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Carolyn Hax: How to battle impostor syndrome that’s holding you back

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)
3 min

Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: Any suggestions or resources for dealing with impostor syndrome? I have been a teacher for the past 15 years and am looking to leave the field — for a wide variety of reasons, none of which involve not being good at my job. But I have picked up some extra baggage along the way: You’re only good at this. No one wants your skills. You’re going to risk it all and look like a failure. You’re a horrible person for leaving teaching. Don’t you love the kids?

And then add in the insecurities of a lifetime of being the smart girl who was never sure that she really earned what she achieved. Part of me is convinced that every achievement is the result of some sort of paperwork error or someone else’s lowered standards.

I am applying to a field that is completely outside of my experience, but for a job that is within my skill set — think curriculum training and development. I had the opportunity to have a qualified, connected person review my résumé, and possibly act as a reference, but I turned it down because I was afraid that if I got the job, I would forever feel like I did not get it on my own accomplishments. Which I know is absurd, as these companies don’t hire solely based on one acquaintance’s recommendation.

How can I convince Captain Impostor that they are no longer welcome as my sidekick in life?

— Need an Impostorectomy

Need an Impostorectomy: Given how long you’ve struggled with this and how deeply, I think the greatest gift you can give yourself is an appointment with a therapist to start dismantling your false internal narrative once and for all. And it is false. I don’t even have to know you to know that. Don’t let this drag on any longer. It might take a while to find someone who is taking new patients and is also a good fit, but keep at it.

Re: Impostor: In my experience, people who have impostor syndrome are often the most qualified. They’re the people who hold themselves to (often unreasonably) high standards. Unqualified people never seem to suffer from impostor syndrome.

— Anonymous

Anonymous: Ha.

Other readers’ thoughts:

  • It’s a smart applicant who has someone else review their résumé, especially if you’re lucky enough to have someone in your field do so. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Maybe ask yourself how you’d help one of your students in a similar position.
  • I don’t know whether it makes things better or worse to think of it this way, but plenty of impostor syndrome feelings arise from actual discrimination in the workplace that we can’t help but internalize. There’s nothing wrong with your work, but there might be something wrong with your environment. Take, for example, this essay by Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey.
  • “Impostorectomy” is breaking my heart. Whoever built this doubt and false-perfectionism into them needs a swift one somewhere! The way to succeed is to ask for and accept help when you need it and when it is offered. It is a lesson hard won (still learning) in my life. I see young people who don’t have this impediment and I am so happy for them. To me it is the definition of lightness and joy.
  • Alison Green of “Ask a Manager” is brilliant for this sort of thing.

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Advice columnist Carolyn Hax and cartoonist Nick Galifianakis have collaborated on their Washington Post column for 25 years. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post, Photo: Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)