Dealing with the imposter syndrome is an easy fix for the Stoics. It’s all about impressions that are formed by you. Thus, your mind is where you must seek the solution. As with many of the Stoic ways of solving things, it is easier said than done. And the doing part is key and a reason why I started this journey to write these posts. The interesting paradox of all this is, that to post my articles, I have to beat the imposter syndrome. Or because I wanted to overcome it, I started to publish them. And after having written so many articles, I still struggle with it. But far less than before. The process is continuous. By dedicating this article to this obstacle I have in my head, I want to be able to tackle it. Or at least to be able to face it with more resolve.
Since the beginning of this content creation journey, the imposter syndrome has been a term that I’ve seen coming back time and time again. Not only in myself, but in those around me as well. Many articles have been dedicated to it. But here I want to approach it in Michel de Montaigne fashion. Examining the one subject I’m the biggest expert in from anyone in the world; Me.
“Had my intention been to seek the world’s favour, I should surely have adorned myself with borrowed beauties: I desire therein to be viewed as I appear in mine own genuine, simple, and ordinary manner, without study and artifice: for it is myself I paint. My defects are therein to be read to the life, and any imperfections and my natural form, so far as public reverence hath permitted me. … Thus, reader, myself am the matter of my book: there’s no reason thou shouldst employ thy leisure about so frivolous and vain a subject.”Michel de Montaigne, the Essays, Letter XVI, To the Governor of Guienne
How to examine the imposter syndrome?
To be able to examine this subject, we will look at what the imposter syndrome is first. Then we will break it down and I’ll use my own experiences to lead the way. You might not recognize yourself in all the details, but in some of the experiences you might. And if you do, feel free to share them with me in the comments. Then I’ll also show how I’ve been trying to deal with the imposter syndrome using Stoicism.
This article will show that I still have a long way to go on the Stoic road. There are a lot of parts of my existence that I need to improve and I can’t sit idle and be content with my current progress. To be honest, the moment one becomes satisfied with the learning is when we start losing it. The quest for a philosophical life is a continuous journey. And if we learn to accept that and start to enjoy the path, then this becomes part of our purpose.
What is the imposter syndrome?
The imposter syndrome is a self-debilitating belief that one isn’t good enough to perform a certain task or to be the authority on a subject or field. There’s always someone better, thus what gives me the right to create this type of content? Or to give my views and opinions on a certain topic, since there are far more qualified people to do so. Another way to look at it is to think that there is already so much out there, so why should I add to it? Will it make a difference or are people waiting for it? This is at least my take on it, but why not go to an expert definition of it to make sure we’re talking about the same thing.
“People who struggle with imposter syndrome believe that they are undeserving of their achievements and the high esteem in which they are, in fact, generally held. They feel that they aren’t as competent or intelligent as others might think—and that soon enough, people will discover the truth about them. Those with imposter syndrome are often well accomplished; they may hold high office or have numerous academic degrees.”Psychologytoday.com
Apart from the last sentence, this pretty much defines how I look at myself. Although I wouldn’t be able to say what achievements or high esteem I could put to my name, either. But the fact that people might discover the truth about me is there. Then I ask myself what truth? This is my real life and I’m trying to live it the best way I can. Here was a glimpse of some of my inner dialogue. Nothing fancy, only a lot of questions and doubts. It’s a miracle that this blog exists at all, with all the doubts that I’ve had. But there is a drive inside of me to overcome these thoughts.
Where do we start?
Now, where do we start with my experience with the imposter syndrome? I could begin with one of my earliest memories. Whenever a question had to be answered or an opinion was asked, I would let others go first. This started with some rejections of my speaking out or being laughed at. You see, another one of my learning objectives with the blog and public speaking is to learn how to deal with criticism better. I would hide my opinion whenever another was given, thinking they were right. Not wanting to engage in the confrontation I would back down and accept their truth. Later I would then either not speak up or do so with reluctance. Still to this day, I find myself doing so. Yet, in some cases, when I don’t know all the facts and details, it’s better to listen and learn.
What happens next is that I ask myself who I am. Not in a way of self-examination, but about who I think I am. The little village mentality is still stuck with me, together with being Dutch, where we say to act normal, that’s crazy enough. This way of thinking, together with other things that I created in my mind, has led to this idea of inadequacy. Of asking myself with every new idea whether I should be doing this and who would be wanting to read it. But then again, here you are reading this. There must have been a turning point somewhere. And mind you, this is still an ongoing battle, but at least now I’m meeting it head-on.
An urge to create
For a long time, I had the urge to write. There were words and ideas that had to come out. They were piling up inside my mind. The first years when I wouldn’t even think of putting pen to paper. It made me feel silly for doing something like that. What would people think of me, writing and expressing my thoughts? No one is waiting for that, so better to keep it to myself. The problem with bottling things up is that at one point the pressure becomes too big.
And there I found myself, on my laptop, writing. A paragraph or two, but they got deleted. Leave no evidence, no trail. The next step was when I started reading a lot more and I saw the great minds on paper. There was a lot of inspiration I got from it, but the imposter syndrome was even more prevalent. Something changed when I started reading the Foundation series, by Isaac Asimov. After every reading session, I wanted to pick up a pen and write. The simplicity and boundless imagination sparked something. After that, noticed that stories were forming in my head.
A short story appeared
Then one day, I went on my balcony, sat down, and wrote for three hours straight. The words came flying out. A short story or a chapter of a book, I didn’t know what it was and still don’t. But it felt great. To continue my process, I’ll share it with you here: The Job. But this is all I have for the time being. I showed it to a friend. After a long internal debate on whether to do so, I pressed send and tried to forget about it. His positive reaction surprised me.
This feedback, my reading, and more writing led me to my first blog, which didn’t inspire me enough to continue. Creativity and personal involvement were missing. During all this time, I was more and more evolving my philosophical lifestyle. And I noticed the effects Stoicism was starting to have on my life. People had to learn about this.
Did I beat the imposter syndrome?
So here we are. The Stoic Padawan is now well on its way. And although I missed three weeks of posting at the beginning. It has become part of my duty. To write and share my experiences with the few who read these reflections. If it can help one person improve their life, then it has all been worth it. But that doesn’t mean that the imposter syndrome is gone. It’s still there and will always be so. You can slip it through this post on occasion. If I want to continue doing what I’m doing then I can’t wait for a cork to pop out of the bottle. I need to take action, make sure I do my best and go for it.
Dealing with the opinions of others was a big step in all this. At first, I wanted to dismiss them and publish them without looking at them. The critique would have me defensive and hurt. The imposter’s feelings came back. Then I learned to look at them from a Stoic lens. They are the opinions of others, not under my control. If I can accept them with an objective mind and examine their value, I can learn from them and grow. This is my classroom and only I stop myself from learning from it. My vulnerability and my ego need to take a step back. My creativity and mind need to command the center stage.
Don’t hide from yourself
We can’t hide from ourselves who we truly are. We all know this deep within. Yet it is up to us to embrace those parts which we are trying to keep hidden or opress. As the Stoics say, we should live in accordance with Nature, which also means our nature. The more friction and anxiety we experience, the more we are working against our nature. The only problem is that sometimes it is scary to make certain decisions to follow our nature. Then we need to ask ourselves how we would look back on our lives during our last moments. Or why not look back right now? What do you regret not having done? What could be worse than living a life full of regrets?
How to deal with the imposter syndrome?
Go out and do it. Do that which you feel from deep inside that you must do. The opinions of others will always be out there and you’d be surprised how many will end up supporting you. When you feel that what you do is you, then there is no other option but to create, lead, or share. All the limiting ideas or the constraints that we have, see them for what they are. Self-made prisons, that could break up the illusion of comfort if opened. When you start to follow your instincts and duty, you will still question yourself. And that’s not a bad thing, it will keep you sharp. But it shouldn’t hold you back, it should keep you on top of your game and do your best.
“Enter their minds, and you’ll find the judges you’re so afraid of – and how judiciously they judge themselves.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 9.18
These last few words by Marcus Aurelius are a reminder to me. Whenever I get caught in the imposter syndrome. I try to picture those who might be judging me and realize that they are also human beings like me. They have their own judgments of themselves. Heck, they’re probably not even thinking about me. Wretch, what are you worried about then? Follow your nature and do what is your duty. These thoughts are yours and yours to control. Think about the judgments you have about yourself, they will have theirs too. Are you doing your best? Then what’s the problem? Is this what you are supposed to be doing? Then continue. But keep in mind that you stay within your role, grounded, and not become arrogant. Keep yourself in check, but not limited.
“If you take on a role that is beyond your powers, you not only disgrace yourself in that role, but you neglect the role that you were capable of fulfilling.Epictetus, The Handbook, 37
3 thoughts on “How to Deal With the Imposter Syndrome Through Stoicism”
Greatly enjoyed this post. I think that Imposter Syndrome is certainly more pronounced in some of us than others, but at some point in our lives almost every human being will experience this feeling. I imagine it as more of a part of the human condition than an acute syndrome. Thank you so much for sharing, you have already improved at least one life with your writings if you go by the comments on your other articles, and this one too!
Thank you, Ryan, for your always insightful comments. The imposter syndrome does speak more to some than to others. It could well be more part of the human condition, the comparing ourselves with others constantly. Appreciate your take. Thanks
An inspiring post that perfectly sums up what imposter syndrome is and how we can use this philosophy to overcome its hurdles. I too have huge imposter syndrome, I wrote about it some time ago and in that research was surprised to discover how many famous and successful people also suffer from it. In my case it is my writing and performing, and the message I am putting out there about depression. However, I remind myself that it is important and it is my experience, and your quote from Michel de Montaigne has really helped me, thank you. For you I can say only this, your ideas, thoughts and shares on this matter have helped many people, including myself, and I would urge you to continue. You write beautifully, you open up ideas and challenge perceptions. Keep writing and sharing, doors are opening.