How to tackle imposter syndrome

We’re all fighting our own battles, so treat everyone with kindness – including yourself, says Oliver Burkeman


How to tackle imposter syndrome

2 minute read

Many of us are familiar with impostor syndrome – as you’re shown to your desk at a new job, you’re overcome by feeling like a fraud. Psychologists often attribute this to a lack of confidence, but there’s an even more basic explanation: the reason it feels like you’re the only one with an anxious internal monologue is that yours is the only one you can hear. We don’t have access to other people’s minds – so we’re forced to judge their emotional state by their behaviour. Unless they’re openly sobbing, or shaking with fear, others are always going to seem more in command than you. The punchline is that you seem exactly the same way to them.

And impostor syndrome is only one of the ways situations are distorted by our inability to get inside other people’s heads. In all sorts of other contexts, we ‘compare our inside to other people’s outside’, as the phrase goes, but that’s an unfair double standard. On the outside, most people will seem to have their lives more together than you do, or to be less blindsided by a breakup or a bereavement. But you can’t see inside them. You don’t even get to see how they behave when they’re alone – lying on the sofa paralysed by sadness, or drinking too much wine – because, if you were there, of course, they wouldn’t be alone.

The problem isn’t always that we’re too harsh on ourselves, though. Sometimes, we end up being too hard on others instead. For example, when we see someone acting obnoxiously in public – snapping at a shop worker, or honking their car horn impatiently – we tend to assume that they have a rude personality and act that way all the time. But, when we find ourselves behaving similarly, we’re far more likely to rationalise it, because we have access to our inner predicament: we excuse ourselves on the grounds that we were in a hurry, or were having a terrible day. We do it with politics, too: studies show that people disproportionately attribute their own opinions to loving motives, while assuming the other side is filled with hate.

None of this means that we’re always wrong in our judgements. Perhaps you are out of your depth at work; maybe that shouty person in the shop has serious anger issues… But it’s a reminder not to make assumptions.

A well-known saying urges: ‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.’ And be kind to yourself, too. Your own struggle may be much harder than you realise. After all, you have nothing to compare it to.

Oliver Burkeman is author of ‘The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking’ (Canongate, £8.99)

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