You might have heard of it, but even if you haven’t, you’ve probably experienced it. Impostor Syndrome, coined by a psychologist, is the phenomenon that high-achieving people have an inability to give themselves credit for their accomplishments, and in fact fear being “exposed as a fraud.”
One time I stayed the night with a freshman student at Harvard, as part of a program in which Harvard allows current students to host prospective students to give them insight into what campus life is like. While hanging out at Starbucks at 2am with three of these incredible, brilliant students that I had the chance to meet (one of them was triple majoring in biology, engineering, and psychology), they began to open up to me about their doubts.
“Sometimes you get the feeling that you shouldn’t be here,” one of them told me. “You got accepted to Harvard, but there’s always this voice in your head telling you that you don’t belong here, that you don’t deserve to be here as much as everyone else, that your acceptance was a fluke and people will find out one day that you’re a fluke.”
Whoa. If these kids were so critical of themselves, how was anyone else supposed to feel? It stuck with me. Because all three of the Harvard students, despite overwhelming accomplishments and extremely creative personalities, had told me that they felt the same way. Like a fraud.
There is a fantastic New York Times article I read about Impostor Syndrome the other day, and it resonated with a reading I did for creativity class- the process of “Scratching,” or searching for creative inspiration by poking around and trying to go to inspiration instead of waiting for inspiration to come to you. While scratching for little ideas, you then stumble upon the big ideas. And the scratching part of the creative process, that part where I’m searching for the little ideas, is usually when Impostor Syndrome hits and the critic in my head decides it’s time to wake up. It tells me that I need to stop scratching, that I won’t get anywhere, that I should stop because I’m just faking my way through something and I’ll never arrive at a good idea.
It’s a fight that my inner critic likes to pick at the exact moment I am struggling to find ideas. Which is so unbelievably counterproductive, for something that is just a fiction I’ve made up.
But to know that Impostor Syndrome exists, that everyone has to go “scratching” to find their ideas, that even Harvard students feel the same struggle, is a comfort– and maybe I’m not a fraud, but everyone is. In the best way possible.