Many of us have moments of self-doubt. Moments when we fear that we are not smart enough, or don’t work hard enough, or aren’t good enough. When we suffer from these destructive thoughts consistently, we may be suffering from what is popularly called ‘imposter syndrome.’
Imposter syndrome is commonly understood as a psychological pattern wherein an individual doubts their skills, talents, or accomplishments and fears being exposed as a ‘fraud.’ Imposter syndrome is not the same as genuinely being unqualified for a role; it refers to a dissociation between the objective reality of your ability and your perceptions of your ability. It can strike anyone at any time, but has been shown to affect high-achievers disproportionately.
But why is imposter syndrome so keenly felt by the most successful people?
Imposter Syndrome And Success
High-achievers are defined as those who reach high positions in their organisation or career, who are recognised as being authoritative in their field, or who are deemed ‘successful’ by modern society’s standards. The higher a position these people reach, the more they feel out of their depth, as if the responsibility and requirements for the role do not match up to their skills. This then starts a destructive cycle where success is attributed to external factors such as luck or help from colleagues, and failures are attributed to internal factors such as skill-level or cognitive ability. Psychology students may recognise this phenomenon as situational and dispositional attribution respectively. This thought pattern leads to a pervasive feeling of ‘duping’ your colleagues and superiors.
But imposter syndrome doesn’t exclusively affect working professionals; students are as susceptible to experiencing imposter syndrome as a senior manager. You may experience imposter syndrome in class when you feel like you aren’t as smart as your peers, in your CCA meetups when you ‘can’t get it’ quite as well as your clubmates, and in countless other situations.
But does suffering from imposter syndrome mean that we cannot achieve high positions of authority or what we aspire to? Not at all. Success and feeling like an imposter are not mutually exclusive. We will have to battle feelings of uncertainty all throughout our life; it’s how we fight the battle that determines the outcome.
To better understand imposter syndrome and navigating feelings of uncertainty while in a senior position, The Ridge interviewed Wee Su-Ann, National University of Singapore Students’ Union (NUSSU) 42nd EXCO President.
Su-Ann’s Journey With Imposter Syndrome
Su-Ann ran for NUSSU President as a way to give back to the NUS community. She took on the role with little prior experience and a hopeful vision of improving student life for her peers. But her term wasn’t easy; she had to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and the many challenges and uncertainties it brought with it, as well as the storm of sexual harassment cases and mergers that affected NUS and student life. But through it all, she kept up her optimism and determination to do good work, and successfully beat back her feelings of being a fraud, to negotiate and achieve successful results for students.
Su-Ann recalls suffering from imposter syndrome particularly at the beginning of her presidency as she “did not have experience in leading other student groups or organisations before, so being President was a very new experience [for her]…[she] didn’t quite have the same qualifications [as previous presidents].”
But while Su-Ann considered herself inexperienced for the role, a little digging on LinkedIn reveals that she was, in fact, in possession of a slew of accomplishments that made her a worthy pick for the role: 40th NUSSU EXCO Regulations and Compliance Officer, Mooting and Debating Club Publicity Director, USP Peer Mentorship Programme Faculty Coordinator, Asian Undergraduate Summit Organising Committee Member, and a tonne of internships at numerous law firms, among many other accomplishments. And this disassociation between her objective fit for the role, and her perception of how worthy she is of it is classic imposter syndrome at work.
But even though Su-Ann’s previous experiences and accomplishments made her a good fit for NUSSU President, the path to feeling confident in her role wasn’t easy, nor without its obstacles. There were times when she felt overwhelmed with the responsibilities and the work. Su-Ann admitted, “The summer after AY20/21 was pretty rough. I was quite burnt out but there [were] a lot of different things to manage: getting student life projects up, liaising with Offices on Commencement, working on the Joint University statement on the Women’s White Paper, running the Union Elections [etc]. It was a lot to juggle, especially with my studies. I didn’t have time for anyone then—I was so busy meeting someone or doing work that I didn’t have time for my friends or family.”
In the midst of such hectic work, it’s easy to lose sight of yourself and get trapped in a vicious cycle of feeling like a fraud set off by the slightest feeling of inadequacy or discontent with your work. But through her experiences, Su-Ann made one important breakthrough that doubles as solid life advice: “I realised that you need to believe in yourself first, before anyone else will believe in you. Everyone brings something good to this world, and you just need to find out what speciality you have—it doesn’t need to be skill-based or knowledge-based, but even values such as caring for others, or honesty. They are all incredibly important things that the world needs to have, even if some may be more valued than others in the environment you are in … You need to believe that you are an asset to make that wish [of being an asset] come true. You want to be your own cheerleader, not your own self-limiting factor.”
While hyping yourself up can be an effective method to boost your self-confidence, tackling your insecurities does not have to be a lone battle. When you’re heading an organisation like NUSSU, it may be easy to forget that you are part of a team. Much as the strength of the team is each individual member, the strength of each member is the team.
Su-Ann said, “I [just] tried to focus on myself and what I could do best, and see where I could value-add to my team. As I had the fortune of having a very experienced team, trying to build my own institutional knowledge was not that urgent. Instead, I focused more on trying to give them direction to focus their experience into meaningful outcomes.”
Indeed, instead of dwelling on how you can’t do it all, identify your personal strengths that can fortify the team, and hone those instead. To battle second-guessing yourself, Su-Ann also recommends arming yourself with the hard data or evidence to back up your claims: “The numbers [also] helped to give me the confidence to back up the propositions and solutions I put forward.”
Overcoming Imposter Syndrome
For those who may feel like imposters in any of their roles, Su-Ann makes these few suggestions based on her own experiences:
Channel the negative energy into a positive outcome! I was really frustrated at myself when I didn’t perform well. But I used that anger and spite as motivation to try to redeem myself and do better.
Use this as an opportunity to learn more about yourself. Why we feel a certain way has underlying reasons.
Don’t compare with others, compare with yourself! It took a long time for me to come to terms with it, but everyone has their own path in life to travel. Focus on your own journey and learning about yourself and improving yourself.
Don’t be too hard on yourself! You are your own judge of your success and happiness. [And] Constantly setting the bar to be unattainable makes for a very unhappy existence. No one can immediately start running from birth. Go at the pace you are comfortable with.
Overcoming imposter syndrome will be difficult. Simply identifying that you suffer from it and consciously reminding yourself that you deserve what you have and where you are may not be enough to defeat self-doubt. But with patience and persistent effort, you may find that the battle gets easier with time. As Su-Ann said, “I know how hard it is to pull yourself out of the negativity, and it also takes time to see real change. But change does not happen without the discipline and effort [it takes] to work things out and improve [yourself] to become better.”