I started to take that kind of mindset into other areas of life during college — I remember hyping myself up with music before going out to a party or to try to give myself confidence before I talked to a girl I liked.
Hyping myself up was a temporary fix at times, but it never felt quite right. Gaining more confidence on such a shaky foundation, in which I thought of myself less than others, prevented it from sticking. I would always get embarrassed/flustered when people would react if they found out about some achievement. At least I improved — I went from trying to avoid/deny things (“oh I went to college in the northeast”), to just not knowing what to say and just being awkward.
“Hyping myself up was a temporary fix at times, but it never felt quite right. “
Eventually I learned that it’s less awkward to just be to the point and thank people when they compliment you, but I would still feel really uncomfortable on the inside, though at the same time it felt good to be recognized (though I also felt bad about feeling good). If you notice the pattern/problem here, it’s all about “me” and how others perceive me.
1. Bless Others
Last year, I worked with an executive coach for a bit, and I shared with her how I struggle with accepting praise and how it feels awkward when others talk about my achievements. I shared about how I was brought up, and I also shared some about my faith. She gave me two key insights over the course of our time together:
- Let others own their own feelings
- Use my achievements to bless others
The coach was able to take into consideration that due to my faith, my purpose in life is to love God and love others. Using my achievements to bless others was the crucial piece I was missing in order to get rid of my imposter syndrome. The reality is that I’ve been blessed with a lot, and most people who know me would say I’m far from arrogant, so it was ridiculous of me to think that delighting in someone complimenting me would suddenly make me arrogant and full of myself.
If someone brings up how I went to Yale — I could use that as an opportunity to share whatever I may have learned there or the connections I made, or perhaps mentor their kids or younger siblings who were looking to get into college. If someone wanted to bring up my old ESPN article, then I could offer up my services to teach running/sports and also perhaps inspire all those other Asian guys out there that they can break stereotypes. The point is, I now turn what used to be a source of embarrassment/awkwardness, to an opportunity to share my blessings with others.
2. Lean on Facts, Not Opinions
In the business world, you want to make decisions based on data. It’s a matter of adapting those same concepts to how you perceive yourself. You might ask yourself, “well how do I know if I’m legit?” Do you see the problem with that mode of thought? This is only looking inside at doubts, rather than outside at data. Of course, we should be careful with what data we look at and how we look at it– for example we might have parents who tell us we’re never good enough, or a boss who never gives compliments. You should test what people say and only hold on to what is true. Unless you’ve trained yourself to be more aware of your own biases, one of the best ways to get less biased thoughts are from trustworthy people who know us well.
I went to Yale. It still feels awkward to say sometimes, but I just own that fact now. Yeah I got in partially because I was recruited for track, but whatever (there was always a lingering, am I as smart as everyone else here, or am I just one of the “dumb athletes”) — I got in, broke some track records, started a company that is still running, won some awards and was written up in a number of news/magazine articles. These are facts (though the awards may be subjective themselves) — not that we should derive our value from this data, but the data exists to show us that we are not frauds. Make decisions based on data, which is objective, rather than our subjective feelings.
Back to my opening statement — the whole point is it’s not about you. This isn’t to say that you’re not a valuable person, but when it comes to imposter syndrome, there’s a lot of focus on self (not that self-love/self-care aren’t important). Every human has a unique value that only they hold — it’s up to you to figure out what it is, then share it with your community and the world. When the focus becomes about helping others, you don’t have time to doubt yourself. It’s like an addiction — you can’t just remove an addiction and expect it to stay away, there’s an emptiness that needs to be filled with something else.