If you’re the sort of person who reads Discovering Your Awesome, which you clearly are, you’ve probably experienced the get-under-your-skin discomfort of feeling like you don’t belong. Not a “I walked into the wrong classroom” not belonging, but the insidious and irrational conviction that whatever group you’re in, wherever you are, is a mistake. That you have somehow tricked the gatekeepers into letting you in and now are at constant risk of being found out and kicked out.
Ah, Impostor Syndrome.
Impostor Syndrome is the worst kind of ‘friend’, the sort that perches on your shoulder and whispers into your ear everything that will go wrong in this scenario.
Can’t draw attention to yourself– then they’ll realize you’re a fake.
Can’t deviate from the norm– then they’ll see your true colors.
Can’t mess up– then they’ll know you’re an impostor.
This is a terrible, vicious mental trap on an individual level, and a downright disastrous one when exposed to a group. Individualized impostor syndrome on its own is bad enough, and widely discussed. It’s the goal-killer, the hope crusher, the reason you cannot give yourself permission to start, never mind succeed. What I want to explore is what happens when you take impostor syndrome out of the vacuum in which most discussions place it, and discover it in group settings.
The group dynamics, especially as they are perceived by an individual, change dramatically.
First, impostor syndrome creates a low-level state of constant anxiety as you try to avoid detection. Think of it like being an undercover spy, except your goal isn’t gathering intel and getting out: it’s staying as long as possible until you’re found out. We can compare this to the old Atari games–there was no way to win; you simply tried to not lose as the game became progressively harder. Eventually the aliens won and Earth was destroyed. The baseline anxiety created by being constantly undercover can and will increase as the situation ‘demands’, interfering with any goals or social interactions you hope to accomplish.
Impostor syndrome also leads people to participate in the I’m More Broken than You game in an attempt to remain undetected for longer. This is the part where the undercover agent is fluent in the native language of wherever they’re hiding. If it’s a sports team and you hear other people praise the teammate who finished the game despite suffering a concussion that they kept hidden, you’re more likely to minimize your own injuries, because you’ve seen that behaviour rewarded. If you’re in academia, and your peers humble brag about the all-nighter they pulled to finish their term paper and write the final for the undergrad course they’re teaching, you’ll learn that sleep deprivation is an acceptable way to handle overwhelm. If you’re in a male-dominated profession and are constantly exposed to sexist comments about women, even the supposedly ‘harmless’ ones (spoiler: they’re all harmful), a part of you risks internalizing that.
I’m not saying that your environment will slowly corrupt you into acting like a person you don’t want to be. What I am saying is that social pressure is powerful, and when a part of your brain has you convinced that you don’t belong there, your brain loses some of its ability to filter out actions and thoughts it would normally disagree with.
Now imagine that most everyone in a given group is struggling with Impostor Syndrome, terrified of being found out and ridiculed. How likely is that group going to be able to affect positive change from within?
Yeah, not so likely.
But there is good news. Most everyone is undercover, which means that you’re not alone. That can be really hard for your brain to accept–no one else looks like they’re panicking on the inside. But neither do you. Remember, you’re all undercover, and you’re all really good at it. What people don’t realize is that you’re all agents from the same department.
Which department? The Department of Capable Adulthood and Not Making a Mess of Life.
Everyone belongs in this department, with very few exceptions (if you’re reading this, you’re in the department–go, you!) People might be at different levels in said department, but everyone gets the Impostor Syndrome challenge at some point. So far as I can tell, the trick to working through Impostor Syndrome, especially as it applies to groups, is twofold:
First, remember that everyone is either going through this challenge, or has been through this challenge. They are too worried about you figuring out that they don’t belong, to try and determine if you don’t belong.
Second, because everyone is either dealing with Impostor Syndrome in some way or has already beat that round, they’ll know where you’re coming from. One of the things I’ve found helpful is talking about Impostor Syndrome (or writing about it, QED). Getting reassurances from the people around you, seeing their initial bafflement when you share your concerns about not belonging, can do wonders with putting your brain at ease. It is not cheating to receive reassurance. This mission is not actually top secret, and they’re in your department anyways.
Impostor Syndrome is not the most pleasant experience, particularly as a reoccurring one. However, mitigating the effects of Impostor Syndrome, both for the individual and within group dynamics, is doable. The best part about being an undercover agent is the debriefing and return to civilian life that comes when you realize that a, you belong, and b, you don’t have to be undercover if you don’t want to be.
This blog is part of the Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Gifted Self-Care. To read more blogs in this hop, visit this Blog Hop at http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/blog_hop_gifted_self_care.htm.