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Fake It 'Til You Make It: Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

04/20/2015 12:54 pm ET | Updated Jun 20, 2015
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Fake the confidence, that is.

A couple of years ago, my students and I were building momentum within a conversation on David Foster Wallace's "Authority and American Usage," an essay about Standard American English, when the familiar feeling of dread surged through my throat.

The question echoed through the classroom: "Well, for the Merriam-Webster dictionary, for example, who sits on the board?"

I wasn't totally certain, but I took a stab at it with some qualification in place. "Well, I don't know the exact names of who, but it's likely a board of lexicographers that analyzes American English usage and makes decisions about the dictionary contents from there."

I feigned the proper, commanding tone of voice, and the question was over with. The student was satisfied.

The conversation continued fluidly, but after my students filed out of the classroom apparently unaware of my inner hailstorm, I furiously signed onto the academic database and began researching. I just had to find out the exact answer and subsequently resume beating myself up over not knowing that one, obscure fact.

Two years ago, this was my world as an accomplished, published, highly-educated woman plagued with impostor syndrome -- the fear of being "unmasked" to be a fraud and the inability to truly embody one's achievements, even while exceedingly competent and intelligent.

Throughout my life, I've been acutely sensitive to the importance of confidence, perhaps because, despite several academic and professional accomplishments speaking otherwise, I had to coach myself how to act confident in my abilities.

A few years ago, my dream of teaching students at the college level drew near, yet I was tormented by the notion that there were still people smarter than me in the world, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Before my first semester, I would have racing thoughts about how I would be the one in the front of the classroom, fielding a sea of college freshmen brimming with questions. And, gasp, what if I didn't know the answer? Turns out, yes, they had a lot of questions, but "brimming" with questions was, in hindsight, a slight idealization of the average college freshman composition classroom.

The sensation of feeling less-than was so much of an involuntary response to being challenged in any sort of way that I didn't even realize there was a name for it.

When The Confidence Gap was released by The Atlantic this past May, I found myself adhered to the screen, drinking in every word of the lengthy article with a silent "Hallelujah" reverberating in my brain. "Evidence shows that women are less self-assured than men -- and that to succeed, confidence matters as much as competence." Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, you've nailed it.

In the article, they ask why women, despite measurable success in their academics and professional lives, feel as though they don't deserve such accolades as promotions or raises. In my opinion, this is because, as women grow up, society tumbles us and shapes us, like rough quartz, to be a smooth, polished, agreeable surface, without considering what we may feel on the inside. As the usual rhetoric goes, we are supposed to be thin, but not too thin; smart, but not too smart; maternal, but sexy.

Impostor syndrome is the result. You end up feeling that you don't, actually, belong anywhere.

The first step to remedying this issue is recognizing it. My guess is that this phenomenon describes many of us, more so than we are comfortable admitting.

The second step? Fake confidence. Practice acting confident. Be conscious of your body, the placement of your hands, your posture, even. If you aren't sure of yourself, you have to pretend like you are, especially when you know deep down that you have the intellectual goods. After all, if we don't believe in our accomplishments and our abilities, it's not likely that others will. The process is slow, but it leads to noticeable improvements in your professional life over time.

You know what happens after a while? After all this time "faking out" others?

Rightly, you start to believe it, too.