An honest reflection on my imposter syndrome and self-doubt

| April 6, 2022
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Note: this essay originally appeared on The Women’s Network blog.

Hot take: I actually love doing icebreaker activities. Maybe it’s because I like learning about other people’s fun facts, or maybe it’s because I finally got over my irrational fear from high school that saying my favorite color was blue would make people laugh at me. Either way, I find them entertaining. But there’s one particular ice breaker that has always puzzled me (and no it’s not the odious “I brought on a picnic”): Say something that no one would ever guess about you.

I always wrack my brain to think of something interesting about myself that would impress the rest of the group. Usually I say something like “I’m really good at figure skating” or “I hate when people give me stuffed animals” (long story short: Toy Story 3). Recently, though, I’ve realized that there’s another answer which I don’t think anyone could guess. It’s that I have never felt good enough at anything, be it extracurriculars, academics, work, or even relationships.

On the outside, I come across as someone who is positive, bubbly, confident, and absolutely fearless when it comes to speaking in front of a crowd. I have involved myself in multiple groups on campus, including the JHU Barnstormers, Outdoor Pursuits, Mock Trial, Alpha Phi, Blue Key Society, and of course, The Women’s Network. I’ve been honored to not only be a part of these groups, but to hold leadership roles in many of them. I’ve taken on a double major in English and Writing Seminars with a minor in Theatre Arts & Studies. On paper, I’ve got an almost perfect resume. And yet, there is always that little voice in my head that tells me:

You’re absolutely terrible at this.

Don’t mess up or everyone will hate you.

You will never be good at this.

Everything you’ve ever achieved was through luck.

You are not good enough.

With how much I smile and joke around, and with how much I involve myself, you would never guess that this negativity runs through my head on repeat, day and night. I live in constant fear and anxiety that one day those voices in my head will be revealed for everyone to see. That at any moment, people are going to realize what I’ve been telling myself all along: that I’m not good at anything. I take on so many tasks and things to do, and when I can’t achieve them I feel crippling shame and self-doubt. I often refuse to ask for help because I fear people will see that I have no idea what I’m doing and will lose all faith in my abilities. I usually feel like I don’t belong at this school or in leadership positions, because I don’t see myself as deserving them. If someone ever praises me for doing something, I usually respond with “Well, anyone could’ve done it” or “But that person over there is doing so much more than me!”

It wasn’t until recently that I discovered what I have been struggling with has a name: imposter syndrome. And it wasn’t until I joined The Women’s Network that I learned I’m not alone with this burden.

Did you ever have that experience in middle school where the teacher would ask the class “Does anyone have any questions?” or “Does everyone understand this?” and you would look around and see all of your classmates nodding while you don’t even know what you don’t know to ask a question? It’s a horrible feeling! You feel out of place, lost, and just generally insecure about your own abilities. It’s very alienating.

Now think back to those moments where, when the teacher would ask that same question, you would make direct eye contact with your best friend across the room. Using only an upward lift of your eyebrows, you silently ask if they know what the heck is going on. The wide-eyed shake of their head was all you needed to know they were in the same boat. And it made you feel better, right? To know you weren’t alone, and to know other people were confused as well? Well that’s how I felt when I joined TWN and learned that other people not only felt this way, but were open to sharing their experiences and advice with others! I have had the pleasure of meeting and interacting with TWN presidents from other schools, all of whom are incredibly involved and leaders in every sense of the word. In my eyes, they are role models and inspirations to me, so hearing about their experiences with imposter syndrome has really helped me come to terms with it in myself. It’s like when you and your friend both fail a test. You’re not thriving by any means, but there’s bonding happening in shared failure.

Imposter syndrome is defined as doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud in every situation. It is feeling like at any second, someone is going to find out that you don’t belong in a position or place, or realize that you aren’t worthy of everything you’ve accomplished. In other words, it is my daily experience. Imposter syndrome has its pros and cons. On one hand, it always motivates me to be working my hardest every day. But on the other hand, it causes anxious feelings and general tension, even during things I should be enjoying.

Let’s take a journey into my brain: I’m constantly trying to think one step ahead, doing double the work I need to do, trying to avoid someone finding out that I have no idea what I’m doing. Maybe it’s from my 15 years of theater experience, but I feel like I am performing every day, faking that I’m not struggling with my work or my life. I tell myself that I will not let other people see me struggle, that I can’t ask for help.

As noted before, I am also horrible at receiving compliments, as I genuinely never believe I deserve the praise I’m getting. I have painted myself as lazy and incompetent in my own mind, so that when I inevitably fail, there’s no fall because I wasn’t expecting success for myself. And so that when others inevitably become disappointed in me, it will just align with my personal view of myself and it won’t change anything. It’s a self-defense mechanism to protect myself from the disappointment of other people. I assume that if things go badly, it is fully my fault, but if things work out or go well, it is purely by luck. No matter what I accomplish, no matter how full my Google Calendar is, no matter how exhausted I am after a busy day of work, I never feel proud of myself or that what I did was good enough. I feel like a fraud in my own life. I shower my friends and loved ones with compliments and support, always telling them that they deserve all the praise for their accomplishments, so why can I never do the same for myself?

If you also struggle with imposter syndrome or if anything I’ve said sounds familiar, hello. I am here for you. You are so loved and so supported. I don’t want this to just be me documenting my struggles, I want to help you, too! So here are a few tips that I’ve accumulated over the years that I have found to work for me. (I am no professional, these are just my personal words of wisdom.)

1. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

I’m the kind of person who would have a 20-page paper due and procrastinate with no desire to even start it. But as soon as my friend says they have a 20-page paper and need my help, I drop absolutely everything to stay with them until they finish it. So I have used this habit of mine to combat my imposter syndrome.

For example, if I am confused in class, I think to myself: “I bet someone else in this class or in this event or in this meeting also has no idea what is going on. I’ll speak up for them.” If I know it can help someone outside myself, I am more eager to do it. I have also found that being aware of my own imposter syndrome helps me be more empathetic towards other people, and connect with those who may be struggling.

2. Surround yourself with supportive and understanding friends.

I have the best friends I could ask for, who bake me cupcakes, make me laugh at inappropriate times during Zoom calls, not to mention my roommate who listens to my singing for hours on end. In times when I feel down on myself, they are always there to lift me up, and it has helped me more times than I can count. Communicating with my friends that I feel this way also strengthens our relationships and lets them know how to support me when I need it.

3. Journal.

I love journaling. It helps get all my thoughts out of my head and onto paper. That way, I can actually see the “what ifs” bouncing around in my brain in front of me. It makes them seem smaller, in a sense, rather than large and overwhelming in my head. I like following journaling prompts or writing gratitude lists (thanks Carolina for this tip) when I have days I don’t know what to write about.

4. Talk to yourself like you would talk to someone you love.

Would you tell your closest friend that they were a fraud and didn’t deserve anything they’ve accomplished? Of course not! So why talk to yourself like that? I try to stop myself when I’m doubting myself and ask myself if I would say this to my best friends. It’s a small thought exercise, but it does help me quiet down those negative thoughts.

5. Decide to be confident.

Okay I know this sounds like someone telling you to “Just be happy!” when you’re sad, but hear me out. What would your life look like if you pursued everything with 100% self-confidence? What would change? Now actually do that. Raise your hand to speak in class. Volunteer to take charge in an extracurricular meeting. Choose to be proud of yourself. As a leader, I want to establish a precedent that it is okay to ask questions. Nobody ever knows everything. Everyone is always learning. So with that knowledge, I choose to be confident.

Do I still have days where I feel the self-doubt closing in? Absolutely! I wrote this article after crying for 30 minutes because I felt overwhelmed and incompetent. It was so difficult for me to describe this feeling and put it into words, but I did it in the hopes that someone (hi!) will read this and be comforted in the fact that they aren’t alone in this. I am not perfect. I cannot even tell you the number of papers I have turned in late (I am procrastinating doing one as I write this). And that’s okay! Being the “best” person in the room and having everything together isn’t what life is about. TWN taught me that if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room. Life is about growth and discovery. And in the meantime, be kind to yourself. I, for one, think you deserve it.