Making Imposter Syndrome Work For You

November 27, 2018

Turns out it’s easier to be a good parent than to feel like one. But it appears there are benefits to reasonable self-doubt, and some of the most impressive moms and dads know why.

At any given moment we’re all fairly certain we’ll be found out—right? That the parenting police will finally reveal just how far from the mark our capabilities really are as adults officially in charge of a child. It’s OK: turns out we’re in the majority with over 70% of parents and caregivers feeling something similar to this. And perhaps it’s the other 30% we should actually be worrying about because a lack of self-reflection tends to point to legitimate capability issues.

Within reason, self-doubt can actually be a handy tool for continuously upping our game, whether it takes place at the office (where the term “Imposter Syndrome” was first coined in the 1970s) or in our homes, where it is increasingly playing out as well.

On a practical level, one of the best ways to overcome the fear of messing up is to constantly try to improve. On that front, there is a robust list of things we can all, always do better as parents. And of course, perfection isn’t actually even the goal. What’s far more attainable is a committed, sustained process of perfect-ing what we already do. For most of us, the very act of trying is what finally silences our internal critic more than any external validation.

Our job as parents is so ambiguous, broad and constantly changing. And there are so many different ways to be a good parent, so how can we help but feel inadequate when looking around at the amazing job other parents appear to be doing. Yeh: thanks Facebook (and Pinterest and Instagram) for piping in all those sanitized, highly-edited versions of what our competition is doing out there.

It’s similarly intimidating to consider the gauntlet of evaluations that adoptive and foster parents endure before they’re eventually handed little people to raise. Why are there so few barriers to entry for those of us who made babies ourselves? Society just assumes we know what we’re doing, but more than any other generation, Millennials aren’t quite sure we actually do.

Mixed signals have been drilled into us since childhood

According to a survey done by Time magazine, our generation of parents feels more inadequate, overwhelmed and judged than the Boomers or GenXers. Some 52% of us worry about our friends’ opinions, it matters to 45% of us how we’re seen as parents by our community, and a whopping 70% of us care deeply whether our own parents think we’re doing a good job raising kids. Yeh, no pressure.

The American Psychological Association offers some explanation by citing the mixed signals Millennials received from our parents’ generation. They famously ushered in the era of Helicopter Parenting and one of the symptoms of that style is to simultaneously give both excessive praise and criticism, holding us to standards as unrealistic as the ones they hold themselves to. It turns out that this inconsistency leads to increased feelings self-doubt and fraudulence.

For most of us, the very act of trying is what finally silences our internal critic more than any external validation.

From the boardroom to the nursery

Since we can often be heard referring to a son or daughter as our crankiest, most demanding boss ever, it should surprise no one that the term imposter syndrome actually originated as a reference to workplace anxiety, and largely among women. The description was created in the 1970s by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, two clinical psychologists who—themselves, accomplished women—began recognizing a trend among other over-achievers. Focusing their decades of research on successful female executives, they determined that 70% of them had a hard time internalizing the accomplishments that were clearly evidenced to the outside world. Typical explanations they gave for their impressive trajectories were good luck, good timing or just an outright sense of fraud.

The unexpected benefits of self-doubt

It turns out that this can be a fairly healthy mindset as long as we don’t allow it to become crippling. According to sociologists, people with the highest likelihood of being frauds spend very little time becoming vexed over that particular possibility. The 70% of people who claim to have some form of imposter syndrome tend to be on the high end of the achievement spectrum: an impressive sampling of higher-profilers readily admit self-doubt, and a quick run-through of this “imposter syndrome” quiz devised by Pauline Clance could determine if you count yourself among their ranks. Score high on the test? Great. Now try replacing the word imposter with perfectionist, because that’s at the heart of this “syndrome.”

What kind of imposter (perfectionist) are you?

Valerie Young came up with five categories of imposterism that tend to erode what would otherwise be considered impressive competency.

1) The Superhero: “I can and must do it all…who needs sleep anyway?”

2) The Natural Genius: “The hard work required for this must mean I’m not good at it; things should come naturally.”

3) The Perfectionist: “If I achieve my goal, I must not have set the bar high enough.”

4) The Individualist: “I can’t ask for help; that would mean I’m a failure.”

5) The Expert: “I only have 95% of the requirements for that new job: I’m too underqualified.”

In different ways, each of these mindsets essentially tell us we’re not living up to our potential, but there are things we can do to put this false narrative to rest. A good first start is determining which kind of imposter you think you are: here is another useful quiz to help you out.

Try replacing the word imposter with perfectionist, because that’s at the heart of this “syndrome.”

Ways to quiet your inner critic

Redefine – Start by redefining success for your family and for you. We aren’t supposed to be living up to expectations set by our parents (who, themselves, couldn’t live up to them either). Neither are we required to match the unrealistic markers set by the airbrushed families we find on our addictive social media feeds. Look at your kids, your partner, your support village, yourself. No: really look. What is reasonable for your particular family? What are some realistic goals you can set to improve on what you’re already doing?

Project confidence, just not too much – On a surface level, the quick fix for feeling like an imposter can be as simple as pulling back our shoulders and speaking with increased assertiveness. Studies have shown that acting like you know what you’re doing can positively impact your performance and the opinions others have of your abilities.

But it’s a slippery slope, because too much confidence comes with its own perils. Professors Julie Breines and Serena Chen conducted a study at UC Berkeley measuring the negative impact of being what they describe as “overly confident” and found that serious biases in their subject’s memory and cognition can outweigh the benefits, especially if we begin to inaccurately compare ourselves to others. The trick, it would seem, is measured outward confidence combined with a healthy amount of realism.

Recognize the silver lining of imposter syndrome – It keeps us humble. Yep, it’s literally as simple as that. We can practice a little self-deprecating humor and authentic humility in tandem with our confident body language, being sure to model sincere apologies (especially with our kids) when we mess up. It helps to keep things real around the house as well as helps our children begin to develop the habit. Equally important, being humble helps us remain teachable and lifelong learners are as far from imposters as it gets.

Take stock, pay it forward – So what are we doing right? And what can we teach another parent about those things? That last part is important if we want to truly belong to a village where everyone is invested in each other. At some point we’ve learned from someone else—so let’s share those skills and insights where we can. If we don’t already have one, find a mentor, find a protégé.

Resource management – We can’t be all things to all people, but maybe some skills really are in our wheelhouse and could flourish further still with a little more effort. Figure out where to spend our time wisely, and with a well-developed village built up around us, we can barter those aptitudes for ones we’re sure we’ll never nail. If we’re great at sports, camping and all things outdoors but can’t manage to tutor our kids beyond fourth-grade math, we can offer to the include the kids of our math whiz neighbor in our next campout. In return, she might just offer to help our children with their math, piano, public speaking…you get it.

No one belongs in the role of a parent more than you do, and denying this is robbing your family of the best version of yourself as a parent.

Become a reliable narrator – Banish those words we tell ourselves like “never” and “always.” Our children’s success/happiness/failures aren’t entirely due to us, nor are they totally disconnected from our parenting. We take reasonable responsibility for the results of our hard-earned efforts with our children, while also recognizing that they ultimately have a choice in how much they listen, and how they eventually turn out.

Print and purge – To help banish our imposter syndrome we can borrow advice that has long been useful to insomniacs. It involves setting down on paper the main things that are bothering us, a bedtime practice our sleepless friends go through to trick their brains into not churning through those topics while tossing and turning all night. Since they’ve already written down the troubling topics and taken a few minutes to process them, insomniacs give their brains a legitimate chance of checking them off that unrelenting mental to-do list.

We can do something similar with the insecurities keeping us from feeling as successful as we deserve. Let’s give ourselves 30 minutes to create an unsympathetic list of everything we think is possibly wrong about our parenting. Be as harsh a critic as possible to get it out of our system and down on paper. Now read it over and recognize how outsized a critic we really are of ourselves. Put that anxiety to rest as we make a plan for the items that are fixable, and come to terms with the ones that are not. Now rip the paper into a hundred pieces.

Celebrate the victories – Ok, this next list you’re going to want to keep—and expand. You’ve cataloged and banished the internal criticisms holding you back, now create a new list of the things you do well. While you’re at it, consider the things people around you are doing well too, and be as ready to compliment them as you are to celebrate your own victories as a parent. It’s been said that people will forget what we do, they’ll forget what we say, but they will never forget the way we make them feel. By helping others to feel good about what they’re doing, you’ll find yourself surrounded by people ready to help you celebrate your own victories.

You are not an imposter. You are a dedicated work-in-progress – No one belongs in the role of a parent more than you do, and denying this—either through your actions or even through your thoughts—is robbing your family of the best version of yourself as a parent. Reminding your friends and family that the same is true for them only further cements your place in this remarkable village we inhabit. It’s a place full of diverse people all working on becoming better moms and dads, and you’re one of them. Extend yourself the same kind of compassion you’d give a fellow villager. Use reflection, reasonable self-doubt and course correction to banish imposterism and finally recognize who you are: the real thing.  

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