When you were a little kid, didn’t you look at all the hard-working grownups all around you and think, “Wow, they’re so good. I hope I can be like them some day.” And then, as an adult, you look around you and think, “Wow, we’re all just faking it. None of us is really that good.”
This is called “the imposter syndrome”: as adults, we are so full of self-doubt that we wonder if we really know what we are doing. Even CEOs of large corporations and highly-successful entrepreneurs have sat on the sofa in my office and told me, “I’m such a phony; I really don’t know what I’m doing and I’m terrified that, one of these days, everyone will discover it and I’ll be fired.”
The brilliant and talented Tina Fey once admitted: “The beauty of the imposter syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh God, they’re onto me! I’m a fraud!’ So you just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it and then slide through the idea of fraud. Seriously, I’ve just realized that almost everyone is a fraud, so I try not to feel too bad about it.”
Many – most? – of us feel fraudulent when we are praised for our accomplishments. Instead of feeling worthy of recognition, we feel undeserving and guilty, like someone made a mistake and it’s really someone else who deserves the praise, not us. I think that as LGBTers, women, people of color and differently-abled people, we are even more likely to feel like imposters. It’s basically all set up for straight white men to get all the prizes and win all the awards. For us to get in there and get a piece of the pie is awfully difficult: this encourages us to feel inferior to the those straight, rich old guys who hold most of the power and the money. These guys tend to be overconfident in their abilities, while the rest of us are all too often underconfident and afraid to step out, speak up and be seen.
So what can we do about this?
We can realize that our views of ourselves and our abilities are distorted. Many of us have been told our whole lives that unless we live a certain way, e.g., heterosexist, middle-class, white, that we’re doing it wrong. It’s not easy to forge your own path: you can believe in yourself, but, when the world around you tells you that you’re doing it wrong, it’s hard to stay true to yourself.
We can help each other by affirming and praising each other: do you praise other LGBTers? People of other ethnicities, genders, physical and mental abilities? Or do you only praise people who do it “right”, like you do?
Straight white men tend to hire and mentor other straight white men. This is human nature: we’re more comfortable with people who look like us and act like us. For a clear example of this, look at the movie industry: all those straight white guys help each other get jobs and directing/writing gigs, while women, people of color and LGBTers make up a fraction of the people deciding what movies will get made and who will get paid to make/direct/write/produce/star in them.
We can learn something from the straight white men who overestimate their talents and abilities: we can give ourselves credit for what we’ve done (not ascribe it to “luck” or “good timing”) and start to talk each other up: it’s often easier to promote a friend than to promote yourself.
As Sheryl Sandberg says in her terrific book “Lean In”: we may need to do a bit of “fake it ‘til you make it”. No one knows what we feel inside: I’ve given speeches where I was so nervous that my knees were shaking, but, afterwards, everyone told me how calm and relaxed I was. If they only knew! Until we really feel calm inside, we may have to focus on looking calm on the outside. Eventually, the inside and the outside will match.
The imposter syndrome doesn’t go away overnight. But, we can keep going, speaking up, advocating for ourselves and our brothers and sisters until we can get in there and get a piece of the pie.
And you know it will taste really, really good.