She’s Not That Great: 3 Ways to Let Go of Impostor Syndrome

Imposter Syndrome: 3 Reasons You Need to Shut It Down
by Lulu Xiao
Photos Molly DeCoudreaux | January 16, 2017
“There will always be someone doing better than you.”
When my dad first said this to me, I visibly pulled back in offense. After confessing my insecurities and how I felt like I was never measuring up to my colleagues—how I felt like everyone else was promoted faster, finding better jobs, networking more successfully, and generally achieving more—I had expected reassurance. Not tough love or whatever he was going for.

“I mean,” he went on, “even if you are achieving great things, there will always be someone achieving something greater, and someone else achieving something even greater than that person. No one will ever achieve everything, but there will always be someone doing something better than you or doing more than you. And that’s OK.”

In a way I didn’t expect, I now find that idea comforting. Because I know that I will never be doing “the most” or accomplishing everything, I feel less pressure to meet those impossible standards (a common sign of what studies refer to as Impostor Syndrome). I feel less like I’m perpetually playing catch up and more capable of actually celebrating the things that I'm doing well. When I skip out on happy hour, because I. Just. Can’t. Take. More. Networking, I don’t feel consumed by guilt; instead, I applaud myself for having already developed great relationships with my colleagues.
Because I know that I will never be doing “the most” or accomplishing everything, I feel less pressure to meet those impossible standards.
I know we’re told time and time again not to compare ourselves to others, but it's part of being human. Especially in the workplace—where we're measured against one another, pushed to be The High Performer, and encouraged to revere ambitious people—comparing ourselves to others is nearly unavoidable. The pressure to do more, achieve more, and be the best is constant.

Of course, I don’t mean to say that being driven or even comparing yourself to others is all bad. If, for example, looking to those who are better than you motivates you and teaches you how to improve, then compare away. Certainly, my social media-savvy friends prompted me—a social media rookie—to at least try Instagram. But it's also OK to give yourself a break sometimes.

Here are three key lessons I consider whenever I feel like I’m not measuring up:

lesson 1: THE IMAGE PEOPLE SHOW TO THE PUBLIC IS OFTEN A VEILED VERSION OF REALITY, SO why compare yourself to it?

It’s so easy to look at other people on Instagram or at the office and beat yourself up about how they're achieving more than you, but we don’t see the demons that someone is fighting. And everyone has demons to fight. That guy who stays late in the office and gets a superhuman amount of work done? He might be struggling with insomnia, and keeping busy is his way of coping. Any person you “wish you could be” in the workplace might be struggling in other areas of life. In fact, they probably are. We all have insecurities. 

Additionally, we tend to perceive ourselves as doing worse than we’re actually doing, so rather than focusing on how you can be achieving more in comparison to others, it’s better to focus on how you can be achieving more in comparison to your own status quo.

lesson 2: IF YOU WANT TO ACHIEVE MORE, DO THINGS THAT YOU GENUINELY ENJOY

I once asked a senior colleague about the most successful person he knew. He replied that it was his college classmate who was involved in an overwhelming number of activities.

His classmate was part of various political clubs, read up on mathematical theories for fun, organized campus events, and more. As you might expect, getting into so many activities opened up numerous doors for him. But the reason that this guy was able to excel, according to my colleague, was because he was genuinely interested in everything he did.

And doesn’t that make a lot of sense? It’s so much easier to invest time in (and be successful at) things you enjoy. When I spent a weekend working on a side project for work, I didn’t feel resentful because I was working on something that I enjoyed. I had fun and showed initiative to my manager. Win-win.

Don't just do what you think is "expected" of you. It’s important to find and do those things that you truly enjoy. Ask for the extra assignment that you’ll relish working on. Join the professional network where you’ll truly click with the people. If you can find and do things you genuinely love, you’ll naturally end up achieving more. Trust me.

lesson 3: EVERYTHING COMES WITH TRADE-OFFS, SO ASK YOURSELF IF SPENDING TIME ON ABC INSTEAD OF XYZ IS BETTER

Time is an especially valuable resource in the professional world. There’s always another opportunity (and often reason!) to attend one more happy hour, go to one more networking event, ask for another assignment, and so on. But your time is limited, so whenever you choose to do something, you're giving up doing something else—be it a great coffee chat with your manager or just a needed night at home to recharge.

Anytime you feel pressure to spend time doing something (primarily if it’s out of “professional obligation”), ask yourself what you will sacrifice by virtue of your decision. Ask yourself if the trade-off is worth it.

Ultimately, I think we should strive to be our best selves, but I don’t think we have to kill ourselves trying to measure up to everyone else in the process. Admittedly, I still fight—and will probably continue to fight indefinitely—the feeling that I’m not measuring up to others, but I try to remember that there will always be someone doing better than me and accomplishing more than me. And it reminds me to just focus on myself. To take the time to celebrate my successes. To cut myself a break.

Have you had your own experiences feeling insecure in your career? What did you do?