Imposter syndrome. We’ve heard the phrase thrown around a million times over — especially in the young professional world of entrepreneurs and goal diggers. But I never thought of it as a problem in my own life, because it seemed like a problem that was in and of itself out of my league. It didn’t register as a real person problem, if that makes sense. It was like those girls that pretended being “too pretty” was an actual obstacle to overcome, or those trust fund kids complaining about the burdens of being born rich.
But as I’ve thought more about my professional journey, I’ve come to realize that you don’t have to be some 23 year old CEO or hot shot to be tormented by feelings of inadequacy that are out of line with reality. It’s like body dysmorphia, but for your career. On the outside, you’re a solid 8-9. On the inside, you feel like a soft 4.5. And no one but you really gets it.
I’ve written about the importance of confidence on my blog before — and how the lack thereof has held me back in literally every area in my life. But it wasn’t until recently that I had any real grasp on just how much it was holding me back professionally, and I felt the need to talk about it from this newfound perspective, because you’re never the only one experiencing something, or that needs to hear something.
I’m really talented. I’m not saying that because I’m full of myself or another self important 20 something. I’m saying that because NOT being able to bring myself to say that, even though I know it’s true, and even though my peers and colleagues and superiors know it’s true, has cost me more than I’ll ever really know.
I have a hard time really advocating for myself or promoting my Ws because I’m constantly picking them apart and comparing them to what others have done. How could anything I’d done be good enough, or successful, or worthy of praise when there was always someone doing something better? How could I take pride in raising $80,000 for one of my clients when someone else had raised $300,000? How could I call myself a “blogger” with a serious face when I only have 2,000 followers on Instagram, or when my posting has been so sporadic? Was I even really “making it” in DC if I couldn’t afford to live alone, if I didn’t actually work in the city, if I’ve never been on a panel?
I thought I was being objective and realistic. I thought I was self aware, and that I was morally distinct from the con men and women of the Swamp, BSing their ways through life, turning crap into gold and janitors into “sanitation engineers.”
I thought I was keeping myself in check. But all I was doing was making my own life harder.
Don’t get me wrong — there are plenty of competent, hard working, intelligent people in D.C. I find myself constantly inspired by the people I know. But I’ve often found that the people that really get ahead aren’t necessarily the best at what they do, or the most experienced, or the smartest. But without fail, they’re the best at marketing themselves. And it’s almost impossible to do that when you don’t believe in what you have to offer.
And it was ironic as someone that literally works in direct marketing — that can convince people to shell out thousands of dollars to organizations they’d never heard of — that I had failed so miserably at marketing myself.
I’ve never known how to take a compliment. Someone compliments my body, I laugh it off and say it’s an optical illusion. Someone compliments my outfit, I joke about not having done my laundry. And yeah, there are worse habits to have. But when that carries over to your work, it’s detrimental. Not being able to say “yes, thank you, I am actually great at this and I actually do know what I’m talking about” without undercutting or belittling your credibility will cost you countless opportunities, and set you back YEARS.
Thinking about what I’ve missed out on because I was too quiet, or too intimidated, or too afraid of looking stupid, or too insecure to speak from a place of certainty about who I was, what I’d accomplished, and what I was capable of drives me insane. Because after being in my industry for over 2 years, and going to these networking events, and sitting on the other side of the interview table, and hearing how people talk about themselves versus what their experience actually says for itself — it’s obvious that I’ve sold myself short.
A part of the tendency to discredit ourselves comes from what we believe others think. We assume that others will mock us or devalue our work in one way or another — so we beat them to the punch. We think about what other people might say, and take the impact of those potential insults away by saying them to ourselves. We think we’re doing ourselves favors, and that if we anticipate the criticism, or even acknowledge it beforehand, that we somehow will be immune to any blows to our egos. But all we’re doing is setting ourselves up for failure.
There are plenty of people that are going to doubt you, and badmouth you, and try to diminish you — especially in a place as cutthroat as D.C. There’s no reason you should be doing their jobs for them. Own your gifts, own your achievements, and own yourself.
There’s nothing wrong with being self critical, or always wanting to improve. But if you can’t vocalize your strengths and capitalize on them, you’re never going to reach your full potential. It doesn’t matter what you know or how hard you work if you can’t effectively project that expertise when it matters.