Digging at the Root of Imposter Syndrome

Lisa Martens


Photo by Claudia Ramírez on Unsplash

Yesterday, I mentioned that I was good at something, and was immediately scoffed at.

This normally would cause me to shrink. But instead, I stood my ground.

"I really do think I'm good at that," I said. "You don't think so?"

The person in question just shrugged and walked away.

We may deal with microaggressive behavior all the times. Scoffs, laughs, shrugs. It may be easy to tell someone to just ignore them, but for someone with anxiety, like me, this usually sets of a chain reaction of questioning and doubting myself.

Imposter syndrome, anxiety, trauma, and people-pleasing behaviors have all prevented me from setting appropriate boundaries and embracing my talents and passions for years. In fact, I think imposter syndrome isn't so much a thing in itself as much as it is a side effect of these mental health and societal issues. The workplace just comes with its own set of triggers.

After this interaction, I decided to take a deep look at the roots of my imposter syndrome.

1. Being treated like my time was not worth much...and accepting it.

I used to engage in people pleasing behavior, and that is probably going to be my default, automatic reaction for a while. At the core of my imposter syndrome is a pervasive belief that my time is not valuable, so I should use it to help other people. I myself am not deserving of attention, wealth, success, or help.

Telling myself that my time is valuable feels jarring. It feels...like a lie. The negative self-talk I have been engaged in for years is difficult to reverse, and it cannot be done in a day.

What are some ways people show you their time is more valuable than yours? When they expect you to inconvenience yourself for them, and refuse to meet you in the middle. Sometimes this can be literal...two people live across town, but one is always going to the other.

Eventually, I bought into this. Sure, I could do that! No worries! I'll inconvenience myself for you! I'll do things I don't feel comfortable doing! After all, it's just my time.

2. Perpetually believing that I was not "ready" to be a professional.

For me, I believe this one is linked to sexism and infantalizing beliefs. I grew up thinking I needed more time to learn, more time to figure things out, and that I was not yet competent to go into the world.

Even when I was in the workforce and I was excelling, I had this dread. Something would happen, and it would reveal what I always knew...that I was not yet ready. I had to stew some more.

It did not matter how well I did or how amazing my performance reviews were. I always assumed I didn't know as much about business or about the "real world" as other people. This also carries into traumatic experiences. I constantly assume that things that happened to me were not "that bad" and that I am still naive, ignorant, or generally incapable.

I think this is tied to my being a woman, and generally seeing men receiving promotions and opportunities, while I was seen as a bright girl with "potential" that had not yet been achieved. Whenever I tried to address sexism, I felt like I was belittled, or told that I was exaggerating.

3. A lack of boundaries.

A lack of boundaries, for me, worsens my imposter syndrome, because instead of standing my ground, I shrink. I doubt myself. If I think I'm good at something, and then I'm belittled, I will question myself.

This happens to me as a writer as well. I used to be very afraid to write articles because I write about feminism and mental health topics. This means certain people leave very negative comments. Even though they are trolls, this used to upset me. I would feel like maybe i shouldn't write because writing meant receiving these reactions.

Shrinking myself and quitting what I love is not the way to deal with a lack of boundaries and self-esteem. In fact, that's avoidance. That's just a way of avoiding the problem.

Over time, I began to establish my boundaries. Did I really care about these comments? Did I even need to read them? Did I need to reply to someone who just created an account and doesn't even have a profile photo? Should I let it ruin my day? My writing career?

Absolutely not.

My imposter syndrome comes with a severe lack of boundaries. The emotional toll of questioning myself over and over far outweighed the benefits. Most of the time, there were no benefits at all.

I had to define what I thought I was good at, what I wanted, and learn to ignore certain people who did not offer constructive criticism. It's easier said than done, but setting boundaries helps in all walks of life.

4. Catastrophizing, catastrophizing, catastrophizing.

I have trauma issues which cause me to constantly think of the absolute worst case scenarios.

This means that I become terrified of doing something wrong or of being found out, and that I think the worst will happen. The world will hate me. Someone will kill me. I'll get "canceled."

This holds me back. This diminishes my self-esteem and confidence. This makes me feel like I can never go 100% into something, because then, when something awful happens, it will be my fault.

This is also partially why I'm afraid to be promoted, afraid to try to get a book deal, and just generally afraid that my ignorance and incompetence will someday unleash some kind of terrible, Pandora-level evil upon the world.

But why do I think this? I just write stories. It's not a logical fear. It's not rational.

Catastrophizing needs to be held under the microscope. I do that often now. I cannot control these thoughts from coming...but they do not have to run my life.

Imposter Syndrome holds me back in many ways. I feel I am not a good enough writer, professional, partner, or friend. I feel like someone else can do a job better than me, and I constantly take myself out of the running. I am always afraid someone will discover my deep, dark secret...even though I really don't have any deep dark secrets.

The negative self-talk and self-image, sexism, and infantalization must be combated with positive self-talk, therapy, introspection, and boundary-setting.

So yeah, I am good at writing. I am good at puzzles. I claim what I am good at, because otherwise, the world will pass me and my skills by.

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