In a popular Facebook group inhabited by Israeli working moms, the imposter syndrome is a perennial guest. A talented writer, whose words make people cry, feels like an imposter when reading our people’s prolific writing. A successful university lecturer shares her surprise, when her candidacy is raised for a teaching job elsewhere. And the crowning glory of female inadequacy feelings, the imposter mom syndrome, the debilitating thoughts of not being good enough to parent our own kids, make frequent appearances.
Conventional wisdom suggests that it precisely the more talented and capable women that are most likely to suffer from the imposter syndrome. Driven to achieve from an early age, they look around, see how others look so successful from the outside, and feel like fraud in comparison.
The most common advice, “fake it till you make it,” actually makes things worse. Faking is precisely the art of the imposter. Consciously pretending to be good at something, when we don’t feel competent in that area, undermines our authenticity and makes us feels deceitful.
The other problem is that our culture upholds a binary outlook on success. Either you are a zero or a hundred. There is no middle ground and no process. If you are faking it till you make it, you will continue to feel like a zero until you “fake” it through the range and magically make it to the hundred. This attitude is not only false, but completely counterproductive. It implies that so long as you don’t make it to some imaginary standard, you remain a zero. That you are not good enough as you are. That to be successful, you need to play games. This only reinforces our feelings of inadequacy.
Finally, faking it assumes some kind of an idealized “it.” The approach suggests that only once we become “it” will we be worthy to do our work, feel competent, and experience success. Yet the “it” is illusive. Like the proverbial donkey with a carrot tied in front of its nose, the more progress we make and the better we become, the more the ideal seems out of reach. As we grow, we surround ourselves with more accomplished peers and look up to new, more advanced role-models. By the time we reach our desired goals, we have already set sight on new ones. This turns “fake it till you make it” into a source of frustration, instead of a solution.
The reality is quite opposite. Accomplishment is a process. There is no zero and there is no one hundred. There is no ideal “it.” You don’t fake your way to success, you work your way to it. And you are completely authentic, real, and worthy no matter how far you have come. Even when you fail.
During these weeks of sefirat haomer, as we move from the Exodus from Egypt on Passover towards receiving the Torah on Shavuot, the Talmud’s description of what transpired on Sinai gives us an insight into this process (Shabbat 88). The Sages relate that when Moshe went up to heaven, the angels protested G-d’s intention of giving the Torah to imperfect human beings. G-d asked Moshe to provide an answer.
“What’s written in the Torah?” Moshe asked the angels. “‘I am the L-rd your G-d, who took you out of Egypt?’ Have you been down to Egypt? Have you been enslaved to the Pharaoh? What good would the Torah do to you?”
Moshe then goes on to cite the various commandments in the Torah and to show how these are only applicable to tempted human beings and completely irrelevant for the perfect angels.
The angels’ argument is precisely the voice of the imposter syndrome in our head. It says that you can’t receive the Torah, or by extension you cannot be involved in significant work, experience success, and perceive yourself as accomplished until you become perfect. The voice claims that you have to become an “angel” (whatever that angel looks like to you) to be worthy of doing what you are doing.
Moshe proves quite the opposite. The Torah (or our work) is meant precisely for the people who are imperfect, for those of us who have to deal with the grime and challenge and the pain of “Egypt.” Each of us is enslaved to our own personal “pharaoh,” whether it be fear, low self-esteem, lack of knowledge, unproductive behavior, or a bad character trait. Setting our sights high and striving for new altitudes, be it in observing the Torah or in reacing a goal we have set for ourselves, is precisely the meaning of real, authentic, and productive life.
The way to get over the imposter syndrome is to start thinking of accomplishment and success as a ladder with many rungs. It’s not a place; it’s a journey. As you travel on the path, with its hills and valleys, ups and downs, you become better at what you do. And like with any journey you need a map.
Instead of faking it to make it, just work to become it. Here are some tips for doing so.
- Figure out your next goal – take a few minutes to sit down and picture in your mind your next desired level of achievement. Close your eyes and see yourself there. What does it look like? What are you doing? What do you know? Whom are you serving? How does it feel? Why is it important for you to get there?
- Map out the path – honestly ask yourself what skills and knowledge you need to get there. Do you need to brush up on something technical? Do you need to overcome an internal objection? Are you afraid of failure? Are you scared of success? Is there a gremlin in your head that tells you you can’t learn that/do that/be that? Do you need to kick a habit?
- Create a game plan – think what you can realistically do to improve yourself so as to reach your goal. This can include reading books, taking courses, getting a mentor, apprenticing with someone, volunteering, and working with a coach or a therapist. Decide how much of your resources (time, money, and emotional energy) you can invest into the improvement process right now. Even if it doesn’t sound like a lot, go for it. Whatever work you do will take you forward and you never know what will happen there.
- Get supportive friends – surround yourself with people who already appreciate you for who you are and who will be able to both share words of inspiration and honestly, but gently call you out when necessary in a way that you can hear and accept.
Above all, do it! Working proactively to reach your goals (even if you don’t succeed initially) will make you feel proud of yourself for going forward, despite the fear.
There is no better way to be true to yourself and kicking the imposter syndrome.
So what steps are you going to take to reach your next level?
This article first appeared in The Times of Israel.